More than 2,000 Salvation Army soldiers and officers refused to be kept away by Hurricane Sandy as they crowded into Countryside Christian Center in Clearwater, Florida (USA Southern Territory) for the Florida Division Soldiers' Rally featuring General Linda Bond. The program represented the best the division has to offer – from band to performing arts, and from vocal selections to cultural expressions.

The General was supported by USA national leaders Commissioners William and Nancy Roberts, territorial leaders Commissioners David and Barbara Jeffrey and divisional leaders Lieut-Colonels Vern and Martha Jewett.

Stirring testimonies were shared by three soldiers, including Corps Sergeant-Major Brian Smith (Orlando, Florida), who told the congregation: "For 30 years I lived under a bridge, a needle stuck in my arm. Then one day I went to the Salvation Army men's lodge for the night. It was there that I heard someone talking about the adult rehabilitation centre. I went there and sat outside, waiting several days for a bed to open. It was worth it because it was there that Christ transformed my life." So complete was Brian's turnaround that last year he was named both the Divisional Man of the Year and the Territorial Man of the Year.

The General rallied the troops in her message. "We need you to sign up and get involved," she said. "Blood and fire soldiers for a battle-ready Army. This is no time for soft service." Responding to her challenge, seekers streamed to the mercy seat, standing or kneeling five deep.

The Salvation Army in St Petersburg, Florida, was opened the year the movement's Founder, William Booth, was promoted to Glory (1912). In 2012 hundreds of Salvationists, friends and well-wishers joined the General to celebrate a centenary of service. The occasion also included the celebration of Lieut-Colonel Bernard Lodge's 100th birthday. The colonel still faithfully takes his place in the band!

General Bond preaches at the soldiers' rally. Above: General Bond cuts the ribbon to open the new Center for Holiness Studies. From left: Commissioners William and Nancy Roberts (USA national leaders), Lieut-Colonel Vern Jewett (Florida Divisional Commander), General Linda Bond, Lieut-Colonel Martha Jewett (Florida Divisional Director of Women's Ministries), Commissioners David and Barbara Jeffrey (USA Southern territorial leaders)

In her message, the General said: "We have an awesome heritage ... We glory in the Lord, knowing what makes The Salvation Army great is the blessing of God. The Army is his idea, from his very heart." She added: "We cannot dream big enough dreams for our future. God will surpass our past."

Soon after arriving in Florida the General dedicated to God the Center for Holiness Studies, the first such institution in The Salvation Army.

The centre, located at Camp Keystone, blossomed from an original idea articulated by the soldiers of the Florida Division following a divisional holiness retreat in 2008. As the vision took shape and was molded by Divisional Commander Lieut-Colonel Vern Jewett, three objectives were created:

1) The development of curriculum for holiness study beginning with basic instruction and "moving deeper into biblical and doctrinal studies on a wide range of holiness topics";
2) Ongoing opportunities for soldiers and corps groups to pursue holiness studies in both individual and group settings;
3) The establishment of an annual holiness institute for soldiers to be hosted at Camp Keystone.

In his opening remarks, Lieut-Colonel Jewett shared that the centre's goal is to "promote holiness of heart as a hallmark of Salvationist life."

The General told the congregation of 200 that "holiness means to be an authentic Christian. It means that Jesus Christ has chosen to enter our flesh and blood in order to live out his life in our personality ... This centre, then, must be more than bricks and mortar. To accomplish God's purpose it must live and breathe and come alive as a place that promotes and demonstrates and allows for the Holy Spirit to do his supreme work in our Army by filling its soldiers."

Following the ribbon cutting the crowd toured the state-of-the-art facility that includes a library and media centre, classrooms and a lecture hall, places for quiet reflection and offices for support staff.

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