Persistence wins the day for youth in South Tucson and The Salvation Army
The Salvation Army’s ministry in South Tucson, Arizona, is growing, thanks to dedicated youth volunteers and the interest and efforts of Captains Brent and Kristy Church, who lead the nearby Tucson All Nations Corps.
The city of South Tucson, surrounded by the larger city of Tucson, is known as “the Pueblo within a city,” with a vibrant Hispanic culture. Over 80 percent of its roughly 4,500-person population is Hispanic and about 10 percent Native American. And half of its residents live in poverty, according to World Population Review.
Salvationists have maintained a ministry there, carrying on after the Tucson South Corps closed in October 2020.
“Persistence wins the day,” Kristy Church said, recalling Salvation Army youth leaders Elizabeth Virgen-Sandoval and Glenda Avalos, who continued to meet with children who had attended the Tucson South Corps. The two began going into the community every Wednesday, meeting with the kids in an outdoor common area between some apartment buildings for a time of arts and crafts, songs and Bible stories.
“The young people from South Tucson are amazing,” Southwest Divisional Commander Lt. Colonel Ivan Wild said. “Without an assigned Salvation Army officer they continued to meet for fellowship and to minister to the neighborhood by doing VBS [vacation Bible school]-type programs. These young people show the spirit of Salvationism by continuing to serve because there was a need. They did not wait for leaders—they are the leaders.”
Slowly but surely, participation increased. The group really took off when Virgen-Sandoval and Avalos received permission to use the playground at the adjacent Salvation Army facility, the former corps building. They also acquired a key to the building for restroom access, and the weekly meetings moved to the playground in the spring of 2021.
The Churches arrived in town to lead the Tucson All Nations Corps that June. Having heard of the meetings taking place at the South Tucson location, they were curious, so in August 2021, Kristy Church headed there to see it firsthand.
“The kids were passionate,” she said. “The possibility of growth is here. The kids are here…The Salvation Army came around to support these young people, so they stay connected with the Army and continue to feel the love of the Lord.”
When she found out the kids would continue meeting outside even during the colder months, she aimed to bring the programming inside. Although The Salvation Army was using the building for its Christmas Toy Shop and as a winter warming shelter, she figured there was room for the kids. She asked The Salvation Army Tucson City Coordinator for the keys to the building.
“We got the keys in early 2022 and started coming inside,” Church said. “It’s taken a while to resettle; people had a lot of emotions as they came back into the center.”
Growing the ministry in South Tucson
Since then, program engagement has steadily grown with the support of the All Nations Corps. The South Tucson center offers activities in English and Spanish, including Salvation Army troops (similar to Scout programs), teen night and young adult night.
Participation is good, with between 25 to 40 kids coming to troops, about 15 coming to teen night and 12 attending young adult night. Church said many kids from South Tucson attended a recent Southwest divisional youth retreat.
“Sometimes we have teen night at our house,” Church said. “And once a month we take them bowling, skating or to the movies.”
She said the teens had been meeting every other week but asked to meet every Friday. So that’s what they’ve been doing.
“It’s pretty cool,” she said. “It’s all God. They want to come hang out with us. The kids are a hoot.”
Church said one goal for the coming year is to start an after-school drop-in program for tutoring in English and math to help the community kids with their schoolwork. Many of them are below grade level in these subjects.
“Lots of the kids here want to go to summer camp but they can’t because they have to go to summer school,” she said. “We try to help them.”
Also coming in the fall are music programs, using some old instruments Church found. She’s applied for a grant to further fund the programs.
“We will do what we can with what we have, even if we start with devotion in motion and timbrels [tambourines],” she said. “We’ll manage until we can get more funding.”
Where there are kids, there are parents, and the ministry to the community is expanding to include the adults. As of June 2023, the women’s group has been active for a month, meeting at the center on weekdays. Many participants had previously been officially enrolled in the group at the Tucson South Corps.
This spring, the center also began holding a brief time of worship in Spanish on the first and third Sundays of the month, including a devotion and praise and worship music. On these Sundays, Kristy Church goes to the South center and Brent Church goes to the All Nations Corps. They work together to make sure everything gets done.
“My wish for the South Tucson community is that our efforts provide a glimmer of hope for the future,” Brent Church said. “And my prayer for the kids and the people we’ve come in contact with is that they see the love of Jesus in what we’re doing.”
None of this could happen without Avalos and Virgin-Sandoval, who continue to volunteer, as does Avalos’ sister, Angie Carcamo. They also help with Spanish translation, since Kristy Church is not a fluent Spanish speaker—she says she’s working on her Spanish. Another volunteer, Alix, an Air Force first lieutenant, helps with troops.
Kristy Church said her prayer is that the center can eventually become an official Salvation Army outpost, overseen by the All Nations Corps, that would offer church services and social services along with the youth and adult programs.
She said the future looks bright for The Salvation Army in South Tucson.
“The Salvation Army never left the area, and plans are on their way to better serve the community in South Tucson,” Wild said.
“This is where the people are,” Church said. “We want to be where the kids are, where the people need us…We’ve seen where they’ve been and where they’re going. We are fortunate to be part of it.”
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