Nov 28, 2012 - Social Studies    14 Comments

Pass the Bucket

I cringe as soon as I hear the bell ringing in front of the grocery store. My kids are primed to be generous, and immediately pester me for pocket change to put in the red bucket. I tell them “no” quietly and, to head off the inevitable “why” that follows, say, “They don’t believe they have to help everyone who comes to them in need, and I don’t want to support that.” I fast-walk the boys into the store and give the bellringer a tight smile.

This routine defies every philanthropic fiber in my being. We take things to Goodwill, we buy poppies from veterans, we buy Girl Scout cookies (okay, that one’s got side benefits). We support public radio and television, we give to our church, we buy ridiculous things from school fundraisers. Lupus, leukemia, lymphoma, lumbago–we give to them all. We collect pennies in UNICEF and Guest At Your Table boxes, which fall apart under the weight of the change every time.

But I will not give one copper penny to the Salvation Army.

SA hits many criteria that appeal to folks who want to do good. They work on first-order needs–feed the starving, shelter the homeless, clothe the poor–often in emergency situations. Especially at the holidays, when so many appeals come from charitable organizations, it can be difficult to prioritize causes, and SA makes it easy: give money here, help people in need. They even use a low-pressure ask, simply ringing a bell, rather than shaking a coffee can in people’s faces.

But SA’s help is given conditionally. If you want a meal, a cot, a coat, you must attend Christian worship. These aren’t gentle ecumenical services, either. You will be told you are full of sin, that your current problems have roots in your inadequate acceptance of Jesus Christ as your personal savior, that repentance and sacrifice are needed, and that only the saving power of the Christian God can take away your temporal suffering. There is fire and there is brimstone. There is even heresy, depending on your Christian theology–SA preaches “Lordship Salvation” which requires constant human effort for salvation.

And all that assumes that they’ve let you in the doors in the first place. SA’s track record for turning away gay and lesbian people in need is well documented, even those in committed partnerships. A British chapter even turned away a naked, injured rape victim because they “only serve men” at their location, despite the organization’s stated policy to make counseling and emergency assistance available to crime victims.

If that doesn’t disturb you enough to pass the pail, consider what happens to some donations. SA has used charitable gifts to support anti-gay legislation in America and abroad. Other SA officials have seen fit to throw away brand-new, donated, Harry Potter toys and books, because they didn’t want to be complicit in turning recipients toward Satan. And still others have simply helped themselves to the largesse they collect for others. We don’t even have a clear idea how much money SA takes in, or how it moves around within the organization, because for most of their operating history, they’ve hidden behind the IRS disclosure shield for churches.

I’ll admit that a big part of my personal problem with this organization comes from our differing views on the definition of “salvation” and how you get there. Militant religion has made me queasy since the first time I understood the words of “Onward, Christian Soldiers.” Never forget that SA stands for Salvation Army, not Salvation Association or Salvation Achievers.

And before their symbol was this: 

it was this: 

I don’t believe anyone needs to be “saved,” and I don’t think scaring and shaming them would do it, even if they did. I believe that good acts are their own reward, and that there should never be a cost for help, especially not one that amounts to emotional extortion in a person’s most powerless moments.

If you really want to do good–and another thing I believe is that everyone really does want to do good–there are so many places that need you. If you feel like freezing your butt off, don’t just stand there ringing a bell–take meals to the homeless and invite them into life-saving shelters on the coldest of nights. If you have a strange attraction to American coinage, collect it for your local food shelf so families can enjoy a special holiday meal. If you want to spread the message of your holy days, help your church or temple with its social justice projects. And if you just don’t know where to start, look right around you. Your neighbors, your friends, your family, you all know someone who’s hurting: a person facing a holiday alone, or hungry, or scared, or without the tools or means to give the children in their lives the wonder and joy so many of us associate with this time of year.

It doesn’t take an army to save people. We can save each other, with our own hands and hearts and wide open eyes.



  • Thanks for this. Just the other day, I awkwardly passed my first ringer at the local store and left feeling more like a grinch than like a principled person. I’m going to share this because I think lots of people don’t know where there coins are going when they donate them to the SA.

  • Thanks for sharing this. I had no idea that this was happening. I’ve already thrown money into the bucket this year, but I won’t be giving any more.

    • You’re so welcome. There’s no shame in what you don’t know, and I was in your place just a year or two ago. Once I went down the rabbit hole a bit further, I reached the point where I just couldn’t support them anymore, and felt like I needed to say something.

  • I understand completely. It is really hard to walk past the bell ringers, but I can’t give them any money despite whatever good they may do in the world. The organization’s positions and practices are just too much at odds with my own beliefs.

    Thanks for explaining this situation so well.

  • Thanks for enlightening me…from someone who was actually referred to them for assistance. Especially glad I didn’t follow through with them now that I’ve seen this…with my luck it would’ve come up that I’m transgender…and I’d have been back at square 1 (or maybe 0) anyway.

    • I’m so glad you didn’t have to deal with the world of hate you might’ve encountered. Every group has good people, so I would hope you’d have found one, but it’s definitely not their policy or preaching to treat LGBT folks with fairness and kindness. I’m so heartened to see the outpouring of support for LGBT shelters, especially for youth, where their whole person is taken care of.

  • Thanks Jessica. I love your posts on reads for tweens – my oldest daughter at 9, is approaching that age. As much as I love the service you provide in those, I absolutely adore you for the issues you fearlessly bring up in posts like this.

    • Those are such kind words, Bob. Thank you. I don’t think of myself as particularly fearless, but I’m a big believer in speaking truth to power, and like it or not, the Salvation Army has a lot of clout in the charity scene. Luckily, kind, creative, open-minded people are giving them a run for the money.

  • Even a group that only helps select people…is still HELPING. Are you saying there are no groups that only help Lesbians? Or only Black people? If a white guy came to a Lesbian help organization would he get a room, would he be treated well. I’m not saying that I agree with their choices, but withholding money from a charitable group for this reason is impractical. Every group you give to only helps a select portion of the population. And it’s not true that every time/ everywhere you are forced to listen to a heavy handed preacher. Some of that money also goes to the people the Salvation Army employs, disabled people, veterans, and people who would otherwise be unable to find work. This is not the time of year to be sharing hate against any group. If you have a problem with their policies by all means, write a letter start a campaign. Or give a donation to an alternate group. But don’t discourage people from giving to a group that has helped so many at a time of year when people are at their most generous.

    • I am in no way suggesting that people not give to charity, but the most effective way to pressure a group to change its policies is to withhold donations to that specific group. I give exactly the same amount to charity now that I don’t put change in the red buckets; I’m just more discerning about giving it to groups that 1) spread their generosity around without so many conditions, and 2) are more transparent about where the money they collect goes. Everyone deserves the full information to make those informed choices, and I’m only speaking for myself. But I know there are some people who don’t know what I’ve learned, and would feel just as uncomfortable as I do with some of the organization’s policies and past actions.

      I hope everyone gives, and gives generously, all year long–I could write pages and pages on organizations doing amazing work with the poor, veterans, and the disabled. But if the Salvation Army is ever going to reflect the loving, open-minded, unconditional generosity I believe Christianity to represent, then refusing them support is a clear way to communicate my displeasure.

  • I agree that the Salvation Army’s practices are very imperfect, and homophobic, discriminatory etc. in many ways

    However, the variability of what each different shelter looks like depends a lot on who is working there. And, it isn’t true that all shelter locations force residents to engage in church services in order to stay there. I worked at a Salvation Army shelter downtown in a major metropolitan city for over a year. There was an optional Wednesday night bible study for residents, but it was poorly attended, and far from required. Besides that, there was literally no mention or pushing of faith from any of the people that residents came into contact with (counselors, case managers, dorm managers etc.). There were crosses hanging on the wall here and there, and clients had access to bibles if they wanted them (if we happened to have a stash of donated ones).

    I agree that many of the Salvation Army’s practices are discriminatory and backwards. However, I point this out to note that not every single shelter is run this way, or through the lens of those discriminatory practices. And there are lots of families staying there who really do need christmas support throughout the holidays.

    I’m not making any judgments about your choosing of who to give to. We all have that choice and power – and I commend you for making well thought out decisions about your gifts. I just mention this to counter your statement about all shelters requiring residents to be religiously shamed…. because it wasn’t the case where I was. I realize this is one shelter out of many..but…

    • I can only be relieved that some shelters don’t make the religious stuff as conditional for help as others do (and thank you so much for your volunteer work). It may also be something that’s changing over time at ground level, to some extent as well, but the executive leadership has been pretty clear about their doctrine.

      Something that I think is really important, if we intend to boycott Salvation Army into changing its policies, other local organizations need to be ready to step up and fill the vacuum for people in need. Rescue missions, churches, temples, food shelves, free clinics, and housing committees need to keep their services strong so that they offer a visible presence in communities as sources of support. My Unitarian Universalist church has added an additional month of service as an overnight shelter for homeless families, something I support with contributions of both money and volunteer hours. I hope everyone who has problems with the way Salvation Army (sometimes) does things will step up too to be part of the balancing equation.

  • Holiday giving is not a zero-sum game, in which money NOT given to the Salvation Army will be blown at the megamall, not the needy. If anything, having a discussion with my children about why we pass up those red kettles has inspired us to seek out MORE ways to give to children and families in our community this season.

    Thanks for this post–I will definitely be sharing it!

  • I gave to the Salvation Army for years before realizing what they were about. I haven’t dropped even a penny into their coffer in a good handful of years now. The bell-ringing and well-wishing seem so cheerful and bright–what a perfect seasonal cover for year-round ugliness.

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