Do Something!

· Ethics,Human Dignity

I have a unique role in The Salvation Army. The Ethics Centre is a think tank that resources The Salvation Army on ethical matters from a faith perspective. Our work is relevant to the current context and very rewarding.

We have a problem though. It seems that few people understand what we do.

It was the end of the day. The sky was darkening. I was the only one left in the office. And I had just starting packing up when I heard a forceful knock on our streetside glass door. I went down the hall to answer it and found a woman standing on the sidewalk.

She was a solid, short figure, dressed for the cold. I could see that she was missing some teeth. She probably looked older than she was. A white plastic shopping bag served as a purse. Clearly, she was down on her luck and probably had been for a while.

“Hello, may I help you?” I asked.

“Are you Heart and Stroke?” she asked.

“No, we’re not the Heart and Stroke Foundation. This is The Salvation Army Ethics Centre.”

“Didn’t Heart and Stroke used to be here?”

“Possibly. We moved into this space just over a year ago.”

She looked both confused and commanding.

“I thought Heart and Stroke was here. Maybe the next office over?”

“No, they’re not Heart and Stroke either. Is there something I can help you with?”

“Well, I’m looking for Heart and Stroke. I’m looking for volunteer opportunities.” She shuffled a bit. “Do you have any?”

Phone calls and visits from people expecting a food bank or a shelter were frequent at the Ethics Centre. Our administrative coordinator dealt with these requests skillfully. But she had gone home about twenty minutes ago.

“No, I’m sorry, we don’t have any volunteer positions in this office. However, if you try contacting the shelter, they might have some more information for you.”

“The shelter? Where’s that?”

“Why don’t you come into my office. I’ll get you the address and phone number.”

We proceeded to do just that. I acted swiftly, distracted by the fact that I had to get to the daycare down the street to pick up the kids. My husband always met us there with our one-car-family car. I knew he had an evening meeting and would be miffed if I didn’t arrive on time.

The lady dropped her bag on my desk and made herself comfortable in a chair. When I handed her a slip of paper, she tucked it away in the bag as if its jumbled contents were nicely ordered.

I walked her back down the hall toward the door. “I’m sorry I can’t be of further help.”

She paused at the end of the hall. “What did you say you were called?”

“We’re The Salvation Army Ethics Centre,” I replied, opening the door for her. She stood in the threshold.

“Ethics Centre? What’s that? What do you do here?”

“Well, primarily we focus our work internally for The Salvation Army. We help The Salvation Army operate more ethically.”

She looked astonished. “The Salvation Army is unethical?”

“No,” I responded quickly. “Well, I don’t like to think so. But there are a lot of ethical challenges when it comes to serving people who need help.”

“Ethics. Does that mean you help people out with ethical problems?”

“Well, yes, it does. Much of our work impacts others in an indirect way.”

“My apartment is really small and cramped. It’s infested with vermin. And I’m having trouble getting out of it.”

“Well, again, you might want to see someone else about that. The Salvation Army is a big organization with lots of different kinds of services. And that is not the kind of service that we provide here. This is really. . . a thinking space.” I was pleased with my choice of words, sure they would get my point across.

But the lady sidled her way back inside the office. I closed the door to the frigid air. “So what do you do? I’d like to volunteer, and there used to be some group in this building that knitted shawls and blankets, you know? Can I do that here?”

“No, I’m sorry, we don’t host groups like that.”

“Well, what do you do?”

I spent a few more minutes trying to illustrate the work we do – facilitating workshops, teaching, researching social justice issues that pertain to Salvation Army ministry – but to no avail. And as the lady gave up and exited, I felt like I had somehow failed. I felt like I hadn’t convinced her that the things we do are productive and relevant.

There’s a story – we could call it lore – from the late 19th century in the east end of London. The Salvation Army’s founder, William Booth, was inspired to unite church ministry and social ministry when he saw men sleeping in the streets. In conversation with his son, who held a primary leadership role in The Salvation Army, his response came down to two words: “Do something!” What followed was the development of a shelter to house those men.

I have always been proud of The Salvation Army. I see it as a witness to the rest of the church that both worship and work are required of followers of Jesus Christ. And worship and work are not that far apart from each other. In fact, they are one.

It was hard, then, to have a stranger waving William Booth’s finger in my face: “Do something!”

What I hope comes across is that the work of the Ethics Centre – what we do – is the necessary preparatory thinking that comes before responding to a situation. Ethics is about being good people – people who reliably act in ways consistent with our values and beliefs. We respond to problems in ways that are right and just, aiming to move closer to the good Jesus wants for creation.

And in today’s world, ethical problems are getting more and more complex! Solutions are not as simple as building a shelter. We also have to manage the public buy-in, convincing neighbourhoods that everyone needs and deserves a warm bed at night, even if they are in our proverbial back yards.

Thinking, discerning, and reflecting are not not doing. They are how we determine the most fitting way to respond as people living in God’s creation. What we do with our minds just doesn’t always show up in the way physical actions do.

I hope I run into that lady again. I’m not sure if I can convince her that the Ethics Centre is a centre of doing. But I have to try.