"These are our people"
Lt. Colonel Ron Busroe, National Community Relations and Development Secretary, discusses how the Red Kettle started 126 years ago and now brings assistance to more than 4 million people annually
War Cry: How did The Salvation Army Christmas Assistance begin?
Ron Busroe: Before there was something called The Salvation Army, William Booth took his very young son, Bramwell, with him to walk among the poor on Christmas Day in East London. Rather than seeing a holy day observed, they found people gambling, getting drunk, using all kinds of profanity and prostitutes working the streets. When they finished, the elder Booth turned to his son and said, “These are our people.”
That same spirit animated the early Army, so that serving God while particularly focusing on the poor became a driving force. When the first kettle went out in San Francisco 125 years ago, it was not so much to raise money but to feed those affected by a dockworkers’ strike. The kettles were not envisioned as something for Christmas. That came later.
The big change came with Evangeline Booth. She used the kettles to publicize and raise money for a mass Christmas dinner at Carnegie Hall in New York City aimed at feeding 25,000 people. Salvation Army corps across the country mirrored this effort in their own communities. Kettles became synonymous with Christmas along with helping the poor. Later, toys and food parcels were added as the Army expanded its efforts.
WC: How many people will The Salvation Army help this Christmas season?
RB: In excess of four million people will be helped during the Christmas season.
WC: What are the other services that will be provided?
RB: Children not adopted through the Angel Tree will be assisted through toyshops. Families will be given food baskets. Beginning on Thanksgiving, and then on Christmas Day, many homeless will be served a nice meal. People will be visited in nursing homes and other institutions. There are just so many different programs.
WC: What have been the most significant developments over the last few years in Salvation Army Christmas work?
RB: The Angel Tree. When [Lt. Colonels] Charlie and Shirley White started it in Lynchburg, Virginia, the idea was to get some new coats and winter clothes for children. It has now expanded to providing assistance to over a million children in the United States. The value of those clothes and toys is $50 to $75 million. That means that funds raised can be used for other services during the Christmas season and beyond.
WC: What about fundraising?
RB: Online fundraising has shown significant growth over the past five years, but we’re still tied to that iconic kettle and that’s important. We’ll raise somewhere between $140 and $150 million in the kettles this year. It’s still a key way for The Salvation Army to raise money, to engage volunteers and to remind people to give. Some people see that, go online and give by credit card. Some will see it and will go home and write a check and mail it to us.
WC: Why do you think the kettles still work?
RB: Because it’s such an easy way to give. It’s an immediate response. You reach into your pocket, pull out what you’ve got and you put it in the kettle. People trust The Salvation Army. They see the shield and think: these people are helping people.
One of our concerns is that in the last three years we’ve seen a decline in retail traffic during the Christmas season. Retail income continues to go up, but retail traffic is going down. People aren’t making as many trips to the store. If they only pass the kettle one time, then they’re not going to double up on how much they give. How do we expand people’s opportunity to give?
WC: When someone goes online and gives, what happens to that donation?
RB: Within 24 to 48 hours it’s in a bank account in the territory where the person wanted it to go. For instance, [if you] live in Alexandria, Virginia and go online today to give a donation, because of your zip code it comes to The Salvation Army right here in Alexandria, Virginia.
WC: What is your best Christmas memory?
RB: I have a number of them. My very first contact with The Salvation Army was in 1970 as a bell ringer. I stood on the street corner in New York City in front of Lord & Taylor.
I remember in Ft. Lauderdale a young man, about 14 years old, showed up at the toyshop. Only adults are normally allowed in the toyshop, but he came explaining that his mother was working and that this was the appointment time. He was supposed to pick up the toys for his little sister. He came through and picked up the toys but because he was too old there was nothing for him. But he didn’t want anything. We took the opportunity to just say to him, “Here’s something for you.” That was a special memory.
WC: What do you wish more people understood about The Salvation Army Christmas?
all about God’s love for us. Christmas is about the fact that God sent His own
Son into the world. That’s the greatest gift. If God loved us enough to
send His own Son, we ought to love each other. If we love each other we ought to help take care of those who are the most vulnerable. What better time to
do that than at Christmas?