Continuing the ministry of Eliza Shirley
In 1879, Eliza Shirley struggled with the decision to leave the East Midlands of England and come to Philadelphia, “The City of Brotherly Love.” Even at age 17, she was already a decorated evangelist and a commissioned lieutenant in The Salvation Army. She thought that joining Amos Shirley, her father, to minister in America would pose a significant challenge.
General William Booth, Founder of The Salvation Army, also had doubts about sending a young girl 3,000 miles to commit to such a task. He feared that being so far away might somehow alter the message and principles she would teach.
But Amos Shirley, a Salvationist and a silk weaver by trade, told them about the vice, alcohol abuse, and struggles of the city’s residents and how much they needed to be uplifted—physically, mentally, and spiritually. And he longed to have his family by his side.
And so, Booth gave his blessing to Eliza and her mother. Eliza knew that if they were to relocate to America, she would try to lay a foundation there for The Salvation Army.
In Philadelphia, while ministering one cold night, Eliza’s ministry literally ignited with fire as souls came to know the Lord.*
Soon, the Shirleys—father, mother, and daughter—opened two ministry stations.
On March 24, 1880, the Shirleys and Commissioner George Scott Railton, another protégé of Booth, joined forces at an inaugural meeting in Philadelphia of 1,500 ethnically and racially diverse people.
The work goes on
Today, the mission of Eliza Shirley continues in Philadelphia with numerous Salvation Army corps (churches), including an Adult Rehabilitation Center, a Ray & Joan Kroc Corps and Community Center, 20 shelters, and various other community–based ministries.
SAConnects traveled recently to three of these locations and asked people there to reflect on how the mission of Eliza Shirley influences their work.
In early 2014, when Captain Sheila Rolon was appointed to the Philadelphia Tabernacle Corps Community Center, she realized that the work would be different from what she and her husband, Captain Omar Rolon, had experienced in a previous appointment in Allentown, Pa.
Just as Eliza Shirley had done, the Captains Rolon experienced new challenges. Says Captain Sheila, “As soon as I arrived, the first thing I needed to see was where I could work the fastest and the hardest, because everything here works at a much faster pace than in Allentown.”
The Philadelphia Tabernacle Corps Community Center doubles as a church and as an activity center. Worship services and Bible studies are held as well as music programs, summer camps, and youth groups.
“There is so much need in this part of Philadelphia, and yet sometimes [the people] are hesitant to embrace what we have to offer. What I am grateful for is that we have been blessed with many people who are dedicated to work. Many of our soldiers have lived here for years, and they are pillars of the community.”
As General Booth saw the Army’s future in a young woman, Captain Rolon sees such strength in her youngest Salvationists. “I’ve seen girls Eliza Shirley’s age, sometimes much younger, taking on the responsibility of a household, or as community leaders. I’ve seen them here in the church. They’re the ones who’ve grown up so quickly; they missed out on their childhood. Their parents are too sick to work or suffer from addiction or may not want to work,” says Rolon. “These are the girls and the children who are the most involved in our church. They go out and talk to the community. They ring the bells. They host the programs. And they bring people to church.”
Such bravery and drive are inspiring, but Captain Rolon says that the church also needs to help them fix their family situations. God and hope need a place in their hearts. “The cycle [of pain] needs to be broken. Because if it isn’t, some day as parents themselves, those girls may be in the same situation.”
Soldiers Lizbet Luciano and Esperanza Bonilla, who also serve at the Philadelphia Tabernacle, see Eliza Shirley as a role model for the best that the Tabernacle, and the Salvation Army, has to offer.
“Eliza Shirley’s initiative is reflected in the enormous gestures made by these young ladies,” says Luciano, “such as helping with the church, and in the smallest gestures, such as reminding people that Jesus loves them.”
“The best thing the leaders of our church can do, is step out from their walls—like Eliza Shirley did—and just show the community that God lives in all of our hearts, no matter who we are,” says Bonilla.
Built on trust
When Shirley and her family landed in Philadelphia, building trust with the city’s most needy residents was a daunting task. Today, at the Eliza Shirley House in downtown Philadelphia, similar problems can arise.
“The first thing we always do with anyone who comes looking for help is to connect with them. They may present themselves in an angry way, but we expect that,” says Marilyn Canty, director of the house. “I would be angry too if the people I trusted had turned me away.”
Year round, the Eliza Shirley House provides stabilization to homeless families. Runaways, as well as needy or abused or neglected people, can have a warm bed, a hot meal, a listening ear, and a comforting voice that promises safety.
Canty knows that The Army’s mission provides basic needs first and asks questions later. “We start with, ‘Yes, we are going to feed you, shelter you, and get you the help you need. Then we’ll sort out all the details. If you want to stay here, you can. If you need us to call your family and ask them to give you another chance, then we can do that for you too.”
“It’s about meeting people where they are, and giving them a little bit of hope. That’s what Eliza Shirley wholeheartedly wanted to do. At only 17, her drive, wisdom, and compassion to help others is just extraordinary to me,” says Canty. “That’s the way I try to live, and it’s the way we do things here at the Eliza Shirley House.”
The right message
Although the Shirleys had successfully turned an old chair factory into America’s first Salvation Army center, they found it difficult to properly promote the Army’s message.
Today, the Ray & Joan Kroc Corps and Community Center in Philadelphia also faces similar obstacles.
“I would say that the big challenge is getting people to understand the benefit of what they have here,” says Major Lynn Gensler, associate administrator. “The scope of what we offer is difficult to imagine.”
The Kroc Center is in one of Philadelphia’s more challenged neighborhoods, surrounded by abandoned and graffiti–covered train car factories and railroad tracks.
The Kroc Center’s mission coincides with that of Eliza Shirley—to stimulate the mind, body, and spirit of the city’s most needy people. “We have discovered an interesting quote by James K. A. Smith that states, ‘Habits are the hinge that turn our hearts,’ ” Major Gensler said.
“The Kroc Center is providing an atmosphere of love, safety, wellness, and creating that allows change to occur. When people develop good habits, healthy minds, bodies, and spirits are the outcome. Although we cannot change people, we can create an environment for change and introduce them to Christ, the real “life changer.”
“The spirit of Eliza Shirley helps to encourage people to be the best they can be. This is what we strive to instill in the people who come to us for help, as well as our own employees, the people who keep the Kroc Center running well.”
Envoy Anita Hinson, education director at the Kroc Center, calls working there a unique opportunity. “We emulate the hands of Christ and the spirit of Eliza Shirley; her ministry was a helping ministry, and we continue to do that without discrimination and to the best of our ability.”
Known by their love
William Booth was fond of saying that the best men in his army were women. He and Eliza Shirley would be proud to know that today, the work and mission of The Salvation Army thrives in Philadelphia, thanks to the efforts of these women and everyone who ministers in the city of Brotherly (and Sisterly) Love.
* For more on Eliza Shirley, read The Life of Catherine Booth, Mother of The Salvation Army (Booth–Tucker, Vol. 1, 1893); Red–Hot and Righteous: The Urban Religion of The Salvation Army (Winston, 1999); and Soldiers of Uncommon Valor: The History of Salvationists of African Descent in the United States (Maye, 2008); The Girl Who Conquered America: The Odyssey of Eliza Shirley (Elliot, 2008).
by Hugo Bravo