Thursday, December 22, 2011

Thoughts on Discrimination and Charity

In our desire for Perfect, how often do we fail to recognize and support Good?

A discussion on Facebook a couple of days ago has been occupying lots of my brain space since. Dan Savage wrote an article decrying the Salvation Army’s discrimination against LGBT people and families in need, and calling on readers to refrain from putting money in the red kettles which support the organization. The article was widely reposted, and the motion seconded by several people I love and respect.

I usually agree with Dan Savage. I think he deserves a humanitarian award for founding the It Gets Better Project in 2010. I think discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is wrong, and I believe in marriage equality for all. But I think a more balanced assessment of the Salvation Army’s work is warranted.

The Salvation Army is an overtly evangelical Christian organization. They are right up front about their foundation in religious beliefs, and they refer to their various programs as their “ministries”. As with many religious organizations, they believe homosexual practice is forbidden by scripture. According to their website, “The Salvation Army believes, therefore, that Christians whose sexual orientation is primarily or exclusively same-sex are called upon to embrace celibacy as a way of life.”

They also condemn the mistreatment or abuse of anyone based on sexual orientation. To quote again “…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.”

That’s not to say the many stories of discrimination are not true. As in any organization, decisions made by local people at the point of service may not comply with the stated policy of the organization. But the stated policy is “…the services of The Salvation Army are available to all who qualify, without regard to sexual orientation.”

Several years ago, my beloved younger brother fell into the dark hole of addiction. He had no money.  He had no health insurance. My mother was able to get him into a Salvation Army residential treatment program, followed by time in a Salvation Army halfway house. It is not an exaggeration to say that these programs saved his life. I will forever be grateful to the Salvation Army for making these services available to my family.

In a perfect world, such services would be available to all, regardless of income, race, gender, sexual orientation or religious belief. This is not a perfect world.

As a privately funded organization, the Salvation Army has every right to impose any criteria they choose on the provision of services. Their overriding mission is the promotion of their interpretation of the Christian religion. In pursuit of that mission, they make decisions about services based on their stated values. While I may disagree with these decisions, I support their right to make them.

We all impose our values on others when we decide whom to help. We all judge. We all discriminate. I know people who will give a dollar to a homeless woman with children, but not to a single, apparently healthy man. Others will happily give food, but not cash, because “they’ll just spend it on drugs.” Every time we make a decision to help or not to help, we are discriminating based on our values and perceptions.

Privately funded organizations have the same right. A free dental clinic for low-income children can decide not to provide services to anyone over the age of 18. A shelter for woman with children can choose to exclude single dads. An employment referral service can decide they will work only with those over age 50, or only with Veterans. And the Salvation Army can choose not to support gay rights.

Is this perfect? No. In a perfect world, there would not be so much need for charitable services.  In a perfect world, those who do need would be able to get the care they need, no questions asked.

In our desire to reach that perfect world, let’s not overlook the imperfect, but good that surrounds us.  The Salvation Army provides essential, life-saving services to many, if not to all. If they were gone tomorrow, would there be alternative, non-discriminatory organizations available to pick up the slack? In our quest to have our LGBT brothers and sisters treated equally, would we deny people like my brother the services they need?

In order to have equal treatment for all, we need to fund organizations that have real equality as a core value.  If you choose to walk past the red kettle, don’t just put the coins back in your pocket. Do your research and find organizations that provide similar services without discrimination. Put your money and time into organizations that share your values, so they have the wherewithal to put those values into practice.

As for me, I’ll continue to be grateful to the Salvation Army and to put money in the kettle in hopes that help will be available for someone else's brother when he needs it. I’ll also donate to secular organizations that promote tolerance and equality. And I’ll defend your right to choose where to put your time and money in accordance with your values and beliefs.

At this cold, dark time of year, may the light and warmth of charity shine on you.  May you share your abundance with those who are less fortunate. And may your heart by merry and bright.


  1. Obviously, you know my views on the Salvation Army :)

    I think we probably see things very similarly but come to different conclusions. I think the salvation army has done a lot of good, but I also think that consumers can change the way private businesses run by taking their money elsewhere and being open about their concerns.

    If there's an option, I would rather support programs that do not discriminate. I give to the united way. My work offers matching programs for them and the United Way lets us choose how our donations are used. This seems like a good way to donate and support causes that are important to me.

    This doesn't mean I can't acknowledge the good work that the Salvation Army does only that for my own personal ethical reasons, I’m not comfortable donating to a program that turns away people for reasons that I feel are unjustified. I wouldn’t support them, no matter how great they are, if they turned away women or people of color, and so I cannot support them for turning away homosexuals in need.

    But as I said yesterday, I’m really happy for your brother and your family and I think your personal experience more than merit your support of the charity. We all have to make tradeoffs with the little money we might be able to set aside to help others. I think it’s fine for people who care to mention their concerns with the charities and fine for people who have first hand experience to stand by the charity if they believe their work merits it.

  2. Thank you! I agree that we frequently loose sight of the good when in search of the perfect and you've written your thoughts down much more eloquently then I could.

  3. During the time I spent with The Salvation Army, I just didn't see the descrimination from the administration that is being referred to in this article. I met with, and recovered with, numerous men who had an alternative lifestyle. Christianity was promoted, shamelessly at times, but was never a requirement for help. I agree whole heartedly with Sandi, my loving sister. Don't just put the coins away!

    As for me, it has been 8 years this february since my last drug or drink. It has been the most amazing 8 years of my life. The past 8 years would never have been possible without the support of my loving family and a loving Higher Power. This journey began at the Salvation Army. For this, I will always be grateful to this organization.


  4. Excellent post! I agree wholeheartedly!

  5. Eloquent, equitable, heartfelt, but I kept waiting for the part about knitting. Perhaps wrapping a scarf (lovingly, of course) around the neck of the bell-ringer, or admiring the mittens on the bell-ringer's hands or guessing the fiber content of the bell-ringer's knitted cap. And I'm so pleased for your brother's recovery under the guidance of this most excellent organization. Thank you for this most excellent post, Sandi!