Social action is vital to ministry
Innovative programs offer hope to people of all ages.
by Robert Muller –
Seen from the United States, France is a small territory to be sure. Nonetheless, the variety of activities carried out today is the fruit of the mission launched 126 years ago by Catherine Booth (“La Maréchale”), eldest daughter of the Founder. Today the territory has 27 corps and 45 social centers.
Social action holds an important place in conjunction with the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is carried out by both qualified professionals and officers. The corps respond very concretely to the challenges of the material needs and low morale of those who live in their surrounding neighborhoods. They offer material assistance, organize activities for people living on their own or in a precarious situation, and offer advice to parents—without neglecting the spiritual dimension of their mission.
There are about 20 hostels as well as other services, for those living on the street, who are the most marginalized. In Paris, the former St-Martin metro station has been transformed to welcome these people during the day for simple services: to take a shower, have a rest, eat a hot meal, receive basic medical care, find help with their papers in order to receive social assistance or be directed towards accommodation, or even receive guidance for getting off the street.
Certain centers, such as in Belfort, offer an entire range of services. This stylish town, located near the Swiss border, is also confronted with the problems of poverty. Runaway young people, adults living on the street and families without housing all come to The Salvation Army to find help. The Espace Colbert welcomes about 40 people every day. An emergency hostel, transitional housing for men, and other accommodation complete the response mechanism. The center receives calls from across the entire region concerning people without housing.
Progress in medical care makes it possible today for people with mental handicaps to live longer lives. But what happens when their parents pass away or no long have the ability to take care of their children? The Résidence Leirens, at Monnetier-Mornex (in the Alps) welcomes 40 aging mentally handicapped residents. They live there to the end of their lives, while remaining in contact with their families. Teams of attentive and competent professionals provide the care. As handicapped people have as many questions about the purpose of life as anyone else, an officer accompanies them on their daily journey and leads meetings where they can sing, discuss, express their joys and their sorrows, and pray together.
In this same property, given to the Army in 1929, there are other groups of people. The neighboring cottage provides low-income accommodation for emotionally and socially isolated people. A third building offers a long-term home, family style, to people who find it difficult to live alone in ordinary housing. An officer oversees the home and offers both moral and spiritual support to the residents.
But the future is only built by being attentive to young people. Alongside its homes for children and adolescents, The Salvation Army is developing new initiatives. In Strasbourg, a European capital, an officer couple organizes activities in the streets of a difficult district, where many young people grow up aimlessly. They sing, they play, they kick a ball. Out of a story from the Bible comes the chance to talk about friendship, respect for others, fear, and words that hurt. The contacts with the families continue to multiply, especially helping the parents with their difficulties and concerning the education of the children.
In Nîmes, in the south of France, the corps welcomes students from the high school across the street during their lunch break. The corps officer had noticed that many of the students were just hanging out in the streets, where they were exposed to harassment and even violence. At the Aire du Lycéen, the students eat their sandwiches in a friendly and secure environment. They can also play Ping-Pong, do homework or talk about their concerns with one of the staff members or an officer.
To break the isolation of teens in a very small, rural village in the center of France, the corps officer of Chambon-sur-Lignon is planning to open a cybercafé with the support of the local government. It is another means of connecting with the younger generation who have often lost their bearings.
Four years ago the website www.citecool.com was launched to inform young people about volunteer opportunities in The Salvation Army and to encourage solidarity. Visits to this site have increased tremendously in the last year.
Elderly people, with their increasingly pressing needs, are given particular attention. At the Arc-en-Ciel, a retirement home near Paris, an original idea brings together the generations. Once a week a class of children visits the center and participates in joint games and crafts with the elderly residents. The exchange benefits both the residents and children. For example, between the older children and the most mobile residents, the exchange might be sharing knowledge through helping with homework. This experience contributes to blossoming of the child, and intellectual and emotional stimulations for the resident. Within the next two years, three new retirement homes will be opened.
By helping people in need, accompanying those who are the most dependent, contributing to the education of children, in the name of the gospel, The Salvation Army allows the people it welcomes to take up anew a life that is worth living.