Each year about this time, the Salvation Army begins rolling out its trademark red kettle giving campaign. Bell ringers joyfully greet shoppers and passers-by who, in return, drop anywhere from a few cents to much, much more in the buckets. The money eventually goes to support homeless individuals and families through a variety of social services, including homeless shelters, rehabilitation centers, veterans services and more.
Yet, the Salvation Army has become a lightning rod in the LGBT community. The organization — officially a church — holds anti-LGBT theologies, does not have LGBT-inclusive policies for their employees and, at times, has been accused of discriminating against LGBT people in their services, though the group’s official policy is that sexual orientation cannot be used to turn away anyone in need.
Because of the group’s mixed history on LGBT equality, a friend and fellow writer, Bil Browning, has annually reminded his readers not to donate to the group. You can read Browning’s full write-up on the Salvation Army’s LGBT history at bit.ly/1igI8tH.
I, too, have refrained from donating my money to the organization and urged others to follow my lead. That’s an opinion that likely won’t change soon. I don’t want my money supporting organizations that believe I am a sinner or who do not believe people like me deserve the same right to employment or basic inclusion as others. And, that’s regardless of what other good work the organization does. I will choose to spend my money with the many, many other groups doing equally good work, but doing so without the exclusion.
It was that opinion I shared on a Salvation Army ad that kept popping up in my Facebook feed, first in October and for a second time earlier this month. A staffer for the Salvation Army of Greater Charlotte responded on Facebook. Passionate words were exchanged. After the second exchange, I was surprised to see an email from a local Salvation Army staffer in my inbox. She invited me to meet with her and tour their local shelter. I agreed, and asked a staffer from a local LGBT non-profit to come with.
We spent more than an hour with the group’s staffer, toured the facility and were able to share a great deal of information about the state of LGBT youth, individuals and families as it relates to discrimination, homelessness and the importance of inclusion. We also learned that the local Salvation Army was, indeed, currently serving LGBT people in our local area.
I was encouraged to know that the local Salvation Army was living up to their publicly stated mission to serve all, without exclusion, though I’m sure this may not always be the case with all local affiliates or with those who work for them. I imagine it’s quite difficult for an organization to be 100-percent inclusive, 100-percent of the time when its theology is based on exclusion.
Regardless, I walked away from the conversation with a phenomenally positive feeling, something I’ve rarely felt when talking to other anti-LGBT leaders or organizations. I’m used to having such conversations, having grown up in a conservative, southern Baptist family and having devoted a great deal of my professional advocacy and activism on topics related to the church. For once, it felt great to share a little bit of my experiences and thoughts without outright condemnation — to have a fellow Christian — a representative of an organization that views me as lesser — actually take a pause and truly listen and attempt to learn about the LGBT people affected by their positions.
That single conversation with a single employee at a single local affiliate of the Salvation Army likely will not change their national or international policies or theology. But, a conversation is a great start. I’m glad I had one with the Salvation Army. I may not drop money into their red kettles this year, next year or even in 10 years. But, one day, things will change, and it will be because of staffers like the one I met and the conversation we had. : :