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.