When people think of what constitutes a church, a list of criteria comes to mind: pews, stained glass, hymns, Bibles. It is for that reason that few people realize The Salvation Army is not just a social-services organization, but a full-on Christian church. And who could blame them? The average exposure a person gets of The Salvation Army is in the form of a thrift store. So where's the link between the second-hand store and the church?

The Salvation Army - Salvationist.ca - The Chirch Behind the Thrift Store The Salvation Army church in Sherbrooke, Que.

“To Listen and to Serve”
According to Captain Claude Dagenais, the pastor at the Salvation Army branch in Sherbrooke, Que., the connection lies in the church's dedication to the idea of work.

“Money is not our master, it is our servant,” he says, explaining that The Salvation Army holds service for the community, by the community, at its very core. “The spirituality of the church is a simple one, concentrated not on gathering membership but on preaching the gospel in a simple and straightforward way to those who need it the most.

“It takes wisdom to walk by a person panhandling in the streets, maybe drunk, and see him as a man that God loves,” he continues, “but the reality is that Christ died for him.”

Though the church is unconventional compared to other long-established denominations, with its military-styled structure and service-first approach, The Salvation Army is hardly a newcomer in the world of Christian communities. Its beginnings were on the streets of Victorian England in 1865, when co-founders William and Catherine Booth walked away from conventional churches in order to serve the poor, homeless and destitute of East London.

Perhaps not surprisingly, considering the name, The Salvation Army focuses its work on the practice of saving people's souls. Its members believe distinctly in heaven for the righteous and hell for the sinner but, Captain Claude clarifies, the church is not about forcing people to walk any particular path.

“People know they need to change their ways,” he says. “We're just here to listen and to serve.”

The Salvation Army - Salvationist.ca - The Chirch Behind the Thrift Store Husband-and-wife team Captains Claude Dagenais and Anne-Marie Dagenais with volunteers who come in once a week to help in the kitchen

Tearing Down Walls
“The Salvation Army are servants of the community,” Captain Claude says, “and the officers of the church hierarchy commit themselves fully to the work of serving the poor and the destitute.” Though there are many ranks within the church, from a basic lieutenant right up to the elected General of the entire international church, he explains that the rankings only denote experience and responsibility, not pay.

Though people often associate The Salvation Army with its commercial operations, the Sherbrooke pastor notes that, right now, he probably gets a larger allocation of pay from the church than the international leader, General André Cox, because he has a family with children under 18. “The whole point,” he continues, “is to ensure that community leaders have the needs of their families covered so that they can commit their time and energy more fully to their community.”

The Salvation Army church in Sherbrooke meets on Sundays at 10:30 a.m., but Captain Claude emphasizes that most of the community's work takes place outside of the 30-40 minutes of gathering each week. Many people gather before the Sunday service for what he calls “B.C.M.”: Bible, coffee and muffins. Still others gather for the weekly lunch that takes place afterward.

“The Salvation Army and food just go together,” he says, expressing that the whole experience is built around making connections with individuals who often have nowhere else to turn and have built massive walls of dependency and mistrust around fragile selves.

The Salvation Army - Salvationist.ca - The Church Behind the Thrift Store Captains Claude and Anne-Marie are guided by the biblical injunction: "Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters" (Romans 14:1)

Answers to Needs
Though Captain Claude now speaks from the position of local community leader, he started out his journey on the other side of the service counter. Though more than two decades have passed since he found The Salvation Army, he explains, it sometimes doesn't feel so long ago that he was a drug addict living on the streets.

“All I needed was to know what it felt like to be loved,” he says, adding that he has now been with the church long enough to see others come into the store to do community service, only to gradually rise to the point of having significant responsibilities within the church community. “These are people living day to day with the whole weight of society on their backs.”

Captain Claude boils the work of The Salvation Army down to one simple formula: “I love God. God loves the poor,” he states. “You do the math.” As simple as that concept might be, working with the poor in any community is not without its challenges.

“We couldn't do this without community support,” Captain Claude says, adding that a number of churches in the region provide key support at holiday times. Though the church has a large number of material concerns, he also says that the church believes that when God is needed, God will appear, meaning that in situations of great need, an answer presents itself.

Shifting his thinking to the matter of spiritual challenges the church faces, he says that the ever-present struggle is the walk toward “holiness” and the push to keep people out of their comfort zones in serving the community.

“Nothing happens in your comfort zone,” the pastor says with a smile. “There is always a need to serve.”

(Reprinted from The Sherbrooke Record, September 22, 2015)

(Photos: Gordon Lambie/The Sherbrooke Record)

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