The Gospel According to the Army

Lucky Rosenbloom's last stand recruiting souls in the church parking lot
Craig Bares

They're best known for their troops of bell ringers stationed on street corners during the holidays, swinging red kettles and hitting up shoppers for spare change. They've cooked meals for millions of people in need, opened thousands of secondhand clothes closets, provided a way off the streets for hundreds without homes, and helped countless others recovering from drug and alcohol abuse at their Harbor Lights centers--all good deeds served with a sermon on the side. "However, most people don't see the Salvation Army as a religious group," says Diane Winston, a fellow at Princeton's Center for the Study of American Religion. "Most people mistake their social-service delivery for the Salvation Army which is part of the evangelical Christian movement." Only in this denomination, she adds, do ordained clergy rank as officers who pledge to honor sectarian "articles of war" before beginning active duty.

Last week the Salvation Army's social and evangelical missions collided when a dispute between the religious charity and a sobriety group blew up. Earlier this month, Lt. Steve Westrick and his wife Della assumed command of the Parkview Avenue Corps Headquarters in North Minneapolis. But Westrick's recent ordination and work at the Fort Wayne Salvation Army Training College hadn't prepared him for the mixed welcome waiting at his new post. Rumors of a change in leadership had been flying around the building for weeks, and some members of a group using the facility for Sunday night sobriety services grew suspicious that their meetings were to be a thing of the past once the new commander took charge. Last week, their fears came true when the Salvation Army Corp Council informed the group and its leader, Lucky Rosenbloom, that they'd best find a new house of worship.

Rosenbloom's sobriety services over the past three months have been lively occasions--part gospel concert, part revival meeting. No "please rise" or "you may be seated" here, no stiff moves, no starched Sunday best. His sermons, delivered not from a lectern but a bully pulpit (Rosenbloom's favorite spot on earth), depend less on scripture than on cadence and charisma--salted by calls for response from the congregation that is usually, by benediction time, sopped in sweat. Rosenbloom prides himself on his jack-of-all-trades résumé: legal advocate, former candidate for the state Legislature and the St. Paul City Council, public-access cable TV show producer, on-air personality, musician, preacher, and political gadfly. He's also done time, serving a 55-day stint in the Ramsey County workhouse when he failed to complete a domestic-abuse program after assaulting his wife in 1991--something he's managed to spin into use when it comes time to admit sins and pray for grace.

At the most recent sobriety meeting, the offering plate filled with coins and bills headed for the Salvation Army's coffers. Then the crowd broke into a collective sway as gospel and soul played on the tape deck and Rosenbloom worked the room, clapping hands with regulars and welcoming newcomers into the fold. He pointed to a sealed bottle of brandy perched next to his open Bible and belted out a set of preaching points on the evils of booze and drugs. Amen, in unison: Most members of the sobriety church are in recovery, though the service opens its doors to anyone with a mind to come in. Most are financially strapped, homeless, or just off the street, and many of the kids running the aisles belong to single-mother families. Some are white, most are black; most are straight, a few are gay. "I thought these were the people the Salvation Army was supposed to help," Rosenbloom said after the service. "Instead these people have been giving all they had to the Army, only to be kicked out."

Exactly why the Salvation Army wants the Sunday night meeting gone depends on who you ask. New minister Lt. Westrick, who is white, calls the style of service conducted by Rosenbloom, who is black, "a little different from what we're used to in the Army." To say the least: Modern Corps services typically include stick-to-the-hymnal singing, formal group prayer, literal scripture readings, and an occasional salvation-themed skit or instrumental music for meditation. "Some people did say [Rosenbloom's service] was a little bit loud," Westrick says, adding that elements of it made him feel "uncomfortable."

The quarrel between the Salvation Army and the sobriety group reflects a larger predicament the national charity will face more often in the future, says religious scholar Winston. She points out that the Army has always made use of American culture to get its gospel across--training, for instance, Corps "soldiers" in New York City to rap hymns on the street as a means of putting their evangelical message into familiar form for a targeted audience. On the social-service front, the Army was one of the earliest charities to help single mothers keep their babies, and delivered some of the first meals to house-bound AIDS patients--both opportunities to spread the good word by addressing crises brought on by a changing culture. The dilemma now, Winston believes, is that the landscape is shifting in ways that force the Army's service mission into head-on conflict with its religious values, which have always held up the traditional family as an ideal. "It's one thing if nontraditional families are in the minority at a Salvation Army service--with a few unwed mothers," Winston says. "If they're in the majority, the Army might be worried about being taken over. It's like walking a tightrope between wanting to be accepting and appearing permissive."

That tightrope has turned particularly taut with the growing acceptance of what the charity considers "unorthodox" lifestyles in the larger culture, Winston says. In June the Salvation Army announced it will forgo $3.5 million in funding rather than comply with a San Francisco policy requiring organizations doing business with the city to treat homosexual and legally married couples alike. "I imagine this will become an increasingly difficult choice the Corps will have to make: trying to be open to everyone while not wanting to compromise their evangelical beliefs."

All of which might help to explain why a preacher like Lucky Rosenbloom and his 80-member congregation--a majority of whom, according to the Salvation Army's definition, are not part of "traditional" families--are being shown the door. Rosenbloom says the Army shouldn't be surprised at the makeup of his flock: A short three months ago he was asked to take over the evening service with simple instructions to draw in more people, no matter their circumstances. He was also promised, he says, one full year in which to complete his mission. On the strength of that pledge, Rosenbloom says he kicked off an aggressive recruitment campaign, spending $1,000 out of pocket for copies of promo material and countless hours in the building's parking lot handing out pamphlets, and singing the service's praises on his radio program and in print ads. And it's worked. "Lately," he notes, "we've had a standing-room-only crowd."

No more. As of last week the congregation as a whole, like many of its members, is homeless. The Salvation Army has encouraged them to decamp to sobriety services held at its Harbor Lights Center near downtown Minneapolis, located along a stretch known for its clustering of rehab programs, soup kitchens, and shelters. As for Rosenbloom, he's been asked to find another address at which to conduct his brand of worship. In the meantime, Minneapolis civil rights attorney Jesse Gant has agreed to represent the group should they decide to hold the Salvation Army to its promises in court.

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