The Army advocates for poor

Salvationists are present, visible and vocal on Capitol Hill.

by Sue Warner –

A delegation of Salvation Army leaders gathers with President and Mrs. Warren G. Harding on the White House lawn. [Photo courtesy of The Salvation Army National Archives]

The Salvation Army has advocated for social justice ever since its creation in 1865. William Booth, the Founder, changed British society with his Cab Horse Charter and his son Bramwell Booth, with W.T. Stead, exposed the prostitution of children. During World War I, Booth’s daughter, National Commander Evangeline Booth, changed the public’s perception of The Salvation Army by enlisting the support of President Woodrow Wilson, borrowing $125,000 from the Army’s own coffers, and sending out Salvationists—who came to be known as “Doughnut Girls”—to provide humanitarian work in the battlefields.

Today, fueled by a holistic mission, Salvationists still serve on the front lines as they advocate on behalf of the poor and marginalized. Largely unseen by the public—yet having significant impact—uniformed Salvationists in Washington, D.C.: actively relate to Congress, speak with various committees and nonprofit groups to support or oppose potential bills, testify before government committees, and meet with the president and his staff in and outside of the White House.

“Often times, people are not aware of the national and international presence of The Salvation Army,” said Lt. Colonel Donald Bell, who served at national headquarters from 1995-1998 as assistant national community relations director and public affairs officer. “There is tremendous respect for the Army on Capitol Hill. We are sought after to serve on committees, we meet with other national charities, and we educate Congress on issues.”

Visibility is key
When The Salvation Army moved its national headquarters in 1991 from Verona, New Jersey, to Alexandria, Virginia—just outside Washington D.C.—it was for the express purpose of becoming more available to Capitol Hill, explained Lt. Colonel Paul Bollwahn, former national social services secretary. “Charities and churches have a responsibility to shape public policy,” he said.

Through the officers and staff in national headquarters’ community relations and development department, the public affairs office, and the social services department—and with the support of the national commander—the Army seeks to advocate on behalf of the people it serves.

Major George Hood, national community relations and development secretary, said, “We keep members of Congress informed and keep the uniform visible on Capitol Hill.”

The Salvation Army dress uniform dark blue with red epaulets and hat with insignia provides an instant connection for government officials and staff. Hood recalled that after President George W. Bush signed the Second Chance Act in spring 2008, he walked over to “the uniform” (Majors George and Donna Hood, who were in the audience) to thank them for The Salvation Army’s on-going, significant ministry.

Bollwahn said, “In the 11 years we were there, we never went to Capitol Hill receptions without someone seeing us [in uniform] from across the room, and coming over to tell us they knew of Salvation Army programs in towns in their state.”

That kind of visibility—both in Congress and within the circle of other nonprofit agencies with whom the Army partners—reminds people of the Army’s caring mission and helps to open doors for advocacy.

Shaping public policy
Each bill submitted by Congress has a long history and is sometimes years in the making. Along the way to a final vote, it will have received input from scores of individuals and groups. Legislators need and expect the field (their constituency)—as well as organizations that render service, such as The Salvation Army—to provide input that will help them shape policy. “On a national level, the Army represents ‘the field’ to Capitol Hill,” Bollwahn explained. “Congress expects an organization like The Salvation Army to speak up.”

Examining around 3,000 issues per legislative session, lawmakers reach out to their constituents and to groups such as The Salvation Army to gather information needed in decision-making. When bills relating to issues such as poverty, homelessness, or human trafficking are in committees or before Congress, chances are that The Salvation Army has already been involved in some manner.

When determining which issues to address, Bollwahn said, “We try to be guided by legislation that will impact Salvation Army serviceswe can’t be politically partisan.” In doing so, the Army keeps its priorities straight.

According to Hood, it’s all about the mission. “We need to take a stand for the poor and the marginalized,” he said.

The Army is actively involved in numerous issues, including human trafficking, volunteerism, social security and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) emergency funding. A Salvation Army representative sits on the board of FEMA; the Army was a founding member of the agency.

The Salvation Army does not pay lobbyists. “We’re just a handful of folks here,” said Major Todd Hawks, former public affairs secretary and associate national community relations and development secretary. “We can’t be all things to all people…therefore, we have to have priorities in what we take on.”

That need to identify and prioritize the issues the Army would address resulted in a three-month study; out of it came a dozen priorities, from disaster services and charitable reform to human trafficking. Essentially, “a track on which we run,” Hawks said.

Keeping up with issues and related research is challenging. “We need more staff,” Hawks said. “We just have four or five people who relate to the Hill…they are foot soldiers. [Consequently] we have to rely on the coalitions.”

This fall’s elections will affect Congress in numerous ways—new senators and representatives, a new administration—and scores of issues will still need resolution. According to Hood, upcoming “hot topic” issues in the new Congress will be—in addition to the economy—employee discrimination, the sanctity of marriage, health insurance, and immigration law. “All four relate to us theologically, who we are organizationally, and our ability to serve all without discrimination,” Hood said.

Value of relationships
There is value in establishing relationships with legislators and others on a personal level. Hood, for example, is the Army’s primary contact with the White House and meets informally each month with a White House staffer at a local Starbucks “to touch base.” He has met with President George W. Bush half a dozen times in the Oval Office and revealed, with a smile, that the president—well-known for the nicknames he bestows on people—calls Hood “the big guy.”

The Army is well-regarded on both sides of the aisle: When former President Bill Clinton and Senator Hillary Clinton sat next to the Hoods at a dinner, Hillary told them, “You [The Salvation Army] are my favorite charity; Bill and I love what you do.”

“There are differing degrees of touch points with the federal government,” Hood explained. “The uniform is powerful, but one-on-one relationships get us in the door—relationships are key to getting in anywhere.”

He noted that with the elections this November, new relationships will need to be built with government staffers and the new administration after the elected officials take office in January 2009.

And those relationships do make a difference. Lt. Colonel Ronda Bollwahn, former associate social services secretary and national consultant for volunteers and older adults, tells of a phone call she received one morning while on vacation, from Senator John Ashcroft’s office; it was regarding legislation she had been involved with concerning insurance for volunteers. “Some minor changes had been made to it, and his aide called at 7 a.m. to ask me, ‘Will this bill fly?’”

Partnering with others
The Army often partners with other groups in order to support or oppose legislation. That can take the form of joining a committee, or “signing on” to a letter written by an organization that is sent to a member of Congress, the Senate, the president, or others and states a position on proposed legislation.

“Every organization out there wants The Salvation Army to partner with them on issues,” said Major Ron Foreman, former national social services secretary. “We try to stay out of political issues, and focus on ones that are valid in themselves.”

The Army works with many other nonprofit organizations in order to achieve common goals, including the National Assembly ( and Independent Sector ( Salvation Army officers are on committees at the National Assembly and the Army has a presence at the Independent Sector.

“When a bill is going to be debated, you gather [with others] to build support to stop or to pass it,” Hood explained.

The groups that form in support of or in opposition to an issue may include a wide spectrum of faiths. For example, the Religious Alliance Against Pornography composed of Christians, Jews, Muslims, and others banded together against pornography and Internet porn. The Salvation Army was a part of that alliance.

Connecting to “watchdog groups” that monitor legislation alerted Foreman to issues that were pending—one means of identifying issues the Army might choose to address through sign-on letters, or writing its own letter to all the members of Congress and the president.

Working with like-minded groups in the public policy arena has additional benefits outside of politics: The Salvation Army is exploring the possibility of a national partnership with Habitat for Humanity, reported Foreman, that would blend the Army’s skills in case management and Habitat’s skills in building homes. “Our idea is to take the homeless, and have the Army help them build life skills that would enable them to move into a Habitat home.”

Educating Capitol Hill
The Salvation Army actively seeks to educate Congress’s committee members about its positions and concerns about issues.

Lisa Thompson, the Army’s liaison for the abolition of sexual trafficking, works primarily with public policy in regard to sexual trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation. Her work in this complex area has widespread ramifications: Sexual trafficking can touch on issues regarding pornography, AIDS, prostitution, violence against women, federal funding, foreign policy (international trafficking), and domestic trafficking.

In the course of her work, she speaks, travels and presents around the world; in February and March of 2008 she presented twice at the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women.

“Trafficking appears like something everyone can get behind,” Thompson said. “There are a lot of ideas of the best way to move forward.”

The Army’s work in this area often takes her to Capitol Hill. The process for passing legislation can be lengthy: in 2004-5 she testified at a subcommittee meeting for End Demand for Sex Trafficking. “That rolled into Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2005,” she said, “and I went to the White House bill signing.”

We don’t head any coalitions in D.C.—we handle issues as they are brought to us, and determine how they affect the Army,” she said. “Different things affect how the Army carries out its mission.”

A few of the Army’s many letters and sign-on letters have included: the National Black Leadership Roundtable (NBLR), in support of the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Act, HR 3887; Enforcement of 1996 Military Honor and Decency Act, banning the sale or rental of sexually explicit material on U.S. military installations or exchange stores; and the Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children from Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children, a tourism policy document.

Testifying on Capitol Hill
Whether the Army’s involvement with legislative issues and advocacy work is in the form of sign-on letters, speaking with senators and members of Congress, or testifying in committees—its goal is always to address the issues affecting those we serve.

“I’ve come to appreciate not just fixing a problem by giving money for rent, utilities or food, but trying to work on solutions that can prevent the next family from getting into that problem,” Hawks said.

That kind of ideal has led Salvationists to testify, for example, before a Senate committee doing exploration on food scarcity and hunger, seeking ways to work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and before the House Ways and Means committee regarding a bill on Social Security trying to buttress the needs of seniors.

In the fall of 2005, Hawks testified before the Senate House Ways and Means sub-committee, with Senators Ted Kennedy and Hillary Clinton present, regarding the Army’s relief work in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. “The Salvation Army came through as champions of service,” Hawks recalled. “Congressman John Lewis of Georgia asked if The Salvation Army could do what the Red Cross was unable to do after Katrina. I replied that we do similar work as the American Red Cross, but that is not all we do; that our service goes beyond disaster work.”

Endless avenues of service
While public policy work may be the Army’s main thrust on Capitol Hill, its presence at functions related to public policy can reveal its internationalism as well. Hawks tells of attending a White House round table in May, as part of the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, where he was the only “uniform.” Many of those present represented nonprofit organizations, and he had worked with at least half on other coalitions.

“It was a good chance to catch up with people,” he observed. “One person noticed my uniform, came up to me and said, ‘I’m being deployed to China; can you put me in touch with your people when I get there?’”

Whether on Capitol Hill, at the White House—or across the seas—Salvationists in their familiar navy blue uniforms continue to advance William and Catherine Booth’s mission of advocating for social justice on behalf of the poor and the marginalized.
“The Salvation Army has brand recognition—credibility—people see us as wanting the best for society…there is a deeply held respect for who we are and what we do…we stand up for the people we serve,” Bollwahn said.

(Note: When material was gathered for this article, Majors Hawks and Foreman were appointed to national headquarters; they now serve in other locations. Major Deborah Sjogren is now national liaison for public policy; Major Betty Israel serves as national social services secretary.)

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