An imposing wall-sized mural of the Ten Commandments greets visitors to the Salvation Army’s Owens Avenue campus. While organization doesn’t appear to discriminate against the LGBT in its programs, the faith-based organization’s doctrine is not a fan of sex outside marriage, of same-sex marriage, and especially of homosexual sex, in or out of marriage.
Transgender individuals, who can be targeted for physical or sexual assaults, have their own dedicated dorm at the Salvation Army’s Owens Avenue campus.
Salvation Army Family Services office at 1581 N. Main Street include food service for people in need. The organization annually provides 18,000 food and comfort packages to needy families in the area.
Every year at this time, the public profile of the Salvation Army appears, with hundreds of bell-ringing Santas stationed at supermarkets and shopping malls in Southern Nevada asking the public for support. That support is essential for the organization, and effectively used.
The Salvation Army provides critical assistance to tens of thousands of distressed, homeless, addicted and desperate people in Southern Nevada and throughout the world. The organization, founded in 1865 in London, where the nongovernmental organization’s headquarters remain, claims 1.5 million members worldwide in its hierarchical, military-style structure.
In Las Vegas, the organization annually provides 18,000 food and comfort packages to needy families and 40,000 nights of shelter to the homeless, 4,200 days of after-school programs for children, Christmas and back-to-school gifts to 6,000 children, counseling and treatment for hundreds of people with addictions, and a staggering 474,000 meals to people in need.
With local, state and government funding inadequate, and even shrinking with austerity-economy budgets, the Salvation Army is clearly a lifeline to tens of thousands here, and millions worldwide.
Nobody can deny the work that the organization does, but some people still will not support the group. The problem is fundamental. The Salvation Army is not a fan of sex outside marriage, of same-sex marriage, and especially of homosexual sex, in or out of marriage.
To be clear, the organization (which accepts governmental financial support for many of its programs) insists that the organization does not discriminate against gays, lesbians, bisexuals or transgender individuals in its many service programs, which in Las Vegas include food and housing assistance, addiction treatment, vocational training and a host of other programs. The modern motto of the Army is “Integrity, Unity, Excellence.” But the older motto, still in use and part of the organization’s coat-of-arms, on display at its sprawling Owens Avenue campus and online, reflects the Army’s basic approach to sin: “Blood and Fire.”
Make no mistake – for the organization, gay sex will bring the harshest of penalties. Last year, media outlets including The Atlantic Wire published excerpts from Salvation Story: Salvationist Handbook of Doctrine, and specifically this passage:
For this reason God gave them up to degrading passions. Their women exchanged natural intercourse for unnatural, and in the same way also the men, giving up natural intercourse with women, were consumed with passion for one another. Men committed shameless acts with men and received in their own persons the due penalty for their error. . .They know God’s decree, that those who practise such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practise them.
This passage and the specific line that says gays “deserve to die” were not directly disavowed by the organization, and in fact were cited by an Australian Major – a high-ranking official in charge of public relations for the down-under continent – who insisted last year that gays should die was “part of our belief system” on a radio show, igniting a barrage of news reports on the Salvation Army’s policies on LGBT issues. (It should be noted that the online Handbook of Doctrine doesn’t now appear to include the passage, and the Christian group said following the major’s interview that gay sex leads to “spiritual death,” rather than actual mortis.)
According to the organization, in an official response to the interview: “Salvation Army members do not believe, and would never endorse, a view that homosexual activity should result in any form of physical punishment. The Salvationist Handbook of Doctrine does not state that practising homosexuals should be put to death and, in fact, urges all Salvationists to act with acceptance, love and respect to all people.”
Last year’s dust up, however, isn’t the only time the Salvation Army has invited criticism of its policies regarding the LGBT population. The U.S. version of The Week, a relatively conservative but mainstream publication, cited several instances (http://theweek.com/article/index/229796/) in the Salvation Army’s international work, among them:The organization collected signatures in 1986 to stop the decriminalization of gay sex in New Zealand. The law passed anyway, and two decades later the Salvation Army apologized for any “hurt” caused by the group’s work.
In 2001, the organization opposed a Bush administration rule that would bar discrimination by federally supported groups in hiring gay and lesbian individuals. The leadership, according to published reports in the Washington Post, believed that they had a firm commitment from the Bush White House that they would not have to comply with the rule, but the administration passed it and applied it to the Salvation Army anyway.
In 2004, the Salvation Army threatened to shut down its operations in New York City if the city council passed a law calling for benefits equal to those for straight married couples for same-sex partnerships for groups with city contracts, including the Army. The law passed, but Mayor Bloomberg’s administration has not enforced the law.
More recently, apparently until last week, the Army included online links to notorious “cure-the-gay,” or “conversion therapy” organizations that promise to end homosexual orientation for individuals. These organizations are not recognized by the American Psychiatric Association as legitimate therapeutic providers. The Army last week deleted those links from its website and its national spokeswoman said the organization “does not consider homosexual orientation a sin.” (Gay sex, however, was not addressed in the statement.)
It’s clear that the organization itself is having a very tough time wrestling with its demons of sin, acceptance, tolerance and service to the LGBT community.
Full disclosure: Your CityLife correspondent has worked directly providing the homeless with food and shelter through both religious and secular groups, and has also worked with LGBT-supporting organizations. And a spirited online discussion on the social-media site Facebook on the Army’s relationship with the LGBT community sparked this story.
To get beyond the rhetoric and see the reality, it’s important to see what the organization actually does. Find the great concentration of hundreds of homeless men and women north of downtown, and you will be close to the three major service providers in Las Vegas: The Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, and the Las Vegas Rescue Mission.
The Salvation Army’s director of social services, Phillip Holon, spoke for the organization’s work. Holon is a nice guy, committed to the work of his organization, and he told CityLife that he was working for another service provider to the homeless before he came to work for the Army. He said he checked out the criticisms and reality of the organization carefully before making the transition.
The importance and effectiveness of the work is what drew him to the organization, he said. Holon emphasized that the sexual orientation and identity of those who are served are irrelevant to the staff, except when it comes to personal safety: Transgender people, who can be targets for sexual and physical assaults, have their own designated dorm at the Army’s Owens Avenue campus.
He described the array of services provided. Holon also said the Army is changing, and that isn’t always an easy process.
“Our mission remains the same,” he added quickly. “We’re here to serve the less fortunate.”
Major Bob Lloyd, who leads the Southern Nevada Army, said his goal is to simply serve those in need. He said he feels trapped between those who on one hand assume he’s a theological bigot, and those from the evangelical world who harshly judge based on their interpretation of theology.
“God created everybody, loves everybody, and we no longer live in that Old Testament law,” he said. “I just want to help people without asking a ton of questions, without being legalistic.”
He agreed that there has been sometimes difficult internal discussions on gender, sexuality and related issues, but a central focus remains: “Here in Clark County, we just want to provide food and a bed and service for everybody, without questions. It’s not our job to judge.”
But while the organization changes, there are also those who are still leery of - or flatly opposed to - supporting the institution. “Clearly the Salvation Army provides much-needed services to many communities around the United States and the world,” said Mel Goodwin, co-director of programs and partnerships with the LGBT Center of Southern Nevada, a nonprofit community center near downtown Las Vegas. “But their track record with working with the LGBT community has been problematic and continues to be problematic.”
Derek Washington, state lead with the nonprofit advocacy group Get EQUALNV, agreed.
“We all should remember the less fortunate and donate money and time all year round,” Washington said. “But we must also make sure those we donate to are in alignment with our own worldview. If you’re a conservative who is against equality, donate to the S.A. If you consider yourself a progressive, find other places.” CL