- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 4, 2004

The Salvation Army is playing a bigger role than ever in feeding, clothing and sheltering the District’s poor — but those expanding responsibilities haven’t eclipsed the organization’s No. 1 goal: introducing people to a more spiritual way of life.

That approach — providing care for both body and soul — is making a difference in the life of “Paul,” a homeless man going through the six-month residential drug-treatment program at the Salvation Army Harbor Light Treatment Center in Northeast.

“I’m finding I can feel again, I can care again,” said Paul, whose real name was withheld to protect his identity.

It all began, he said, in the Harbor Light chapel Dec. 31.

“I’m 50 years old. This was the first time I’d been to church on New Year’s Eve,” said the D.C. native. “It’s the love and peace that was there, it’s an unexplainable feeling. I’m learning to make contact with my higher power, to have faith.”

Ten weeks in the faith-based program rekindled something in the former drug dealer he thought was gone: hope. The weekly worship services, twice-weekly Bible studies and daily prayer meetings in the chapel are all optional — but Paul says he is at every event he can attend.

“This is an opportunity for me to grow, to find myself,” he said. “I can sit here and talk to you and look you in the eye and feel good about myself.”

The drug-treatment program in the building at 2100 New York Ave. is one of many Salvation Army programs across the region and the country that offer a healthy dollop of salvation along with their expanding menu of services.

At Harbor Light, for example, therapists and counselors emphasize that submitting to a higher power is an important step in healing.

“They should have some kind of belief system because it’s about goal attainment,” said clinical supervisor Sheila Hallsey.

Federal support has expanded in recent years for faith-based organizations providing social services like those available at Harbor Light — but the effort is not without critics.

The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) recently filed a lawsuit on behalf of several Salvation Army civilian employees who feel discriminated against by forms that ask them to support the group’s spiritual mission and disclose their churchgoing habits. Because the organization receives some government funding, the employees say they should be protected from such inquiries.

“This case is not about the right of the Salvation Army to practice or promote its religion,” Donna Lieberman, executive director of the NYCLU, said in a news release. “They have every right to do so. But not with government money.”

The Salvation Army says the forms are given only to employees who work with children. “The reason is that it’s a natural segue into doing a background check. It’s a starting point,” national spokesman Maj. George Hood said. “It’s not used to eliminate nonchurch members from working opportunities.”

Officials with the Washington-area Salvation Army said they don’t expect those problems here.

Herb Rader, public information officer with the National Capitol Area division of the organization, said Washington-area employees understand better the organization’s Christian roots.

Employees don’t have to be Christian or even religious, he said. But an employee’s beliefs should not be allowed to interfere with spiritual aspects of programs.

“If someone were of another religion, we wouldn’t want them teaching that,” Mr. Rader said.

A Methodist minister founded the Salvation Army in the 1860s to provide for the physical and spiritual needs of the homeless. In addition to helping the needy, the organization is also its own denomination. Spiritual leaders in the group, referred to by military ranks, are required to belong to the denomination.

Even nonofficers can see their work as serving a greater power, though.

“Social services are my calling,” said Elgie Labbe, life-skills coordinator at Turning Point transitional living for single mothers on Harvard Street in Northwest. A civilian employee since 2000, he teaches about nutrition and parenting as if it is a holy mission, even though the classes are not explicitly religious.

“It’s what God has called me to do,” said Mr. Labbe, who is also a Baptist minister in Bladensburg. “It’s more than a job to me, it’s a ministry about trying to elevate people’s lives.”

The approach at Turning Point made a difference for Casaundra Blackmon, 25, a mother of four who entered the program two years ago.

“I came here very angry, I just let every little thing get to me. I didn’t trust, I didn’t associate with anyone,” said Miss Blackmon, whose children are 8, 7, 5 and 3.

She credits the support she found at the Salvation Army for transforming her into a smiling young woman.

“They’re just generous, not just materialistically, but emotionally, too,” Miss Blackmon said.

The Salvation Army made headlines recently when McDonald’s heiress Joan Kroc left $1.5 billion to the charity when she died in November. The donation is restricted to the construction and maintenance of new community centers modeled after one in San Diego that Mrs. Kroc helped sponsor. The grounds include swimming pools, basketball courts, an ice rink and a chapel.

None of that money goes to existing facilities, stressed Maj. Todd Smith, the National Capitol division’s general secretary.

When charities receive large, public gifts, individual donations can drop off.

“We certainly hope that’s not the case locally,” Maj. Smith said. The division is still in the middle of its winter appeal and donation numbers are not yet available, he said.

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