When soldiers ask me about officership, I reply that they need to be attentive to God’s voice,” states Commissioner Susan McMillan, territorial commander for Canada and Bermuda. “I should know. It happened to me.”
Commissioner McMillan was born to officer parents at the Toronto Grace Hospital.
“So I’ve been part of The Salvation Army from the very beginning,” she smiles.
She accepted Jesus into her heart as a child at Scotian Glen Camp in Nova Scotia and enrolled as a soldier at North Toronto Corps when she was 14.
Why did she become a soldier?
“It just felt like the right thing to do,” the territorial commander replies. “I’d been in The Salvation Army all my life, and I couldn’t wait to become a senior soldier.
“All my close friends were in the Army,” she goes on to say. “I had other friends at school, but their lives seemed to be falling apart. This is where I belonged.”
Commissioner McMillan’s parents were transferred from Toronto to Victoria when she was a teen. There, she finished high school and started working at the district tax office as a stenographer.
“I’d understood exactly what had been said—except I didn’t speak Spanish."“That tells you how old I am, because nobody knows what stenography is anymore,” she laughs.
From there, she was transferred to Montreal and then transitioned to the offices of The Montreal Star, where she worked as a market research analyst.
All the while, Commissioner McMillan continued to be a very involved soldier. “I was a shy person,” she says, “but I worked hard, and I threw myself into activities, such as leading the youth group.”
And that seemed to be enough.
That is, until 1975, when she went on vacation to Mexico.
Her tour group was attending a performance of the Ballet Folklórico de México at the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City.
Right before the performance began, an announcement came over the PA system: “We regret that flash photography will not be permitted during the performance.”
Commissioner McMillan turned to the girl next to her and said, “What a shame.”
“What do you mean?” the girl asked her.
“Well,” she replied, “it’s a shame we can’t take pictures.”
“Oh, I didn’t know you spoke Spanish,” the girl said.
“What?” replied a perplexed Commissioner McMillan.
At that moment, the same announcement was repeated, but in English.
“I realized I’d understood exactly what had been said—except I didn’t speak Spanish,” she recalls. “How could I know that?”
“You Tell Them”
A day or so later, the tour visited the basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, a shrine north of Mexico City that is one of the most important pilgrimage sites for Mexican Catholics. Worshippers often travel the last few kilometres on their knees.
While the tour guide was explaining the significance of the shrine to the tourists, Commissioner McMillan noticed a young woman who was on her knees carrying a baby.
“I could see her knees were bleeding; she’d obviously come a long way.”
“Why doesn’t somebody tell her she doesn’t have to do that?” she thought. “Jesus died so that they can be free. They don’t need to hurt themselves. God doesn’t ask them to do that.”
And then, very clearly, Commissioner McMillan heard, “Why not you? Why don’t you tell them?”
It wasn’t the tour guide or a fellow tourist who said those words.
“I heard God say that to me,” she recalls. “When I said what I said to God in my head, he replied, ‘You tell them.’ ”
That message stayed in her mind and, when she returned from her trip, she was determined to act on God’s message with the vague idea that she might do some volunteer work in a foreign country, or a mission trip.
“I was young, I could study, I could do whatever was needed, but I didn’t know what I needed to do.”
Accordingly, she wrote to the youth and candidates’ secretary.
“What would I need to do,” Commissioner McMillan wrote, “to go and help in Mexico, and how would I need to prepare?”
“You should come to training college,” he replied.
“So I did. And that’s how I was called.”
“I think that becoming an officer must have always been in the back of my mind,” Commissioner McMillan says in retrospect. “Growing up with officer parents, I lived the life of an officer and saw and admired what they did. Probably the idea of volunteering in a place such as Mexico was more of a stall tactic than I wanted to admit at the time.
Very soon after commissioning, the young officer was transferred to Mexico.
From knowing almost no Spanish, within a year she’d moved from being the territorial commander’s secretary to becoming the chief translator and delivering her first sermon in Spanish.
“When asked how I learned so quickly, I replied, ‘It’s a God thing,’ ” she says.
Now, Commissioner McMillan has some advice for those interested in officership, as she once was.
“Take on leadership in your local corps. Go to an officership information weekend. Get somebody to pray for you and with you. And listen to God. Take a step of faith. God’s going to close the door at some point, if it’s not the right thing. So why not try the open door?”
Not Called? is a new series based on the territory’s candidates’ campaign (see sacandidates.ca).