Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Banality of Evil.

It was my particular misfortune to run across The Salvation Army in the early part of this decade.  Today being Easter, I think this is a good time to finally blog about what I've been threatening to for a long time; the unabashed evil of The Salvation Army.

A phrase I once read to describe the NAZI's was "the banality of evil."  It also applies perfectly to this nefarious group.  How about this:  in the three years I worked for them, I never once, not ONCE saw or heard of them doing one single good thing for someone else.  The officers or "ministers" of this church are trained to do one thing and one thing only: make money for The Salvation Army.  Anything else is purely incidental.

L. Ron Hubbard of Scientology fame once said, "If you want to get rich, start a business.  If you want to get REALLY rich, start a religion."  He wasn't introducing anything new.  The Salvationists have been all over this since 1865 when one William Booth founded the church.

William Booth was born in Nottingham in 1829. At the age of 13 he was sent to work as an apprentice in a pawnbroker's shop to help support his mother and sisters. He did not enjoy his job but it made him only too aware of the poverty in which people lived and how they suffered humiliation and degradation because of it. During his teenage years he became a Christian and spent much of his spare time trying to persuade other people to become Christians too.
When his apprenticeship was completed he moved to London, again to work in the pawnbroking trade. He joined up with the local Methodist Church and later decided to become a minister.

After his marriage to Catherine Mumford in 1855 he spent several years as a Methodist minister, travelling all around the country, preaching and sharing God's word to all who would listen. Yet he felt that God wanted more from him, that he should be doing more to reach ordinary people. He returned to London with his family, having resigned his position as a Methodist minister.

One day in 1865 he found himself in the East End of London, preaching to crowds of people in the streets. Outside the Blind Beggar pub some missioners heard him speaking and were so impressed by his powerful preaching that they asked him to lead a series of meetings they were holding in a large tent.

The tent was situated on an old Quaker burial ground on Mile End waste in Whitechapel. The date for the first meeting was set for 2 July, 1865. To the poor and wretched of London's East End, Booth brought the good news of Jesus Christ and his love for all men. Booth soon realised he had found his destiny. He formed his own movement, which he called 'The Christian Mission'.

Slowly the mission began to grow but the work was hard and Booth would 'stumble home night after night haggard with fatigue, often his clothes were torn and bloody bandages swathed his head where a stone had struck', wrote his wife. Evening meetings were held in an old warehouse where urchins threw stones and fireworks through the window. Outposts were eventually established and in time attracted converts, yet the results remained discouraging-this was just another of the 500 charitable and religious groups trying to help in the East End. It was not until 1878 when The Christian Mission changed its name to The Salvation Army that things began to happen. The impetus changed. The idea of an Army fighting sin caught the imagination of the people and the Army began to grow rapidly. Booth's fiery sermons and sharp imagery drove the message home and more and more people found themselves willing to leave their past behind and start a new life as a soldier in The Salvation Army.

Inevitably, the military spirit of the movement meant that The Salvation Army soon spread abroad. By the time Booth was ‘promoted to Glory’ in 1912 the Army was at work in 58 countries.

At that time I have no doubt the Army was still pursuing Booth's dream.  To Help people.  It is impossible to say when they turned the corner.

The Salvation Army of 2010 is not anywhere near what he envisioned.  The Salvation Army of 2010 is a global, money-making organization of epic proportions.  And where does the money go?  To make a life of unbelievable comfort for its officers.

Officers of The Salvation Army are given a beautiful (look this up for yourself) house in which to live.  They own countless acres of property across the United States, they are given a stunning cash salary (no taxes, they're "ministers"), two NEW cars annually, complete health insurance for a lifetime, their children go to whatever college they want - paid in full by the church, free food, 12-week yearly vacations and amazing retirement packages (they are encouraged to retire in one of the Army's "retirement centers" located in Florida, Arizona and California - beautiful compounds restricted to all but retired officers).

I went back to school in the early part of this decade to obtain a C.A.D.C. (certificate of alcohol and drug counseling).  My idea was altruistic.  Naive, but altruistic.  I wanted to do something tangible.  Something to really help people, one on one.  Get my hands dirty.  All this theatre stuff was fine and dandy, but I wanted to actually DO something.  So I stopped acting, stopped writing, stopped leading a life I felt was selfish. I, too, had fought and lost a battle with substance abuse and now I wanted to spread my passion for sobriety, for living life on life's terms.  Again, how incredibly naive I was.  Upon completion of my C.A.D.C. I was hired to work at an A.R.C. (Adult Rehabilitation Center) for The Salvation Army, working with recovering alcoholics and drug addicts.  I was delighted.  Finally, a chance to really do some good in the world.  Not just act in little skits or write long, high-minded plays.  A chance to really reach out to someone.

There are hundreds of ARC's around the country.  Most people don't know what they are.  The Army is perfectly happy with this.  They don't like this part of their church being in the public eye.  They are modern day sweat shops.  Even worse, in some cases, latter day concentration camps, minus the death and beatings.  I used to call, in private, the one where I worked in Chicago, "Dachau on Michigan."

Men go to these Centers for help.  Most are homeless, hopelessly addicted souls that have lost everything.  Understandably most large cities welcome these places operating under the "out of sight, out of mind" principle.  So most don't bother to find out what actually goes on inside these places.  The utter stripping of dignity, the forced worship, the slave labor, the less than ideal living conditions, the total disregard of human kindness.

Men are forced to work 12 or 14 hours a day in deplorable conditions in one of the Army's warehouses.  All day long, into the night, they are forced to "process" the endless incoming "donations."  Most are somewhat feeble from their lifestyle of addiction.  No matter.  If they cannot do the work, they are dismissed.  Back to the streets.

At some point in the twentieth century the Army was forced to comply with Federal guidelines, that is to say, they had to at least show a semblance of helping these men with a "program" of recovery.  They never took that guideline very seriously and they still don't today.  For a long time the "program" was six months long.  At the end of the six months, the men were summarily kicked back out into the streets.  No housing, no job, no training, no light at the end of the tunnel.  A full ninety five percent (look this up) drink or use drugs again and re-enter the "program."  Not surprising, they have no where else to go.  The Army not only encourages this, they COUNT on it.  Recently they've started a "program" in which they must complete a series of "booklets" to complete before "graduation."  One is not allowed to move to the next level (there are six) until the center administrator (an officer of The Salvation Army) gives his approval.  This allows the Army to keep them in the center for up to a year.  Working as slave labor.

If one looks at all this from a purely capitalistic point of view, it's brilliant.  Gather up the homeless, the addicted, the displaced, the indigent, the social outcasts, the PEOPLE THAT NO ONE CARE ABOUT, and turn them into indentured servants to do the grunt work for the organization without paying them.  No overhead whatsoever.  The items are free.  The labor is free.  My God, what a plan.  And no one looking over their shoulder to insure common decency for these men.  Absolutely brilliant.  The money has been pouring in for decades.

Next they realized they could hood-wink an entire country, hell, an entire planet, into thinking they were a "charity."  They are not.  Not in the sense of The Red Cross or some other actual charity.  They are first and foremost a CHURCH.  And because of this legal delineation they answer, virtually, to no one.  Their records are, for all intents and purposes, sealed to the public.  They operate in the dubious legal zone known as a "private charity."

I was working for them in this counseling capacity when Katrina hit New Orleans.  The unbridled greed I witnessed from this organization in the hurricane's aftermath rocked me to my very foundation.  The Army loves a good catastrophe.  Their coffers take a mighty soar upward during times of crisis.  They know this and are quick to capitalize on it.  Sad and thoughtful commercials were quickly made (we all see them on television, they are beautifully done), "beneficiaries" (this is what the Army calls the homeless people in their centers) were forced to get on the phones to an unsuspecting public, given heart-wrenching monologues to read to people they call randomly from the phone book, whole ROOMS of "beneficiaries" calling people endlessly, telling them of the Army's need for cash ("no donations at this time, please.  What we really need is money.  We have to get money to the people of New Orleans.  That's what they need most!").  Do not take my word for this, look it up yourselves.  The Salvation Army received millions and millions of dollars for Katrina.  NOT ONE CENT ever made it there.

The same happened with the tsunami of Indonesia and the same happened recently with the earthquake in Haiti.  And most significantly and chillingly with 9/11.  The Salvation Army, mind-boggling in their greed, was actually at ground zero SELLING coffee and baloney sandwiches to the rescue workers.  It was a huge money-making opportunity for them.  They love cataclysmic events of this sort.  The American people give them cash by the truck full.  And none of it, not a single penny, goes to help anyone.  Again, look this up, please don't take my word for it.  The stats are all out there, obtainable on-line if one is patient enough to search.

After a bit, I was promoted to Director of Rehabilitation at the center where I worked.  A singularly empty title.  For legal reasons they must call the back-breaking work at these centers "work therapy."  Once I obtained this title I was considered "senior staff" and allowed to  sit in on the closed door meetings.  Already appalled at the situation in these places, I didn't think it possible to be even more stunned.  I was.  In private the officers, the "ministers" of these places, routinely refer to the homeless men doing the work as "mules."  As part of the agreement to enter the facility, the men must sign waivers saying the Salvation Army is in no way responsible for their health.  If an accident occurs, or someone gets sick, something the "beneficiaries" deeply fear, they are kicked out.  Literally.  Their stuff is packed, just what they came in with, and they are placed on the street.  They are reminded of this upon dismissal.  The agreement they signed.  I still remember it word by word.  "If you are in any way unable to complete your work therapy assignment you will be asked to leave the center."  I once witnessed a 63 year old man with pneumonia left standing on the streets of Chicago in blizzard conditions.  No coat, no hat, just what he came into the center with, a t-shirt and shorts.  He was "unable to complete his work therapy assignment."

I once spent weeks working on a plan to provide possible housing for the men once they reached their six-month limit.  I submitted it to the "major" for his consideration.  Once in his office, away from earshot, he turned from smiling, glad-handing, empathetic preacher into a shark-eyed, callous, unfeeling business man.  He said, "You don't get it, do you?  We don't care whether these people live or die.  We don't care if they find housing.  In fact, we'd prefer they DON'T.  We WANT them to come back.  We WANT them to need us for food and shelter. They are mules.  That's what they do."  He then vetoed my housing plan and told me to get back to work.  The following sunday he gave an amazing and beautiful homily about the charity of Christ.

Now, remember, this is an organization that believes whole-heartedly in the infallibility of the bible.  The Salvation Army, as outlined in their mission statement, believes without hesitation in the literal word of the bible.  They believe (but only talk about amongst themselves), in literal agreement with Leviticus, that all gay people should die, that blacks are to be considered "beasts of burden", that unwed mothers should be stoned.  I swear I am not making this up.  Again, look it up.

Forgive me for dramatizing all of this.  I want you to understand, gentle reader, the horror and hypocrisy I witnessed first hand.  The horror of Christian arrogance run amok.

Out of sight, out of mind.  The press, even though I've tried, will not touch these centers.  In Des Plaines, Illinois, a city just outside of Chicago, The Salvation Army has set up its midwest headquarters.  There is an entire four-story building full of lawyers there.  They fear no one.  Certainly not one man trying to alert the press to the unimaginable indignities that take place in their ARC's.  And, as I learned, the press is not interested anyway.  After all, it's The Salvation Army, for god's sake.  They HELP people, don't they?  Why should we investigate the accusations of one former, disgruntled employee?  It's The Salvation Army.

The "beneficiaries" are given three hots and a cot.  That's it.  They are given a small bunch of used clothing if they need it.  A donated coat for the winter. On Sundays, the day of Salvationist rest, they are forced to sit for hours in the "chapel," head bowed, silent, and "pray" for the mission of The Salvation Army.  It does not matter what their religions beliefs were prior to entering the center - Muslim, Buddhist, it doesn't matter.  If a "beneficiary" does not worship Jesus, he is asked to leave.  Other spiritual beliefs are not tolerated.

I am no longer a Christian because of this organization.  I have seen first-hand what Christianity can become in the hands of those who use it for their own ends.  I have witnessed the appalling hypocrisy.  I have seen a thuggish band of uniformed, authoritative, "believers" whip the less fortunate into line, luring them into slave labor conditions for which they have no way out.  I have seen the banality of evil, the blanket of false kindness, the Machiavellian approach to the teachings of Jesus.  I have seen hundreds of men used and spit out.  I have seen them kicked back into the streets from which they tried to escape.  I have known many who died.

And I will spend the rest of my life trying to make everyone I know aware of the inhuman plight of The Salvation Army.  One person at a time, if need be.  I know full well it is a losing battle.  Most of the time I am simply not believed.  So be it.

I've held off writing this blog for a long time because of the subject matter.  Well, I don't really care anymore.  People need to know.  People need to know there are subtle versions of a Dachau operating very near them.  People need to understand the audacity of the unbridled mixture of right-wing Christian conservatism with the desire to make money.  The Salvation Army is a shining example of what is terrible and morally wrong with right-wing Christianity.  They hurt people.  They dehumanize people.  And they hide it.  They outright steal from a compassionate nation.  And they don't care.  Because they are The Salvation Army and Need Has No Season.

Don't take my word for any of this.  Do the research.  Satisfy your own conscience.  And the next time you want to donate to a good and noble charity, please remember what you've learned.

See you tomorrow.