'Twas the Week Before Christmas...

            …And all through the corps;
            The gifts were all ready,
            Less than nine days more!

Captains Philip & Charity Bender stand in the chapel of the Huntingdon, PA Corps which was gutted by fire one week before Christmas.

Captains Philip and Charity Bender were “up to their eyeballs” serving in Huntingdon, Pennsylvania a mere nine days before Christmas. This is typical for Salvation Army officers across the nation involved in the annual onslaught of Christmas—what with kettles, toy distributions, food baskets and generally reaching out to those in need of hope during the holiday season.

What isn’t typical is a phone call that came late in the afternoon of December 17 last year, with what is surely a corps officer’s worst nightmare—the Salvation Army building was on fire!

“I was driving from another part of the county,” recalls Captain Philip, “when my son called me and frantically says, ‘Dad, I just heard The Salvation Army is on fire!’ I didn’t know which building (there are a couple of structures on the Army’s property)—so I called my wife, who was ringing bells at Walmart and told her to pack [the stand] up and that I’d pick her up in a few minutes.”

The soldiers of the Huntingdon, PA Corps consider the charred cross that somehow survived the fire to be a sign that God is always with them.

By the time the Benders got to the corps, the entire chapel was engulfed. Held back by the firefighters until it was safe to approach, Captain Phil could see the front door wide open and what appeared to be waterfalls cascading inside the chapel.

“Our hearts sank because all of the toys, clothing and food baskets were sorted and readied to give away down there in the basement,” Captain Charity says.

Word spread quickly through the borrough of about 8,000. Many volunteers showed up that evening—firemen, police officers, soldiers, advisory board members, Army supporters—to offer what help they could.

In true Salvation Army fashion, the corps soldiers began handing out drinks to the firemen and other emergency personnel who were on hand. This corps actually served at their own disaster!

“With the fire finally put out, they all formed a line to pass hand-to-hand everything that was in the basement—and our worst fears were confirmed. Everything was ruined!”Captain Phil recalls.

Two television news crews covered the event, as did the local newspaper.

That awful night, the Benders had no idea what they should do next; but the good people of Huntingdon County (pop. 46,000) knew—and so did the Lord.

“The fire companies of both Huntingdon and Mount Union offered to collect toys to replace the ones we’d lost,” Captain Phil says. “Other groups collected food baskets, and many people bought new clothing from area stores for distribution for families during our harsh winters.”

In fact, the captain adds, "someone told me that we couldn’t get clothing from Walmart. ‘Why not?’ I asked. Because the shelves at Walmart and many other stores were cleaned out by people buying coats and other items to bring to us!”

The story of the fire that threatened Christmas for Huntingdon County went viral on Facebook. Monetary donations and prayers poured in from as far away as Sweden.

A local warehouse owner offered his facility rent free for the distribution.

Huntingdon County school districts brought their students to the new distribution center to help out.

Giant Food Stores provided scores of gift cards.

“We ended up distributing more than we would have been able before the fire!” Captain Phil exclaims. “It’s like something out of It’s A Wonderful Life!”

Best of all, the community is lined up to help again this Christmas.

Fire investigators determined that faulty wiring beneath the chapel platform started the blaze, resulting in a total loss. The building has since been gutted and renovations continue.

“We give God the glory for this Christmas miracle,” he says.


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