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Prairie Pride Coalition recommends supporting BloNo Salvation Army branch

BLOOMINGTON — The Prairie Pride Coalition put up a statement on Saturday saying they could recommend supporting the local Salvation Army chapter during the holiday season. PPC made the announcement after talking with the leadership of the Bloomington/Normal Salvation Army.

The PPC said this support extended only to the local organization, not the national one.

The full statement from their Facebook page:

Almost every year during the holiday season members of our community and their allies question whether they should support the Salvation Army and its red kettles scattered throughout the community. Many of these folks are familiar with the history of the Salvation Army as well as the national organization’s present-day policy that deems our sexual orientations and gender identities incompatible with its religious tenets.

Up to this point the Prairie Pride Coalition has deferred to the stance of our state and national LGBTQI+ organizations when it comes to the Salvation Army. However, this year we decided to do a little more “deep diving” and investigate the climate and culture at our local branch of the Salvation Army here in Bloomington/Normal.

Recently PPC President Dave Bentlin met with Salvation Army Major Dan Leisher; Gaby Bontea, the outgoing social services director at the Bloomington Salvation Army Safe Harbor facility; and JoAnna Callahan, Gaby’s successor. We decided to reach out based partly on information from local activist Len Meyer at Planned Parenthood who recently facilitated LGBTQI+ awareness training for staff members at the Safe Harbor facility. Our thought was, “Maybe our local branch is different.”

Gaby acknowledged up front the existence of the Salvation Army national “Position on Homosexuality” that very plainly expresses disapproval of same sex intimacy and calls upon people of that orientation to practice celibacy. The document clearly states that “scripture forbids sexual intimacy between members of the same sex.” Having said that, the position statement asserts “there is no scriptural support for demeaning or mistreating anyone” based on that person’s sexual orientation.

At first blush, the army’s position sounds very similar to the tired “love the sinner, hate the sin” position we hear from other conservative religious organizations. It would be no surprise if members of our LGBTQI+ community came away from reading that statement with a firm conviction that the Salvation Army is not worthy of their support.

Gaby was upfront in presenting this position statement but provided some nuance to the Salvation Army organization and its structure. She went to great lengths to distinguish the army’s religious stance from its “boots on the ground” services which include the local Safe Harbor homeless shelter, food pantry, and other outreach services. Safe Harbor does not proselytize on behalf of the Salvation Army organization, she explained, and no one who enters the Salvation Army facility is preached to or required to attend religious services.

Gaby went on to elaborate on her staff’s efforts to create a welcoming environment for all people regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity. During the intake process people who are homeless are asked in a sensitive way how they identify and are admitted to the area of the Safe Harbor facility that aligns with their authentic gender identity. In addition, the handbook given to each client specifically outlines that clients at Safe Harbor have the right “to receive services in a manner that is not intimidating and protects my right of self-determination.” Gaby, JoAnna, and Major Leisher all went to great lengths to assure us that LGBTQI+ clients are not discriminated against.

As mentioned earlier, staff members at Safe Harbor have completed cultural competency training to ensure that members of our LGBTQI+ community who seek services are treated in a fair and sensitive way. Additionally, the Safe Harbor leadership and staff have attended national and regional Salvation Army conferences and sessions that address the Salvation Army’s nonjudgmental commitment to members of the LGBTQI+ community who seek services. Gaby also mentioned that Safe Harbor staff include out members of our LGBTQI+ community.

But what about those red kettles that crop up each holiday season? Where does that money go? Gaby and Major Leisher were very clear that every penny collected locally stays here – nothing is forwarded to the national organization. The coins and bills stuffed in the kettles are used to help sustain the local services offered through Safe Harbor and other local Salvation Army resources.

Given this information and the sincere, earnest efforts by the staff and leadership at our local Salvation Army, we feel comfortable recommending that members of our community support our local Salvation Army and we urge members of our community who are homeless or in crisis to seek assistance from Safe Harbor and Salvation Army’s other services.

What is our motivation for taking this stance? Prairie Pride Coalition’s mission is to work toward a Bloomington/Normal community that is welcoming, inclusive, and accepting of members of our community…including those who happen to be homeless or are seeking assistance. Several studies have determined that LGBTQI+ people comprise a disproportionate percentage of the homeless population. Many in our community who find themselves homeless or in crisis have been ostracized by family or disowned because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. If they can find services, support, and comfort offered in an inclusive environment at the Salvation Army we see no reason to actively oppose those efforts.

Please note that our support is specifically limited to the local branch of the Salvation Army. We continue to oppose the national organization’s position statement and urge members and allies of our local LGBTQI+ community to donate here rather than send money to the national office.

We also urge other LGBTQI+ organizations in central Illinois to closely assess their local Salvation Army operations to offer guidance to their communities that might have misgivings about the Army. We expect that such assessments would reveal both progressive and not-so-progressive efforts in our neighboring communities. At any rate we think information is power and helps members of our communities make meaningful decisions about where to throw their support.

We recognize this local endorsement might not sit well with all members of our LGBTQI+ community. We understand that this might be one of those contentious issues where unanimity is not possible. However, at the very least we hope this document will spur conversation, reflection, and continued dialogue. With that in mind, we welcome feedback on this issue and encourage anyone with questions to contact Prairie Pride Coalition at info@ppc-il.org.

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