Salvation Army vows LGBTs are welcome

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday December 4, 2019
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BART board President Bevan Dufty speaks at the Powell Street station Tuesday to kick off the agency's "Partners for Change" initiative with the Salvation Army. Photo: Courtesy BART
BART board President Bevan Dufty speaks at the Powell Street station Tuesday to kick off the agency's "Partners for Change" initiative with the Salvation Army. Photo: Courtesy BART

Addressing long-standing beliefs that the organization discriminates against LGBT people, Salvation Army officials are attempting to change people's views of the charitable Christian organization as they ramp up their services for homeless individuals in San Francisco and other West Coast cities.

At its annual luncheon held in San Francisco November 20, the agency officially announced its "The Way Out" initiative to double its efforts to house the homeless over the next five years. It is looking at revamping several properties it owns in the city's South of Market district, for instance, by building new facilities on the sites in order to move more people off the streets and into housing.

It is also in talks to strengthen its partnership with the regional BART transit agency by providing outreach services at its stations in San Francisco, which is currently handled by the city's homeless department. BART's oversight board could take up the matter in early 2020, as the Salvation Army is seen as being able to more immediately offer housing and support to those people seeking shelter inside the transit agency's stations.

Tuesday morning BART and the Salvation Army launched what both billed as a "first of its kind partnership" in which the service provider will set up its iconic red kettles inside BART's stations systemwide. Dubbed the "Partners for Change" initiative, the money donated will be used to pay for supportive services for those who seek shelter inside BART stations and on-board trains.

Online reaction to the kettle campaign, which runs through December 24, demonstrated just how entrenched the public's perception is that the Salvation Army is anti-LGBT. People on Twitter blasted BART for teaming with "an explicitly anti-gay organization" and an entity with "such a history of being homophobic & transphobic."

In his first interview with an LGBT newspaper since being named the Salvation Army's USA Western Territory territorial commander in 2017, Commissioner Kenneth G. Hodder told the Bay Area Reporter that anyone is welcome to seek assistance, whether it be for housing or substance use treatment, from the nonprofit services agency.

"If we are going to double our impact upon homelessness, I want to be absolutely sure that everyone knows that the services of the Salvation Army are available to them," said Hodder, who flew up from Southern California with his wife, Jolene, who is also a Salvation Army commissioner, to meet with a reporter and photographer November 22 at the nonprofit's Harbor Light Center, which provides in-patient treatment programs and transitional housing at the SOMA campus.

"The Salvation Army services have always been available to members of the LGBT community, and they always will be, regardless of one's race, sex, religion, identity or orientation, if there is a genuine need," said Hodder. "The only requirement for services of the Salvation Army is our capacity to help."

Hodder was born in San Francisco in 1958 and raised in the city by parents who were also in the Salvation Army Mission Corps. As he wrote in a guest opinion for the B.A.R.'s December 5 issue, if the agency doesn't address the needs of LGBT individuals, "it will be as if we're denying their place in our family. They'll have every reason to flee from us, and we won't be living up to the high calling to which God has brought us."

BART board President Bevan Dufty shakes hands with Harbor Light Center head chef Michael P. Smith during a visit to the center with Commissioner Jolene Hodder and Executive Director Major David Pierce. Photo: Jane Philomen Cleland  

LGBT participants praise program
Three LGBTQ participants of the Harbor Light Center's substance use program spoke separately with the B.A.R. about their experiences in recent years with the Salvation Army. The trio all said they have felt welcomed by Salvation Army officials and staff and have not experienced any discrimination due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.

"I've heard different things like the Salvation Army is just a right-wing Christian organization and it doesn't support the LGBT community. My experience has been the exact opposite," said Kellen Stahl, 65, who is a transgender woman. "I am living proof. They saved my life."

Living in Napa and struggling to accept her gender identity, Stahl turned to alcohol. She first entered Harbor Light, which is a residential program, in 2016 when she decided to begin transitioning her gender. But at her request, she said, she was placed in the men's program.

"I had been fighting it and drinking myself into an early grave until I got here," recalled Stahl, who has been sober for nearly four years. "When I got here I disloathed myself. They nurtured me back to health and guided me in the right direction."

By 2017 she had moved to Nevada to live off the grid but that summer returned to Harbor Light. That June she was featured in a video posted to a website the Salvation Army had launched to address the LGBT community directly about its policies and programs.

"I feel totally supported by the other residents and especially the staff," said Stahl, who now works as an outreach specialist for a senior service provider and is apartment hunting in the city. "Even though they are a Christian organization, you are free to find your own faith and belief system however you wish to believe. I don't belong to any organized religion; I am spiritual rather than religious, and they honor that fully."

Pat Robinson, 30, who is gender nonbinary, told the B.A.R. their being placed in a Christian-run program was exactly what they needed in order to deal with their drug use. The Ohio native and Air Force veteran arrived in San Francisco almost six years ago and ended up homeless and using various substances, including methamphetamine.

In fact, the B.A.R. covered Robinson's trial in 2016 after they were arrested in the Castro on charges that included threatening people with a knife. The prosecutor in the case referred to Robinson as a "nuisance" well-known in the city's LGBT district as several businesses had to call the police in order to remove Robinson from their establishments.

Eventually, all the charges were dropped, said Robinson, when they agreed to enter the Harbor Light Center. At the time, they recalled thinking the Salvation Army "was a store."

Robinson, now a personal trainer at Fitness SF, has been in the program off and on three times over the last three years, returning for good in January 2018. Nearly two years later Robinson is not only sober, they left the program December 1 to move into a Tenderloin apartment with their boyfriend, who was also a Harbor Light participant.

Miranda Smith, 31, who is two spirit and a lesbian, left the Navajo Nation in New Mexico 29 months ago in order to seek help for her substance use and ended up at Harbor Light two years ago. Her mom paid for her one-way train ticket to San Francisco from Gallop, New Mexico after Smith acknowledged that if she remained on their reservation she would continue to use methamphetamines.

Initially, she was enrolled in The Friendship House, a treatment center specifically for Native Americans. When she disobeyed its rules, she was forced to leave the program, ended up homeless for several days, and then found her way to the Harbor Light Center in December 2017.

"I didn't want to go back to the reservation. I felt my sobriety wasn't strong enough and I knew I would be using on the reservation," explained Smith, who reached out to people she had met in the local Native American community for assistance.

She is studying to become a nurse specialist at City College of San Francisco. This year in June, to promote the Salvation Army having a booth at the annual Pride LGBT celebration, Smith posted on her Facebook account about the agency's embrace of LGBT people. She told the B.A.R. she was surprised by the negative reactions it generated.

"A lot of Native Americans from the two-spirited organizations had said they were surprised the Salvation Army was supporting the gay community," said Smith, who responded to the comments to explain she was a participant of one of its programs. "I said I was there to support myself and people who were two-spirited. They were glad and said it was a big change."

Both Robinson and Smith, who became fast friends in the program, told the B.A.R. they never felt afraid to come out while at the Harbor Light Center. But they acknowledged that the program might not be the right fit for other LGBT people because of it being run by a Christian organization.

"For a long time I didn't love myself," said Robinson. "I only learned to love myself by being here."

Such assistance that LGBT people find through the Salvation Army is why gay District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman stopped by the organization's annual turkey carving event ahead of Thanksgiving, despite the misgivings he personally has about the service provider.

"San Francisco has a complicated relationship with many religious organizations, and the Salvation Army is one of them. I do not, as a gay man, love its positions on same-sex marriage but the reality is the Salvation Army is one of the most important provider of substance use treatment and shelter to homeless folks in San Francisco," said Mandelman. "Many, many queer people have turned their lives around with the help of the Salvation Army. I have spoken with representatives of the Salvation Army about my concerns with (its) position on LGBTQ equality. I also recognize they are a critical partner and provide vital services to queer people and others."

In response, Mandelman said the agency has pointed out its anti-discrimination policies, such as allowing same-sex couples with children to live together in its housing for families.

"They reassured me they do not discriminate, that they are open to all, and they do not make religious beliefs or subscribing to their particular religious views a requirement for accessing their services," he said. "They understand where they are operating, in San Francisco, and do not have a problem with me as a gay man or the community I represent. They want to work together."

District 8 Supervisor Rafael Mandelman, left, talks with San Francisco Fire Chief Jeanine Nicholson as they joined Mayor London Breed and SFPD Deputy Chief Michael Redmond at Salvation Army turkey carving.. Photo: Rick Gerharter  

Past history
Nine years ago the B.A.R. editorialized against its readers and others supportive of the LGBT community from dropping any money into the Salvation Army's ubiquitous red kettles during the Christmas season. The editorial noted that the agency's website said gays needed to be celibate and that there was no scriptural support for same-sex marriages being equal to opposite-sex marriages.

"While it says that its services are available to all who qualify, without regard to sexual orientation, the bottom line is that the Salvation Army has used its considerable reach and long history to fight against marriage equality and equal rights for all," noted the editorial.

Many within the local LGBT community still recall how, in 1997, the Salvation Army dropped its $3.5 million contract with San Francisco so as not to have to adhere to a newly enacted city ordinance that agencies funded with taxpayer dollars had to offer the same health benefits to its LGBT employees in domestic partnerships as it did to its married heterosexual employees.

In 2001, the agency's Western Territory announced it would offer domestic partner benefits after a change in policy approved at the national level. But it quickly reversed course due to heated criticism from conservative Christian groups.

It took another six years before the Salvation Army began offering domestic partner benefits in its Western Territory, which is comprised of the 13 Western United States, including California. Today, the agency notes on its website that it does not discriminate against anyone and that it does not lobby the federal government on any issue.

It also states, "At times, the Salvation Army has joined other religious organizations in solidarity on issues like religious liberty and the traditional definition of marriage."

For that reason, many LGBT people continue to view the Salvation Army as an anti-LGBT organization. It was painted as such in numerous news reports last month when it was learned that the Atlanta-based Chick-fil-A had dropped its support in 2019 for two organizations — the Salvation Army and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes — that have been criticized for their positions on LGBT rights.

That prompted national Salvation Army officials to issue a statement calling such descriptions inaccurate. Hodder told the B.A.R., "I would say that is absolutely the case. The Salvation Army is not anti-LGBTQ, the Salvation Army is not anti anyone."

Meeting LGBT leaders
The news about Chick-fil-A, which last year gave $115,000 toward the Salvation Army's Angel Tree program that delivers toys to children during the holidays, broke the same day that Hodder had flown to Dallas to meet with Shannon Minter, a transgender man who is legal director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights based in San Francisco. Hodder had befriended another national LGBT leader, Evan Wolfson, when the two attended law school at Harvard. Wolfson, prior to the recent news coverage about the Salvation Army, had offered to introduce Hodder to other LGBT leaders, leading to his sit down with Minter.

"So as we come to Christmas, and as the public's attention turns to the Salvation Army, we can anticipate that there will be a number of supporters who step forward like our good friends at BART, who are serving a tremendous role in helping us get the message out. And we know that there will be questions," said Hodder. "So we want to respond to all of that because this is an opportunity to tell everyone, 'Come to the Army, where you'll be loved and cared for and treated with respect and dignity.' That's really the genesis of this, and I've shared this with Shannon Minter, and I've shared this with Evan Wolfson, as you know, and I hope to have a number of additional meetings in the days to come."

In a phone interview with the B.A.R. shortly after his meeting with Hodder, Minter acknowledged that he was unaware that the Salvation Army had adopted a non-discrimination policy stating it would not deny service to anyone due to their sexual orientation or gender identity.

"Obviously, I wanted to know if they would serve transgender people, especially now that HUD is rolling back anti-discrimination policies and other anti-LGBT actions being taken by the Trump administration," said Minter, referring to the federal Housing and Urban Development Department. "The Salvation Army is such a big provider of substance use services. It came as news to me and I was thrilled to hear about their non-discrimination policy."

Minter, in turn, helped facilitate an introduction between Hodder and the B.A.R. At the same time BART board Director Bevan Dufty, a gay man about to step down as president, had suggested to local Salvation Army officials in San Francisco that they also speak to the paper about their policies, services, and plans for expansion.

Dufty, a former city supervisor and mayoral aide, recalled that local representatives of the agency sought him out when he oversaw homeless services in the administration of the late mayor Ed Lee.

"It wasn't an easy fit for this gay Jewish guy. They extended a hand to me, and we spent an hour together and I was surprised by how open they were talking about the LGBT community," said Dufty. "Had they not sought me out, I don't know how long it would have taken for me to meet with them. I wasn't connected to them."

Over the last seven years Dufty said he has gotten to know the local Salvation Army and its programs better and recommended clients seek out its services. He has also met quite a few LGBT individuals who support the nonprofit and think highly of its programs.

It is partly why he believes BART should contract with the Salvation Army to do outreach to the homeless people in its stations and on its trains. It would be able to offer more services and more immediately than the city could, argued Dufty.

"We don't want to continue having people engage people, we want to help people. The Salvation Army is a great option to do it," he said. "We wanted to understand if there were issues that would make it impossible to work with them. But so far it looks promising, and people will see more things happening to help people in the stations."

Questions may remain
Nonetheless, Dufty acknowledged that some LGBT people continue to question how supportive a religious-based agency can be of the community. That was proved by the Twitter reaction he and BART received this week via social media.

"The Salvation Army recognizes the values we have in San Francisco and sees themselves in being an ally and working with the LGBTQ community," said Dufty, who also met with the Hodders while they were in town to speak with the B.A.R. "They are a tough sell in some ways to the LGBT community because of the ways organized religions and particularly devout religious leaders have weaponized queer people. And so I think that's one element.

"And the Salvation Army hasn't really figured out how to go out and be more affirmative and change the perception it has among LGBT people," added Dufty.

At its luncheon last month the Salvation Army invited a number of local officials working to address the city's homeless and housing issues to speak on a panel about their efforts. Among them was gay state Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), who said it was the first time the agency had asked him to address it.

"The Salvation Army has a significant presence in the Tenderloin and provides a lot of services to poor people, the homeless, and people facing mental health challenges. I know there has been a challenging history with the Salvation Army and I definitely acknowledge that," said Wiener. "They are providing a lot of good services in the Tenderloin, and we need all the help we can get."

None of his LGBT constituents has expressed problems when turning to the Salvation Army for assistance, said Wiener, who stressed if anyone has they should contact his office. He expressed support for the agency's new initiative to address homelessness while at the same time acknowledging it has a "complicated" past in terms of LGBT issues.

"Some of the history with the Salvation Army is problematic," said Wiener. "My hope is the organization is truly changing because they provide some great services. We need to make sure those services are available to everyone."

Hodder shared with the B.A.R. a card that every Salvation Army bell ringer is being given this year to handout to people who inquire about its LGBT policies. Similar in size to business cards, they explain the agency's non-discrimination policies and direct people to visit a website — — that Salvation Army USA set up a few years ago to directly address the LGBT community.

"As you know, it's always a challenge to get a message out. So we know we have to redouble our efforts in that regard," he said. "So, our hope, and our plan, is that as a consequence of The Way Out, that's one thing we'll be able to do."

When asked if the Salvation Army continues to be against same-sex marriage, Hodder responded that the agency isn't "anti anyone, I should say, we are for everyone," and doesn't advocate against anything.

"The Salvation Army advocates for people. We don't oppose anything, we endorse things that help people," said Hodder. "The Salvation Army has a mission statement which is very simple: to proclaim the gospel, to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ, and meet human needs in his name, without discrimination. So that is why the Salvation Army serves everyone."

In terms of the local Salvation Army apologizing for how it initially reacted when San Francisco adopted its equal benefits ordinance, Hodder replied he didn't know since he wasn't stationed in the city at the time.

"I don't know if any such apology was ever issued but I can tell you this — the Salvation Army, like any individual, and any organization that is responsive to people, grows and develops and learns," said Hodder.