“God.” Although I could understand what he was getting at, I had hoped for a little more than a one-word answer to my question, “What brought you into the Salvation Army?”
Seeing my expression as we were having coffee together, Ben Russell was kind enough to elaborate.
“Before I was saved, I was a nasty piece of work. My mother was in the Salvation Army in Harwich, and she nagged me to go too, but I refused. Most of my nights were spent drinking, my days sleeping.
“However, one day I did go along, and it was all old people there. I was 21 at the time, with long hair and a long beard. Another visitor remarked, ‘I think a tramp came into the meeting.’
“The theme of the preaching was the Old Testament story of Absalom, son of King David, and the female officer gave an appeal, I remember. I decided I would not go back. Later, though, I thought about it, and made a commitment.
“I looked around for a ‘happy-clappy’ church. I went to one and a guy came in, worse for wear, with no idea of etiquette. ‘I want food’, he announced. The church prayed that he would find food. My thinking was, ‘You’ve got a kitchen; make something for him.’ So I challenged the minister, who replied, ‘We leave all that to the Salvation Army.’ And that was my call!
Ben and his family have now been in Eastbourne for five years, having served for the same length of time in Bury St Edmunds. “We were happy there”, he says, “and didn’t want to move. Obviously, a change of mindset was needed! The work in the community here is tough, but there are also blessings.
“Our Old Town building was unappealing, with windows smashed and graffiti on the walls. Now the Salvation Army have paid to do it up, and it looks good. We have a large notice on the front telling everyone that God loves them.
“A lot of our people are very committed, and when I arrived I warmed to them easily. I enjoy the informal gatherings, sitting around talking. Thankfully the Salvation Army is free of trappings, there is no need to appease anyone and we allow the Spirit to do his thing. Outreach into the community is also becoming a blessing. The greatest challenge is to find leadership for the future.”
So, to Christmas.
A Christingle Service was due to take place a few days ago, with plans for ‘Messy Church’ and a Carol Service later in the month. There will be ‘Make-a-meal’, going from house to house, and a Christmas Day dinner, specifically for people on their own.
Throughout the year, then, there is the regular programme of events, and now, for a few weeks, a special opening to declare the true meaning of the celebration.
Well may Ben Russell quote his favourite Bible verse: ‘Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up’ (Galatians 6,9).
P.S. A reminder of the offer of a free booklet, ‘Living’. If you would like a copy, simply write to Pause for Thought, 11 Lismore Road, Eastbourne BN21 3BA.