By Rev. Dr. Dennis Miller, Foothills District Superintendent.
When Christmas shopping, many encounter the red kettles and ringing bells of The Salvation Army. Did you know that the Salvation Army has Methodist roots? William Booth, a Methodist minister, started The Salvation Army in London in 1865. His passion for reaching the poor, homeless, and hungry with the gospel of Jesus Christ led him to open a mission to meet people’s physical needs. Booth looked to Methodism’s founder John Wesley for inspiration. In November 1739, Wesley preached a series of outdoor meetings to approximately 8,000 people near a dilapidated former cannon foundry in London. He then purchased the building and converted it into a mission that he called “The Foundry” which became the home of Methodism in London for the next 38 years.
In his book Revival, Adam Hamilton describes the Wesley’s mission this way,
“At the Foundry, the Methodist works of mercy saw new expressions. Wesley started a fund to make small loans, akin to today’s microlending, and the fund made loans to 250 people in the first year. On Fridays, the poor who were sick came to be treated and were provided basic medical care. Wesley and the Methodists at the Foundry leased two houses for poor and elderly widows and their children. And they started a school for children who roamed the streets. For Wesley, evangelism and ministries to the poor were inextricably linked; you could not have one without the other.”
In recent years there has been a tendency within United Methodism to separate the personal and social sides of the gospel. “Liberal” churches have focused on social justice and serving the poor but have not strongly emphasized personal holiness and evangelism. Wesley believed that the poor needed not just food and clothing but assurance that God’s grace could pardon their sins and make them new. In contrast, “conservative” churches have preached personal salvation and invited their members to grow in personal holiness but often neglected engaging actively in social ministries of compassion, mercy, and justice. Wesley’s approach to the Christian faith was more wholistic, holding the personal and social sides together as one. This is what we see in Jesus’ great commandments to love God and love neighbor.
This month marks 30 years since I worked for the Salvation Army in New Orleans, Louisiana. For four weeks in December 1988, I stood on the street ringing bells during the day and slept in a small back room at the Men’s Shelter on Camp Street at night. It was in the “Big Easy” that I witnessed firsthand that the sound of the ringing bell represented hope and life-changing support. For those who needed help during a difficult time, The Salvation Army provided groceries, diapers for infants, rent and utility assistance, along with school supplies, clothing and toys for children at Christmas. For the homeless, they offered safe shelter, clothing, personal care supplies and hot meals. Children learned spiritual and life development skills through an after-school program that included tutoring and recreational activities. For the spiritually lost, they offered the hope of Jesus Christ!
That’s why I will never pass by a Salvation Army bell ringer without putting something in the kettle because in doing so I am offering Christ to the world. Christmas is the time the Word was made flesh, the season when God put skin on love. It is my prayer this month that our Foothills District congregations will be present in a place of need, a place that isn’t tidy and glittery, a place where people are broken and feeling the weight of a broken world. May we embody the story of Christmas by being the very presence of Jesus to our neighbors.