A Salvation Army Christmas

An excerpt from On We March: A memoir of growing up in The Salvation Army by Bette Dowdell

Christmas always brought the year’s heaviest workload–an avalanche of requests from struggling families for Christmas baskets of food and gifts. We needed to raise the money to provide the largesse. Daddy–with Easter Strayker’s generous support via her radio show–worked on raising money. Mother worked on selecting the recipients.

Of course, the Christmas demands came on top of their usual backbreaking workload. Their hours soared from heavy to crushing starting mid-November as they put in sixteen hour days–or more–six days a week. Other than running the morning and evening worship services and visiting the sick, they usually took Sunday off.

We helped as many as money would allow. Mother was willing to give out every cent they raised, even if it meant receiving no salary, but spending phantom funds would sink the Army–and everything it tried to do–for months. Plus, it was against Army rules.

Mother’s work included sorting true need from the scams. A good story didn’t necessarily reflect a real need. Some people went back and forth between churches, businesses and agencies to see how much they could get. Their greed rarely sprang from urgent need, but they invariably had dandy stories to tell–frequently embellished with a well-timed tear.

The truly needy, on the other hand, were often embarrassed by their plight. Their pride, battered and torn as it was, led them to rationalize the direness of their need.

But some of the loud and pushy were indeed needy, while some of the quiet and seemingly desperate had a scam going. With years of experience, Mother excelled at telling true from false.

And everywhere we moved, she developed a grapevine for finding people too ashamed to come for help. This group usually consisted of people who had known far better times and could not bring themselves to risk the further humiliation of having friends and neighbors learn how far they had fallen. Gossip makes a terrible Christmas gift.


One time Mother heard of a lady in a wealthy neighborhood in desperate need of help. While hardly believing this information could be true, she didn’t want to risk failing a need and went to visit. Rather than her usual Army uniform, she wore “civvies” to save any possible embarrassment.

The door opened just a crack when she knocked. At first, the lady resisted her overtures, but Mother had a way of “worming her way in,” as she described it. Working her charm, Mother found herself in a lovely, unheated house with an empty refrigerator and a frightened, forlorn, somewhat past middle-age woman. Mother assured her no one in her “circle” had turned her in, and she pledged to have the assistance to arrive in secret–if the downcast lady could accept it.

The lady wilted into tears that anybody would care enough to help her without shredding her fragile facade. She sobbed anew when Daddy showed up, under cover of darkness as prearranged, with boxes brimming over with food, enough to last a few weeks. And she wept again–with relief–when he came again after Christmas to help start the process of reconstructing her life.


One mother raising a large brood on scant money couldn’t grasp the idea that the Army’s Christmas help came without strings. Around Thanksgiving each year she would arrive at a Sunday morning meeting prepared to get gloriously saved from her sins. As soon as the altar call came, this enormous lady bolted to the front to do the deed, falling on the mercy seat with loud, heaving sobs. She applied for help the following week. Shortly after Christmas, mission accomplished, she somehow always backslid from her religious experience. Daddy tried to explain to her that this exercise wasn’t necessary, but she wouldn’t risk it.


The professionally poor were another matter. They arrived early in the season, while everybody still had money to give, insisting they had far greater need than any other living being and certainly greater than Mother had ever before known. Convinced of their well-practiced persuasiveness, they took umbrage when Mother exposed their scam and turned them down. They would leave in a huff, raging at the hardheartedness of The Salvation Army.

Then they’d go to grocery stores and cry to the managers about the uncaring folks at The Salvation Army; that always worked. Next they hit the governmental and charitable agencies. Unlike Mother, these folks, too, usually bought the phony-in-spades story.

Finally, they hit the mother lode, the churches. For reasons that escape logic, church people never entertained the slightest thought these people might lie. The members of the church might slip into a little white lie upon rare occasion. Perhaps the minister, upon even rarer occasion, might fib. But people showing up for a handout? Poor people? Never.

What galled my parents, besides desperate people having to do without while the greedy raked in windfalls, was the fact that while these folks always included, with great dramatized distress, the fact the Salvation Army had turned them down, nobody bothered to wonder why. Jumping to the desired conclusion the Army had no heart, they simply piled the goodies higher. Year after year, nobody thought to give the Army–my parents–the benefit of any doubt because they were too taken in to have doubts.

Sometimes ministers called to chastise Daddy about one of these cases. Clueless to the fact the Army was a church and they were speaking with a peer, they dripped condescension and judgment as they took him to task. Daddy saw those calls as teachable moments and explained the situation, sometimes even reading Mother’s very complete report to the caller. He usually offered her expertise for a cooperative effort. An astute few ended up apologizing–then educating their congregations. Most, though, knew what they knew and didn’t hear anything Daddy said.

One such, thinking to soften his haughty pontification of a true and righteous judgment, added his concept of a bit of brotherly love by ending the conversation, “Well, I have to hand it to you, Charlie. You’re certainly doing a work the churches can’t do.”

The remark, arrogant and doltish all in one, at first stunned Daddy, then annoyed him and finally amused him. It became a family byword to describe a thankless task.

One of us, observing a parent or sibling stuck with a large and unrewarding job–cleaning out a piled-high garage, say, or perhaps trying to help people who refused to help themselves–would cheerfully opine they certainly were doing a work the churches couldn’t do. It always brought a smile, however rueful.

The good Reverend never realized he had unintentionally told a joke. But then, he probably wouldn’t have gotten it anyway.


Excerpted from Bette Dowdell’s coming memoir, On We March: A memoir of growing up in The Salvation Army

Feel free to send this article around the internet, with only one proviso: You must send the entire article, with nothing added, and include the following resource box:

Bette Dowdell is a former IBM Systems Engineer, small company consultant and software company owner–as well as a well-received speaker about the Bible and about Living With Excellence.

Watch a one-minute flash movie of Bette’s original quotes [here](http://takeabreakmovie.com)

Read about Bette Dowdell’s book, *How to be a Christian Without Being Annoying*, (as well as more articles and some of the quotes), [here:](http://www.confidentfaith.com)

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