Taking over a global organization best known for its social service work, the Salvation Army's new international leader says he wants the Christian movement's religious work to take center stage for the 1.7 million-member church.
"The reputation of the Army has been won over generations because of the hard work of the people who day in and day out get on with the ministry," Gen. Andre Cox, 59, said from London in one of his first interviews since his election Saturday as the organization's 20th leader. "One of the concerns I share ... is to ensure we are rooted and confident in the word of God, and we want to obviously reflect on the authority of Scripture, what it means to us. I want to see an army on prayer, and I also want to see an army that reflects the mind of Jesus."
The Zimbabwean-born Gen. Cox, formerly the organization's chief of staff, assumes his command at a moment of unusual organizational uncertainty for the Salvation Army. Two months ago his predecessor, Gen. Linda Bond, abruptly relinquished her position and retired, with the organization citing only "personal reasons" for her departure. She had held the army's top post only since April 2011 and had given no prior notice of her intention to step down.
While not addressing Gen. Bond's motives for leaving, Gen. Cox said of his former boss, "I have seen a woman of great courage, great faith and great vision," saying her vision statements for the army "will be a lasting legacy."
Formally operating in the United States since 1880, 15 years after its founding in London's East End, the Salvation Army's social services — disaster relief, adult rehabilitation centers serving those with substance abuse and other problems, aid to families needing food and other assistance, and ministries to those in or leaving prison as well as after-school programs — have sometimes overshadowed its evangelical Christian roots and mission. Religious programs underlie Salvation Army services at each of its installations, but have been less visible in the public, and Gen. Cox said he wants to see that change.
"One of the things that has challenged me, particularly in recent years, is the fact we are a people who have received grace from God, we're grateful for his love and his transformation in our lives ... but it's more than theory, it's got to take root in us and it's got to be visible," he said. At the same time, Gen. Cox emphasized "the focus on the poor and the marginalized, I think that is our constituency and I want to see a strong emphasis on that."
Gen. Cox, the son of Salvation Army ministers, said the movement's operations in Britain offered an example of balancing social work and spiritual outreach.
"In the United Kingdom, with the economic crisis at the moment, local churches are more in the front line of providing support in many practical ways to the communities we serve. I think that recaptures something of the original calling," he said. "We're not [just] called to sit on pews or on chairs on a Sunday morning to worship, that is part of who we are, but we need to be inspired to reach out because of the faith we have, because of our spiritual life to serve suffering humanity."
Of the army's signature "red kettles," used to collect donations during Christmas and at other times during the year, the new leader said he had not heard of any plans to abandon their use in the face of rising concerns about security for those manning the kettles. The well-known red kettle that sits outside of shops during the holidays is kept locked and hangs from a 5-foot metal stand. The stand is meant to keep thieves from running off with it, but it doesn't deter everyone.
On Christmas Eve 2009, Maj. Philip Wise, a Salvation Army pastor in Little Rock, Ark., was fatally shot by robbers after picking up kettles in his area.
"Security becomes a problem," Gen. Cox said of the kettle effort. "It would be sad if we were forced to" curtail the program, he added, saying it was "also important from a visibility point of view to be present on the streets and to be seen." Losing the kettles, he said, "would be a loss in many ways. They're great opportunities to engage with people."
The Salvation Army is unusual among Christian churches for having women as fully ordained ministers from its founding. Gen. Cox said his wife, Commissioner Silvia Cox, will head the group's outreach to women.
"Silvia and I have always shared equally in our spiritual ministry, and that will not change," he said. "As we travel around, we will share in speaking opportunities. She has her own calling to be a Salvation Army officer, [and] to the ministry of the word."
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