How do you train to be a community organizer, teacher, disaster responder, counselor, administrator and minister—in other words, a Salvation Army officer—in two years, and who are the people that answer this calling? I had come to Evangeline Booth College (EBC) in Atlanta to find out. There, I spent several days with the cadets at the School for Officer Training (SFOT) sharing meals, sitting in classes, listening to their stories and watching them work in the community.
During my first evening on campus, after a quick tour of its beautiful grounds, I sat down for a meal in the Cadet Dining Room with several second-year cadets, including my host for that evening, Cadet Gavin Yeatts. As soon as I came to the dining room, I could see that some of my assumptions about officer training were wrong. I had expected that all cadets would be recent high school or college graduates, probably single with perhaps a few recently married couples who had heard God’s call on their lives together. But around the room, I could see a range of ages among cadets, and several tables with highchairs and strollers parked nearby.
As I spoke to the cadets, I learned that they came from many different professional, educational, national, and experiential backgrounds. Some arrive with a GED, some come with a BA, a JD, or even a PhD, but all are joined by shared goals: to become the best and most effective officers they can be and to serve God with their entire lives through the Salvation Army. For these two years at EBC, they form a close-knit, extended family, who support one another, pray for one another, teach one another and of course, share meals together.
After dinner, all of the remaining unserved food was gathered together and placed on a canteen truck to be distributed in the surrounding community. A volunteer from the local corps, who Gavin introduced to me as Mr. Charles, was already loading the last of the food onto the truck when we came outside.
Our first stop was only a short drive away. When we arrived, one or two cadets stayed near the canteen to help Mr. Charles serve food and lemonade, while the rest went off down the street, food and drinks in hand, to knock on the doors of people they knew on the block.
Already, I was beginning to see that EBC wasn’t a traditional college experience. The cadets were not living in an academic bubble, separated from the surrounding community—as is the case with many colleges—instead, they are a part of the community and a positive influence within it.
At our second canteen location, one woman stopped to offer a donation of what money she had in her pocket. Gavin told her that they hadn’t come here to look for donations, but she insisted. He accepted the coins, and said that her money would do more good than she could know. He and the other cadets joined hands and prayed with her before she continued on her way. Soon we had run out of food to give, but people stayed to chat and express their gratitude for the Army’s work in the area as the sun went down.
For the next few days, I had the opportunity to sit in on classes at EBC and speak to more cadets and staff. I learned a few things about Old Testament scripture and history, Employment Law, Music, the New Testament and Pastoral Care along the way.
Each weekday, from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., cadets are in classes or out getting experiential training by working in corps or at other ministry opportunities. These days are tightly scheduled, with only Thursday afternoons left free for catch-up time and perhaps running a few errands. Fortunately, EBC provides for many of the cadets’ needs right on campus. They have high-quality catered lunch and dinner options every weekday with brunch on weekends, a well-equipped wellness center, drop-off dry-cleaning, a very strong childcare program with staff on campus and even a teen center for cadets with older children. I was especially curious about how cadets with children were able to manage their studies and family life together in this environment, so I spoke to Luis and Marianne Villanueva, who have two young children.
They told me that child care services are provided on campus and matched with each family’s schedule so that cadets don’t have to worry who will watch their kids when things get busy or when off-campus training runs late. But even during the busy times, the Villanuevas are able to set aside time for family with a little planning on their part.
“Even in this structure, we find time to spend as a couple, as a family, and even some time separately, but you have to be intentional about it, Luis said. “Because if you get stressed out and all you think about is homework, you’re going to burn out.”
Walking the grounds, you can see the care cadets take in their work detail duties in keeping the campus clean and the landscaping free of weeds or trash. If you step into the well-equipped wellness center, you’ll see cadets working out either alone or with Kevin, the on-site personal trainer who tracks cadets’ health and nutrition throughout their two years at the college.
“Because of the type of work that we do it can get very heady, and then working with people it can be very hard—it’s taxing on your emotions, on your health, on everything,” said Cadet Mark Cancia. “So to be able to work out and focus on something else is really helpful for me. It’s like getting away without really getting away.”
But even the more “heady” parts of training at EBC take the same holistic approach to teaching. On my second day at EBC I was able to see Major Dean Hinson, Principal of EBC, teach a New Testament class exploring the book of Acts and related church history. Class discussion was not focused on theology and history alone—it was also practical. As the class explored differences between the Pharisees and Sadducees through Acts, questions about modern ideas of holiness and how to navigate those issues in cadets’ own ministries were also discussed.
“The trick of holiness is being in the world but not of the world,” Major Hinson said. Not to separate yourself completely from the world by becoming too focused on rules or appearances as the Pharisees did, but to live an authentic holiness.
This theme of living an authentic faith was echoed throughout my visit at EBC. In the next class, Pastoral Care, Major Roni Robbins urged her cadets to foster authenticity in their ministry. To be less concerned with appearances and more concerned with real connections between people.
“Be who you really are and it will free people to be themselves around you as well,” she said.
To support one another in this, cadets were given the chance to discuss their fears at the end of class and to pray for one another over those fears. This kind of support seemed built into every class and activity I witnessed during my visit.
Major Robbins is also director of curriculum for the SFOT, and she told me these connections between classes and between cadets are far from coincidental. She said that EBC aims for a holistic style of learning that follows Catherine Booth’s idea of training the head, the hands and the heart together.
“We’re not just trying to connect the dots from class to class, we’re trying to connect the dots to real situations outside of this place,” she said.
At EBC, cadets are immersed in a special kind of environment that not only teaches and tests them, but also supports and provides for them in ways that a traditional college or seminary experience would not. Whether they are on campus in classes or out in the community getting hands-on ministry experience, this is a special time where worries about errands or childcare are reduced so cadets can focus on training. I asked the Villanuevas what they had learned as a family through their journey to training and during their time at EBC. For them, this commitment to officership is about trust.
“When you give your life, your commitment to God, He will take care of the rest,” Luis said. “Whatever else you need, He will take care of that. The only thing you need to do is focus on what He needs you to do. And that’s what we’re doing here.”
Mr. Nick Holder is editorial assistant for the Publications Department at National Headquarters.