Cambrian: Opinion

More to charity than a bell

Steve Provost
Steve Provost

Not all communication is verbal. Sometimes, people communicate with a smile, a handshake or by ringing a bell, as Salvation Army volunteers do every holiday season in front of shopping centers.

That’s about as basic as it gets. The sound of the bell can translate to many people differently. To most, it probably comes out as, “People are in need during the holidays. Please drop something in the red kettle to help them out.” The smiling volunteer standing beside that red kettle reinforces the message.

Because this message is so simple, people respond, giving thousands of dollars to the charity around Christmastime each year.

The Salvation Army itself has become all but synonymous with the annual fund drive, something that can happen to an organization when one of its efforts is extremely successful. The same phenomenon occurs in the movies when actors become so well known for a particular role that they get typecast. To many viewers, Julie Andrews will always be Maria from “The Sound of Music” and Sean Connery will always be James Bond.

Similarly, to many, the Salvation Army will always be “red kettles at Christmas.”

Other groups have become closely identified with particular images and causes, as well. The Boy Scouts crafted a similar image for raising honorable, patriotic, godly American boys. The Girl Scouts built a similar image — with the help of cookies that are as wellknown as the Salvation Army’s kettles. The Susan G. Komen organization was so successful that, to many people, the phrase “Komen for the Cure” became almost interchangeable with “the fight against breast cancer.” Goodwill is known for its thrift stores. And so on.

But it’s a good idea to look beyond the ringing bell, the pink ribbon and the merit badge.

With the recent controversy over an Arroyo Grande shopping center’s policy barring bell ringers from its property, a closer look at the Salvation Army might be in order.

It may surprise some that the Salvation Army’s primary purpose is Christian evangelism. Its website reads as follows: “Its mission is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human needs in His name without discrimination.”

Some other things worth knowing about the organization:

The Christian Science Monitor reports that 84 percent of its expenses go to funding the programs it operates. Its total income in 2011 was $3.2 million, and its top-paid official earned $216,182 in salary and benefits.

CharityWatch gives the Salvation Army-Western Territory a grade of A-minus. Charity Watch says a “highly efficient” charity should use at least 75 percent of its budget for programs, and the Salvation Army easily reaches that plateau.

Its doctrines include beliefs in “only one God,” “the eternal happiness of the righteous” and “the endless punishment of the wicked.”

The organization says it endeavors to help people of all religions “without discrimination.” Its website states that people receive assistance “according to their need and our capacity to help” and that it “embraces employees of many different faiths and orientations.”

As with the Boy Scouts (but not the Girl Scouts), questions have arisen over the Salvation Army’s stance toward gays and lesbians. In the past, it has issued a position statement stating that “Christians whose sexual orientation is primarily or exclusively same-sex are called to embrace celibacy as a way of life. There is no scriptural support for same-sex unions as equal to, or as an alternative to, heterosexual marriage. Likewise, there is no scriptural support for demeaning or mistreating anyone for reason of his or her sexual orientation. The Salvation Army opposes any such abuse.”

None of this speaks to the policy that bars solicitation in front of stores at Five Cities Center in Arroyo Grande. But whatever one may think about that decision, there are still many charitable options this holiday season. In addition to the Salvation Army, the Food Bank, Goodwill, Catholic Charities and others are seeking donations. And if donors pause for a moment to investigate where their money is going, rather than simply reacting to the sound of a bell, that might not be a bad thing.

Note: You can check out ratings for various charities at the following websites:

SteveProvost is a Tribune copy editor.