In yesterday’s entry Dr Spo (the dear!) mentioned feeling bad about walking past Salvation Army kettles without dropping coins, on the basis that he “remember[s] folks telling me they do mean things to my sorts so no pennies for them until I can clear up if this is true or not.” Like an idiot, this sent me down a rabbit hole, which turned into an embarrassing comment that was really a blog post in disguise. Because WordPress only allows a single link in a comment before classifying it as spam, I thought I would reconstitute that embarrassing comment here with links.
Then I discovered that I have already blogged about Sally Ann back in 2017. Furthermore that post already stated much of what I was going to say. Oh the pain. If there’s one thing Spo-fans don’t need, it’s a rerun.
Is there anything worth adding since that post? Maybe. It’s 2022 now, not 2017, and as we know institutions can change. Clearly the Salvation Army has changed its tune since the 1990s. You will see that Sally Ann now has an entire page dedicated to convincing us that they are an LGBTQ-friendly organization that offers services to all and does not discriminate against its employees. It contains videotaped testimonials from LGBTQ+ people dutifully saying they were worried about discrimination, but found the Salvation Army to be loving and supportive. Hooray! Debate over, right?
Well, maybe. The website makes a lot of assertions about how affirming the organization is now, but (as I noted in point four of my last entry) they make no admissions that they were ever discriminatory in any way. It is particularly galling for them to write “The Salvation Army is proud to be an Equal Opportunity Employer, and we provide the same benefits to all of our employees” when it is clearly documented that in 1998 they opposed same-sex benefits in San Francisco, and in 2004 they were accused of the same in New York.
One of their slick testimonial videos asserts that it is “blatantly not true” that they “lobby against anti-discrimination laws”. Yet in 2001 they were caught trying to convince the George W Bush government to grant them an exemption to the obligation to grant same-sex benefits. The Salvation Army might argue that this wasn’t “lobbying” in the strictest sense of the term, but that is splitting hairs. They were trying to convince the government to change rules in their favor. They might be arguing that they don’t do that kind of thing any more, but there is zero admission that they engaged in such practices in the past. This is brandwashing, and it makes me trust them less, not more.
They have been taking their brandwashing to the streets by handing out cards asserting that they serve LGBTQ+ without discrimination. But as the linked article notes, many people continue to mistrust them, and I feel this erasure of history has something to do with that.
In interview after interview, they make a lot of noise about a dorm they have set up in Las Vegas for transgender people. But the very article they link from their page about the shelter says:
If there is a case where The Salvation Army has one female and one male who are transgender at the same time, Hollon says the organization has a partnership with local hotels and can put one of them up for the evening.
“But we usually only have one or two at a time,” he says.
So out of a whopping nine beds only one or two have been occupied at a time. (And you had better not being nonbinary, because otherwise how can they classify you as a “male transgender” or “female transgender”?)
Look. Having a trans-specific shelter is some progress. Having partnerships with hotels is not necessarily bad. But this specific example does not inspire confidence, and the fact that it is used so prominently as a talking point is worrying.
Way back in the bad old days the Sally Ann was accused of making people pray to receive meals. That tweet is from 2017, of course, and it is five years later. I am very curious that this still goes on. There was one quotation from a transwoman named Kellen Stahl in this article that claims otherwise:
“Even though they are a Christian organization, you are free to find your own faith and belief system however you wish to believe. I don’t belong to any organized religion; I am spiritual rather than religious, and they honor that fully.
Let’s hope that is the case. (Let’s also note that Stahl is featured in a Sally Ann marketing video.)
The question of whether proselytization is allowed/encouraged is a big deal to me. Despite being a Poor I have not eaten at a Sally Ann soup kitchen (there is not one nearby), but if I did I expect there would be less religiosity than I might expect in the Bible Belt.
We can think of the Salvation Army as both a church and as a service organization. It is clear to me that the service organization wants to avoid perceptions that it is anti-LGBTQ+ in any way. Meanwhile, the church side holds views that are questionable at best.
As far I can tell the church publishes (some) doctrine in the form of positional statements. In 2012 they got in trouble because somebody discovered their positional statements on homosexuality. The organization quickly scrubbed those positional statements from their websites, so they are not easy to find now, but I was able to track down the following. They show some interesting progressions through the years:
- archive.org has copies from 1996 and 2000, which seem pretty similar except for the pleasing lavender font.
- There is a PDF from 2007 kicking around, which includes statements on the family as well.
- A blogpost from April 2012 by a Christian blogger reproduces some of the text .
Looking at these statements, it is clear that the church (a) understands that adhering to these doctrines causes harm to gay people, (b) does not advocate discrimination against gay people even though they are sinners, and (c) mandates celibacy and self-restraint for those not in closed mixed-sex marriages.
Since the positional statements were taken down spokessoldiers from the Church maintained that they do not consider homosexual orientation a sin. That is interesting weasel-wording. As the 2000 copy of the statement reads:
The Army regards the origins of a homosexual orientation as a mystery and does not regard a homosexual disposition as blameworthy in itself or rectifiable at will. Nevertheless, whilst we are not responsible for what we are, we are accountable for what we do; and homosexual conduct, like heterosexual conduct, is controllable and may be morally evaluated therefore in the light of scriptural teaching.
In other words, homosexual orientation is not a sin, but acting upon it is.
But that is ancient history! What about the present? What about the world since 2017? I was not able to find smoking guns, but I found clues. In its positional statement on suicide prevention we see the following paragraph:
There are also certain groups of people who are at particular risk of suicidal behaviour. These include those with a past history of attempted suicide, those with alcohol and other substance dependencies, young males, the elderly, the bereaved, indigenous groups, those with sexual identity conflicts, migrants, those living in rural areas, those in prison custody, and those with debilitating physical illness.
Note the language here: “those with sexual identity conflicts”. What does this mean? Does it mean that homosexuals secure in their sexual identity are not at higher risk of suicide? (This 2021 study of LGB adults would suggest otherwise, presuming adults are more likely to be secure in their sexual identity than teens.) Does it mean that the Salvation Army doesn’t want to use the common phrase LGBTQ (or some variation) in its positional statements? Or does it imply that the church views most or all LGBTQ+ as having intrinsic sexual identity conflicts?
Sixpence will be relieved to know the church also has a positional statement on pornography. This contains another interesting statement:
Pornography can foster the belief that anything at all is permissible in a sexual relationship so long as it is consensual; this is a view to which The Salvation Army does not subscribe.
So what consensual acts does the Salvation Army subscribe to? Are they just talking about straight people consensually having sex despite not being married? Or is there a hint of something else?
On the other hand, the positional paper on human trafficking acknowledges that trans people exist:
The majority of those trafficked for sex are women and girls. However, boys, men and transgendered people should not be forgotten. They often remain hidden, not wishing to speak out about their shame and humiliation but are equally in need of assistance.
It may be worth noting that the positional paper on human trafficking was adopted in 2020, while the one on suicide prevention is from 2009.
I spent some time looking for personal experiences from those who had used Salvation Army services. The evidence was mixed, and some of it may be trolling. I looked for relatively recent testimonials, although the stories themselves may predate 2017. Obviously this is not a comprehensive collection of stories.
One user reported a friend who had a shockingly bad experience seeking shelter:
A friend of mine got kicked out of her digs and went to one of their homeless shelters, booked in, got a bed and left their stuff. Had to go out and come back later because of the time. Came back later and they wouldn’t let her in because she was “dressed like a prostitute” (she wasn’t) so she slept rough without rough her stuff because they wouldn’t giver it back. Even worse was when we all went down to get her stuff it wasn’t there because they’d confiscated it and we’re selling it in their shop so we had to buy it all back.
but another claimed that the Sally Ann helped their relatives:
Huh… up in Canada they helped my trans godson and my gay sister. Guess maybe the exception
Some employees/volunteers for the organization weighed in. This one claims she was discriminated against for being atheist:
I worked there without realizing this and the manager (i forget what military name she went by, I know it was below major because that was the regional managers title) seemed to be fine for a while and then almost like she figured out I was a gay atheist [because I spoke to other coworkers] she started treating me like shit until I told her to fuck herself and quit.
Ps I did not know that it was “Jesus saves” salvation “we actually consider ourselves a military” army.
Manual labor for minimum wage and from what I saw they treated the community service members and beneficiaries like they were sub human.
One person reported mixed experiences: good at the thrift store and bad at the church:
I used to work at their charity shop. Though slightly different from the church. Most of the volunteers were required to work there to claim unemployment benefits. Funnily enough most of the best workers were gay.
I don’t know the extent of how anti-gay they are. But we had a gay guy who used to go to their church, I say used to because they excluded him after he came out which was disappointing as he was the nicest guy you could meet.
I used to be pleased that I worked there because they did do a lot of good for the community. I don’t think it’s as simple as they are good or bad. I would like to think that the good they did outweighs the bad. And I certainly wouldn’t look down on anyone that donated to them.
Another person reported good experiences while volunteering:
I used to volunteer in the Salvation Army for my work experience and everyone was welcoming me and some of them know that I’m bi and they accept me.
In the church when I was volunteering there were a leaflet about lgbt+ domestic violence so idrk about other people experienced with the Salvation Army but mine hasn’t really been negative ngl.
And a bell ringer had some mixed feelings:
Bell ringer here.
I just want to apologize on behalf of the Salvation Army. I’m not going to make excuses or say that anything you’ve said is false, because I myself have witnessed some pretty ignorant things be said at church. It’s a struggle to be Christian when I also want to support the lgbtq+ community.
I will say that I personally interact with the SA because where I live they are the only church feeding the homeless daily. And these services are for anyone. I can’t speak to what other people associated with the SA have said or done because it’s a massive organization. Some people are very loving and open-minded, while others are pretty ignorant and hurtful. And I apologize for that.
If you don’t want to donate to the SA, I totally understand. But my worst fear is that someone will think that I don’t support them because I’m out there ringing a bell.
I think “who cares?” is a legitimate question to ask.
My feeling is that the Salvation Army is a very large and very powerful organization, and as such it is worth holding the organization to account. There is a reason it has changed its tune about homosexuality, and that reason is public pressure. It would not be handing out “We support LGBTQ+ people!” cards if it did not feel the pressure.
I think it is unambiguous that the Salvation Army (like many other religious institutions) has had a dark past. It bothers me that it is trying to brandwash that past without acknowledging its role in harming the LGBTQ+ community. But dismissing it out of hand because of its past does not work either, because then other organizations will fill the void and some of them will commit similar injustices. If organizations change and we do not reward their improvements, then why bother with advocacy campaigns at all?
My own feeling is that the church has not shifted much, although to protect its financial interests it has moderated its public messaging. My guess is that the service organization has improved. That seems relevant.
As I mentioned in my previous post, I have worked for a nonprofit that grew from religious roots, and workers on the ground were for the most part tolerant. (Often it was my fellow Poors who were bigoted.) Unlike most of you I have not been deeply scarred by religion; many of the religious people I have worked with have been thoughtful and kind, and I wish I was more like them.
I also feel that the Salvation Army is a very strange charity. Firstly, it is a church that pretends it is a charity. Secondly, from what I have read it operates its services under contract to muncipalities (this is what the 1998 and 2004 controversies were about). There is something messed-up about that.
There is some Salvation Army presence in my area, but there are many other social service organizations too. Maybe when I am homeless I will get some firsthand experience of their shelter system and how obnoxious it actually is. As it stands I probably will continue patronizing Sally Ann thrift stores. Being a miserly git I rarely give any donations to anyone, but I am not sure I would feel morally conflicted about dropping change in a Sally Ann kettle. You may reach other conclusions.