In September 1955, a young married couple and their children, ages three, two and one, walked into The Salvation Army’s Jubilee Congress at the Capitol Theatre in Regina. They had no connection to the Army, were not Christians and did not go to church. But they walked out as saved people.

Now, 68 years later, Salvation Army service and a passion for helping others still run in the family. Extracts from their journals over a lifetime of ministry, shared with Salvationist by their daughter, Major Karen Hoeft, executive director at Regina Waterston Ministries and divisional public affairs officer, Prairie Division, reveal the enduring faith that inspired three generations of service. 

A Series of Miracles

In the 1950s, Bill and Gertie McFarlane, ages 27 and 25 respectively, lived on a farm in Saskatchewan with their three children, John, Gord and Deb. They weren’t churchgoers. Gertie grew up in a Lutheran family and Bill had never gone to church, though he read the Bible and sought to understand what Scripture said.

One September Sunday, after visiting Regina for supper at the old Bus Depot, the family of five left to go back to the farm but were rerouted due to a road closure on Victoria Avenue. Instead, they went north on Scarth Street where they saw Salvationists in uniforms entering the Capitol Theatre in large numbers. They went to see what was going on.

“We were just on time, seven o’clock. ‘Praise the Lords,’ ‘Amens,’ ‘Hallelujahs,’ clapping hands; everybody was happy,” writes Gertie in a handwritten testimony from the mid-1960s.

During the service, two of the children grew restless and Gertie took them out into the lobby. When she returned, she sat at the back separate from Bill and their son, Gord.

Bill and Gord spent the remainder of the service by themselves, sitting near an elderly woman from the Maritimes. “I remember very little of her. She begged and pleaded with me to go forward, but I had said no and that was final for the night. I would think about it and come back at a more convenient time,” writes Bill in his testimony, dated August 1982. “But when the band played O Boundless Salvation, my feet got up and carried me down the aisle.

“A series of miracles, God led us to a special place at a special time. I left the meeting with joy and peace because I found what I had been looking for,” writes Bill, who accepted Christ that night at the mercy seat.

Bill did not know it at the time, but his wife had gone forward at that meeting as well. “The wonderful thing about it was neither of us knew that the other had accepted Christ until the meeting was over,” writes Gertie. “We had never been to an Army meeting before and we knew the Lord had drawn us to this congress for a special purpose—to save us.”

Gertie and Bill became senior soldiers at their home corps, Regina Citadel, in 1955, only a few months after they both accepted Christ at congress

A Family Legacy

Following the congress, their family and friends didn’t understand why Bill and Gertie had made this decision. “We didn’t have the same interests anymore, and our lives seemed dull to them. But to us it was a full and happier life,” writes Gertie.

The McFarlanes became Salvation Army soldiers, and in 1958, when the corps in Indian Head, Sask., needed someone to fill in, Bill and Gertie became envoys.

“Dad always took leadership roles in the different corps we went to. Mom was a Sunday school teacher,” says MajorJohn McFarlane, the oldest of Bill and Gertie’s seven children and a retired officer. “Growing up, we were quite active in the Army. I started in the band when I was eight. We were junior soldiers and in the youth group. Our Sundays were busy.”

Major John was commissioned in 1980 as part of the Proclaimers of Salvation Session. After finishing his master’s degree in health administration, he worked as an assistant at Ottawa Grace Hospital where he eventually became executive director.

“I kept telling my session-mates I had a bigger congregation than they did with all our patients, their families and the hospital staff,” says Major John. “I had an opportunity to minister to people in a different way besides preaching. When they come into the hospital, most people are at a point where they are in need. I was walking alongside people, meeting them at that point.”

We knew the Lord had drawn us to this congress for a special purpose—to save us." - Gertie McFarlane

Gertie is recognized for the third time as a member of the Fellowship of the Silver Star as her daughter, now Mjr Karen Hoeft, is commissioned at Toronto’s Massey Hall in 1987. Two of Gertie’s sons were also commissioned as Salvation Army officers

A Gifted Place

Like Major John, Major Karen Hoeft, the second youngest of the seven children, also pursued ministry with The Salvation Army. She developed a passion for social service work at an early age. Her father, Bill, volunteered at the Waterston Centre men’s shelter in Regina for many years, and each Sunday, her parents would invite men from the centre home for a roast beef lunch.

“We were a very poor family, and this was our only main meat meal a week, but my parents brought these men into our home to share it with us. Some of them remained family friends. In fact, my father-in-law was one of those men who came through a Salvation Army addiction program,” says Major Karen. “That was my parents’ journey. They walked with people that many others didn’t pay attention to.”

At eight years old, Major Karen experienced God’s call during an open-air service when she felt somebody tap her on the shoulder. “Don’t quit doing this,” she heard them say, but when she looked back, nobody was there.

Today, Major Karen serves in Regina with her husband, Major Al Hoeft, who is now the divisional secretary for public relations and development and divisional director of emergency disaster services, Prairie Division, and executive director at the Regina Waterston Ministries. As officers, Majors Hoeft have continued operating shelters and other urban ministries, focusing on sustaining The Salvation Army’s mission through social services.

“I am a Salvationist of Salvationists. I’ve been on the front lines for 35 years operating shelters, corps, a correctional facility and detox program, and now I work in government relations,” says Major Karen. “The Salvation Army has a gifted place in community. My passion is to walk in that space that has been gifted to us and be that transforming influence.”

The Next Generation!

In 2022, Lieutenant Nathanael Hoeft, the son of Majors Al and Karen, was commissioned in the Messengers of Reconciliation Session. Growing up in The Salvation Army, he was exposed to a mission-focused life and shaped by the values of hope, service, dignity and stewardship. Involved in corps activities from a young age, such as youth group, the worship team and band, Lieutenant Nathanael developed in corps leadership by leading Bible studies, co-leading children’s ministries and organizing sporting events in his community and congregation.

Now, currently appointed as corps officer in Williams Lake, B.C., alongside his wife, Lieutenant Jessica Hoeft, Lieutenant Nathanael leads the church and food bank, and runs breakfast and lunch programs, a large drop-in centre and a thrift store.

“I love building relationships with people, helping them feel valued, at ease and loved in an environment that is not always filled with these qualities,” says Lieutenant Nathanael. “I hope that with these relationships, we can help break down barriers of distrust that many people have with the church, and we can share the loving nature of God.”

Following the influence of his parents’ ministry, and with various other family members interconnected through the Army, Lieutenant Nathanael hopes to continue the transformative work entrusted to him and to pass this along to his children. His 10-year-old son, Luke, was enrolled as a junior soldier in 2022 and is already considering what life might look like as a Salvation Army officer when he grows up.

“The Salvation Army is like a family tradition,” says Luke. “To me, being a junior soldier is a step closer to being with God.”

Going Forward

“The reason my parents decided to join The Salvation Army was because they saw The Salvation Army making a difference in the community,” says Major Karen. “Our power is not that we’re known as a church. We love God and we love people, and we are built to make a difference.”

As the streets of Toronto once again fill with Salvation Army uniforms for this year’s INSPIRE Conference and Congress, Major Karen reflects on what it means to her own story. She believes that the uniform she wears signifies something greater than just church or family history—it means being a trusted voice in the community, a leader and a friend to people from all walks of life. “A congress is not to celebrate who we are but how we go forward and continue on the journey of helping others. That’s my generational story.” 

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On Tuesday, May 16, 2023, Deb Runtz said:

How appropriate to see my dedication picture today! Today Mom would have turned 93. We miss her! My children are also serving the Lord, just not with The Salvation Army. Matthew is volunteering at his church with the electronics and co-ordinating the Sunday School, while working at Waterton House here in Regina. Anja is working in Medicine Hat as a praise and worship leader with Global Prayer House, a YWAM (Youth with A Mission) base. They have been co-ordinating and are over halfway through a 40 days (24/7) Prayer and Praise worship there, praying for revival in their city. God has blessed us over the years!

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