Forget the thrift stores and holiday bell ringers. Parishioners are flocking to the Salvation Army to hear its original message of faith and service.
For those who make their way each Sunday to the Yorkminster Citadel at Yonge and the 401, spending time at the Salvation Army doesn’t involve browsing vintage shirts or mid-century lamps. It means attending church. And despite his title and uniform, Major Len Ballantine, who led a recent service in March, wasn’t a visiting member of the military. He’s their pastor.
“If I asked you to lay on the floor for an hour in complete silence, would you do it?” Ballantine asked a dozen of the congregation’s children halfway through this sermon. “No!,” one girl replied without hesitation, prompting laughter from the pews. After a series of similarly imposing requests—and refusals, mostly—Ballantine told the story of Abraham, the first patriarch of Judaism, whom God commanded to take an arduous journey with all his belongings to settle a new homeland. The gray-bearded Ballantine, wearing a black jacket with the red epaulettes that signify he is an officer of the church, used the story to explain that life is full of challenges, and that through it all, it’s important to keep faith. This, he said, was even more important than doing good deeds and being charitable. It seemed surprising, given the Salvation Army’s reputation for public service, but his point was that those works should flow from faith, rather than be considered a way to receive grace.
The relationship between faith and service has been discussed by Salvationists since their first gatherings in mid-19th-century London, England. Although now primarily known for providing millions of people each year with food, shelter, clothing, and addiction counselling, the Salvation Army began as a splinter group of Christianity. According to spokesperson Andrew Burditt, founder William Booth was angry with the elitist direction many Christian churches had taken. “You’d have pews that were reserved and certain cushions for certain people,” said Burditt, adding that poor parishioners could be asked to worship elsewhere.
Initially a Methodist, Booth left the church in 1865 to bring the Christian message to the poverty-stricken streets of the city’s East End. He quickly realized, however, that those who were hungry, homeless, or gripped by addiction weren’t in much of a state to contemplate God. “He understood that you have to feed the body above all, and feed the body without worrying about religion,” said Burditt. “You’ve just got to take care of people.” Among a number of services, Booth instituted The Salvage Brigade (forefathers of today’s recycling movement), who would take household goods that people had thrown away, repair them, and hand them out to those in need—hence the ubiquitous thrift stores.
Funding for the Salvation Army’s public services is now kept separate from the Salvationist churches, but there are still many congregations. Canada has about 50,000 Salvationist members, and in Toronto, there are 30 Salvationist places of worship. According to Ballantine, each church has its own flavour, and Yorkminster is known in part for a large faction of members who still wear the uniform. The militaristic trappings of the Salvation Army are, according to Burditt, simply something Booth thought would be appealing to the militaristic society of his time. The only direct relationship with the armed forces came later: The Salvation Army has provided physical and emotional support to troops since The Boer War in 1899. According to legend, the women who brought food and coffee to the front during the first World War were affectionately called “Sally Anns” by soldiers, giving the organization one of its nicknames.
Luckily for Ballantine, there was another trend popular in 1865 London, besides the military: big brass bands. A University of Toronto graduate in piano and composition, the fourth-generation Salvationist became a pastor only after many years spent leading the congregation’s enormous 34-piece orchestra, which includes four trombonists, five tubists, and someone on a grand piano. At one point during the service, while everyone joined together in song, what must have been Ballantine’s conducting hand lifted up, and he expertly marched the entire congregation through the melody, up and down the scale.
1 Lord Seaton Rd., 416-222-9110, yorkminstercitadel.ca.