Sunbeams…and kindness… bring family to Salvation Army
By Karen Gleason –
Yikes! Where can I leave my child? Many a single mother has uttered this cry, and I was no exception. Four years ago in August, with the end of summer almost upon me, I faced a dilemma. The day camp program sponsored by the city of Torrance was ending two weeks before the public schools resumed. I could cover one week with vacation time, but not both weeks. What could I do with Jenna, my daughter? I have no family to help me, and I could never afford a private sitter.
I believe now that God hears our pleas even when we aren’t formally praying, and that he answers our prayers if we will just listen. God’s answers do not always emerge from such a dramatic source as a burning bush, but the results can be just as life changing. My answer came through a neighbor, who sent her children to The Salvation Army’s summer day camp. The Salvation Army, I thought, now that’s a social service organization with a good reputation; I’ll check it out.
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Matthew 11:28
Jenna finished her summer break at the Torrance Corps’ summer day camp. She had a good time. What a relief! She started school again, and I was happy to have a new option for upcoming summers. I didn’t think any more about The Salvation Army until I received a letter from the corps, inviting Jenna to participate in two of their school year programs, Sunbeams and Singing Company.
Fine and dandy, I said to myself, but I’d never be able to get her there. My forty plus hours a week job as a bookstore assistant manager didn’t allow me much flexibility to leave early for my daughter’s extracurricular activities. At the end of the letter, though, were the words I couldn’t resist “child pick-up available.” They would pick her up from her after school program and bring her home afterwards! How cool! I could stay at work late if I needed to, or do errands, or even clean house.
More than a babysitting option
The Salvation Army turned out to be more than merely a safe, dependable babysitting option. I can’t say I immediately jumped into corps activities, but little by little I was drawn into the life of the corps. When the Sunbeams or Singing Company participated in the Sunday service, I was invited to attend; it was important to Jenna that I be there, so of course I came. I liked the services, but I still wasn’t ready to give up my Sunday morning sleeping time (my job required me to work until 1 a.m. on Saturday nights). I was, however, impressed by The Salvation Army I appreciated the way the corps officer’s wife would often drive Jenna home herself, and would then chat with me for a few minutes. She didn’t pry, she didn’t overtly evangelize or witness to me; she was simply friendly. Nothing turns me off as much as someone beating me over the head with his or her beliefs, so a simple act of kindness without proselytizing made quite an impact on me. When I did attend Sunday services, I found more of this gentle, accepting spirit. I was made to feel welcome, but never cross-examined about my beliefs.
As time went on, I became a little more involved in the Sunbeam activities. My job didn’t permit full-scale participation, but I was able to tag along on some of their field trips. What fun the girls had! The Sunbeam leader, Dolores Jimenez, made sure I got the shotgun seat whenever I came along! She opened her heart and home to Jenna and me, and encouraged my involvement in her single mother’s ministry, which pushed me yet further along in my spiritual growth.
Soon it was summer again, and I found The Salvation Army offered more opportunities than just the day camp. Jenna was able to attend Sunbeam camp at Mt. Crags, in Calabasas. When I visited the camp, I was blown away what a beautiful place! The Salvation Army made sure that it wasn’t just the corps kids who participated; kids from the inner city were also able to attend camp there. I learned that Jenna would also be able to go music camp, where she could learn to play an instrument. To this day I am amazed at the opportunities The Army provides. I felt that I was being given so much, with nothing being asked of me in return. My heart was truly grateful.
“From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” John 1:16
The people I met at the corps were so nice that it became easier to get up on Sunday mornings to attend church. The music of The Salvation Army was a very strong attraction for me. I could feel my spirits lift through the singing of the songsters and the playing of the band. Often my spirit would soar, and I felt God calling out to me through this medium of music.
Although I had a Christian upbringing, I had been away from the church for many years. A native Virginian, I was raised Southern Baptist, but I left that church at a young age. I think there was too much hellfire and damnation for me, and not enough love and acceptance. As a high school and college student, I was influenced by intellectual arguments against Christianity. Later, I yearned for a sense of the universal guiding force, of God, and for the fellowship of other seekers. I tried many churches, from Episcopal to Unitarian, but none of them were able to nourish my spirit.
When I moved to California after the death of my parents, I got caught up in survival working and raising my daughter. What I found at The Salvation Army was twofold: yes, The Salvation Army is a social organization that helped me with childcare needs, but much more than that, it is a church that has nurtured my spiritual growth, my walk with God. No one ever badgered me to join The Salvation Army; sometimes at other churches I felt pressured to join and commit to my tithe. Here, opportunities were presented, doors were opened; it was my choice to walk through the doors.
Now my daughter and I are both soldiers at our corps. We became soldiers together this past Easter Sunday. I made my decision to seek soldiership one Sunday when God had really spoken to me through the music. I approached Captain Gilger and said that I would like to become a soldier so that I could sing with the songsters. His response was “That’s wonderful,” and he told me to show up for soldiership class next week. Once completed, our soldier classes turned into a regular Sunday school class, which continues to this day. The corps is second home now for Jenna and me; we have fun there, learn there, and grow spiritually there. We have made friendships there that will last a lifetime. When I discovered The Salvation Army, I finally found a church that practiced what it preached that endeavored to meet peoples’ basic needs so that they would be able to open their hearts and minds to God and his infinite love.
The Salvation Army also provided me with a major lifestyle change. I had long been yearning to leave the retail rat race behind me, to find a “normal,” nine-to-five job that would allow me more time with my daughter. Through activities at the corps, I knew many people who worked at THQ. They informed me of current job openings, and finally, after trying for many months, and with the help of a phone call from Captain Gilger, I got an interview in where else! The Youth Department. I am blessed today to be able to work in the very department that has so enriched the life of my family. In this way I hope to give back and to share with others some of what has blessed my life. God’s love, through the forgiveness of Jesus, can work miracles. My story is a single example of what our youth programs can do, not just for the children, but for whole families.
Anything is possible with God: “Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.'” Mark 10:27
We don’t always realize God is present in our lives, but he is there, holding open the door, waiting for us to notice him, allowing us through our free will to come towards him or to turn away. The Salvation Army was the open door for me, and now I am on the road towards God, towards our true home.
“Blessed be the Lord, for he has wondrously shown his steadfast love to me.” Psalms 31:21