‘Know the past; shape the future’
A new video documentary series produced by the USA Eastern Territory’s Mission & Culture Department will feature perspectives from African American, Hispanic, and Asian cultural committee members on important topics.
“Oaks of Righteousness,” the first segment in the series, is available on YouTube and focuses on the most racially turbulent period in United States history and the Eastern Territory’s response to it. Commissioner William A. Bamford III, territorial commander, has encouraged the use of it and the accompanying study guide for Black History Month.
The video highlights the Black Commissioned Officers Meeting of 1969,* which was convened to examine race relations within The Salvation Army. The meeting was the first of its kind in the Army’s history and served to unite the voices of black officers concerning significant issues.
“I had the privilege of conducting the interviews for this documentary,” said Major William Dunigan, the Integrated Mission officer for the Mission & Culture Department. “I could not help feeling that I was in the presence of giants. It was abundantly clear to me that these men and women had endured much with great grace and accomplished much with great faith. They are leaders. They have been and continue to be out in front, making a way for those who would follow.”
Included in the video are comments from Commissioner Israel L. Gaither, retired USA National Commander; and Envoy Kenneth Burton, Order of the Founder recipient (O.F.). They share their insights and personal recollections of the meeting of 1969 and subsequent meetings. Envoy Patricia Wood and Captain Darell Houseton also offer their take on race relations in the Army, then and now.
Interspersed throughout the video are sobering images depicting the civil rights struggle: people marching in the streets, flaming buildings illuminating night skies, police dogs ripping clothing from the backs of fallen protesters, and uniformed Salvationists serving mankind in the midst of the chaos.
Says Gaither in the video, “We were serving both those who were first responders as well as families who were afflicted and affected.” Burton says, “I saw that as a young child (the firehoses turned on people and the dogs) and it was something that never left my mind.”
Their testimonies also delve deep into the spiritual complexity of that era and the struggle to find common ground upon which to praise and serve God. Says Wood, “Our ways of worship did not have to be shunned or made mutually exclusive, but could be united and celebrated by everybody.”
However, such a task required that the Army first reconcile its internal differences and find ways to effectively bridge social and cultural gaps with the African–American community. According to one black leader of the day, the Army’s tendency to embrace a neutral position on civil rights was an obstacle to achieving such reconciliation.
“We’ve come a long way from that,” says Gaither in the video. “How do we know? Well, just look at the (Army) population itself, look at the strength of corps (churches) and of ministry. Look at where officers of color have been deployed to serve. Every stratum, every arena has been touched.”
Other achievements such as the Empowerment Conference, and the Mission & Culture Department’s multicultural meetings are highlighted as signs of improvement since the tumultuous 1960s. “I always encourage people to attend the conferences,” says Houseton, “because it’s so valuable, particularly to soldiers. We can modify the tools that they can then take back to their local communities and use to be as effective as possible.”
Accompanying the video is a group discussion guide, worship content ideas, a sermon outline, and a poster to advertise a corps (church) event. Entitled, “Know the Past. Shape the Future,” the brochure begins, “In recognition and solidarity with our brothers and sisters of African descent, materials have been prepared for the building up of the Kingdom of God by celebrating Black History Month.”
Says Gaither, “I believe this cultural committee and others can help us to dynamically ensure that we have a nimble, multi–peopled movement in this territory that will move the Kingdom of our Lord forward.”
Dunigan said, “Their wisdom allows them to see into the future, to see what is possible. Their courage and their character enable them to make it happen. Our Army is better because of them and those of The Salvationists of African Descent Committee. Their story is sure to inspire all who watch this video.”
by Warren L. Maye