Stationed on the front lines of despair—at what Maj. Edward Hill calls "the point of need"—Salvation Army workers across Hawaii have seen dramatic increases in poverty, homelessness and hunger this year.
People are struggling everywhere.
On Oahu, the Salvation Army received food assistance requests from more than 2,200 households. More than 400 households asked for clothing and more than 100 needed help making rent.
On Maui, workers saw a 15- to 20-percent increase in the number of homeless people seeking help. On Kauai, the Army’s soup kitchen in tiny Hanapepe fed up to 125 people a day and the annual Thanksgiving lunch in Lihue drew more than 1,000—almost half as many as the Blaisdell Center feast serves.
Hill, commander of the Salvation Army’s Hawaiian and Pacific Island Division—which includes the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Guam and Saipan—says the growing needs will challenge the Army’s many social programs, especially when it comes to generating donations from a small population.
"But the advantage of Hawaii is the spirit of aloha," he adds. "People are very generous and supportive. People know each other, so it doesn’t take long to make connections and build a spirit of partnership and camaraderie."
In spite of the daunting task ahead, Hill remains confident in the public’s goodwill toward the Salvation Army, which has been nurtured by a century of compassion for the needy.
"We’ll adjust the best we can," he says, "and we will remain very grateful for whatever support we get."
QUESTION: What social issue worries the Salvation Army the most in Hawaii, and is it anything unique to the islands?
ANSWER: There’s a lot of poverty right now. It’s surprising how much poverty and need there is. When you get outside Waikiki and a few other select pockets, it’s just like being in L.A. in terms of homelessness and neighborhoods where there’s poor services and poor schools and so forth. So that’s a huge challenge for us, to try to do what we can for people who are in need.
And then there’s drug and alcohol addiction issues. I think if you strip away the cultural peculiarities, it’s the same issues here as anywhere else. For some people, they’ve made poor choices or come from dysfunctional backgrounds and now find themselves in circumstances they can’t handle. And in a down economy, a lot of other people have lost jobs or just don’t make enough money to make ends meet. So the Salvation Army and a lot of other good organizations are reaching out to try to help them.
Q: How would you distinguish the Salvation Army from churches and social service agencies that perform the same functions?
A: Somebody once described the Salvation Army as Christianity with its sleeves rolled up. The idea is that we have a spiritual faith, a Christian faith, that’s best expressed not inside the four walls of a church but being actively engaged in trying to meet people at the point of need.
That’s not to say other churches and social service organizations don’t do a lot of good work. But the Army has always been characterized by its capacity to reach out to the disadvantaged and try to lend a hand to elevate them.
Obviously, the Salvation Army is unique in that we wear the uniform and we have a name that’s unusual and practices that are distinct, and I’m sure to some people it seems a little bit antiquated. But you know what? Whenever we’ve thought about changing—like dropping the uniform or dropping the ranks—people in the community have been horrified, because that’s what they like about us.
Certainly, our roots are unique. William Booth, our founder, was a Methodist pastor in East London (in the 1870s) and his passion was to work with the prostitutes, the drunks, the homeless and so forth, and the Methodist church in those days really wasn’t too interested in that kind of ministry. So he hooked up with another group and eventually they evolved into the Salvation Army. His plan was always that as he made converts, he would send them to the other churches. He didn’t have in mind to start his own movement.
But as he sent these saved prostitutes and drunks to other churches, the churches didn’t want them, because they weren’t exactly the kind of clientele that a prim and proper Victorian England church was interested in having in their pews. So that’s when he started his own denomination and that, over time, evolved into the Salvation Army. And it very quickly spread throughout the world; we’re in 122 countries now.
Q: How difficult is it to operate as part church and part social service organization?
A: In some countries, the Army has separated the two—sometimes because of legal issues, sometimes because of funding issues. But in the United States we see both parts as being integral to each other.
We do receive some government funding, so we can’t compel people to go to Bible study, and we respect and abide by those rules and regulations, and all of our programs are without discrimination. But at the heart of our programs and services is this Christian emphasis, this idea of trying to reach the holistic needs of people, so we also are open and unapologetic about that, because we think in the long run that’s beneficial to people.
We try to follow the example of Christ, who reached out to the leper, who reached out to the blind, who reached out to the poor, who reached out to the prostitute. That’s our model in terms of service.
Do we sometimes fall short? Yeah. Sometimes we’re not as effective as we could be. Sometimes we’ve offended people unnecessarily. But our mission statement includes that important phrase, to project the love of God in the service of the Salvation Army without discrimination. That’s very important to us.
Q: What’s the greatest need, from the social services side?
A: There really is tremendous fallout from drug and alcohol addiction. When you see the wreckage of peoples’ lives, it’s really frightening. So those kinds of programs are very important to us. We’re also very interested in the family. One of the things we’re doing is, in Kapolei, we’re building the Kroc Center (thanks to an $80 million grant from the estate of Joan Kroc, the wife of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc). The Kroc Center, we hope, will be a home for eventually thousands of families. We hope it will help elevate the lives of lots of people on the West side, which we think tends to be underserved. And we all know that the area is a growing part of Oahu.
Q: A story in the paper about an anonymous donor who dropped a gold Krugerrand worth $1,200 into a Salvation Army kettle on Kauai also noted that contributions to the kettles were down 14 percent this year. How much is this going to hurt?
A: Fourteen percent down is about $100,000 in terms of kettle locations. But we understand that people are hurting and it’s a tough economy. We’ve also lost a couple of our key kettle locations. More and more stores are a little wary of allowing the Salvation Army to have their bell ringers out there … and for different reasons. One is, if they do it for the Army, then they have to do it for everybody else. And if they get a complaint, then the general manager gets nervous and that’s that. But we’ll just adjust the best we can and we will remain very grateful for whatever support we get.
Q: In spite of everything, are you still hopeful about getting enough support in the coming year?
A: It’s always amazing to me … the good feelings people have toward the Army. I was at a rest home the other Sunday and I was talking to some of the seniors, and one lady—I’m guessing she was about 90 years old—told me that her father was in the U.S. Army in France during World War I and the Salvation Army was there serving coffee and doughnuts, writing letters for the servicemen, praying with the solders. And so he came back from that experience and told his kids about it, and for that reason she became a lifelong donor to the Salvation Army and wanted me to know that she still supports the Army. And that’s an incident of kindness that’s almost 100 years old.
My own family was introduced to the Salvation Army because a Salvation Army officer walked through a lumber yard and found out that my great-grandfather’s wife was sick and they had lost a child to the influenza epidemic of 1919. This officer came back later on to my great-grandfather’s home to deliver food, and because of that act of kindness, my great-grandfather said, "From here on forward, we will support you because you reached out to us." And out of that came several generations in my family who have served in the Salvation Army, including myself. All because of one act of kindness.
And this last year we got an $800,000 gift from a lady who passed away who had no history with the Army except that in the 1930s there was a hurricane on the East Coast and the Army helped her family with disaster assistance. And that event drove her desire to leave her money to the Salvation Army 75 years later.
So what we’re trying to do in 2011 is to keep reaching out to help people. Maybe we’ll create a future donor. But more importantly, hopefully, we’ll have an impact on a life. And those people will become good citizens and contribute and help other people.