A ministry of PRESENCE

by Warren L. Maye

Daunting has been the task to find scientific treatments and strategies to combat the problems people face who struggle to maintain their mental health. Perhaps one day, a breakthrough in medicine will occur. But until then, The Salvation Army will continue to offer them food to eat, a place to sleep, someone to talk to, and hope for the future.

In the 1900s, famous scholars such as John Dewey, Francis Galton, and Sigmund Freud fostered intellectual debates at conventions on the topic of mental health. Their discussions and presentations led to new ideas on modern, scientific, and applied psychology. But over time, frequent and dramatic shifts in perspectives made it apparent that something more was needed to truly offer peace to distressed minds.

Donald H. Blocher wrote in his book The Evolution of Counseling Psychology, “What seemed to be missing from this rather sketchy and scattered body of literature is some feeling for the people, the flesh and blood men and women, who in three brief generations have articulated the ideas, advocated for the ideals, and engaged in the conflicts, competition, and cooperation out of which has come what we presently call counseling psychology.”

Blocher continued, “Noticeably absent also from most of our chronicles of events has been any real appreciation or understanding of the monumental social, economic, and political forces that have shaped our lives and our century.”

In contrast with these emerging schools of thought, William Booth, founder of The Salvation Army, took these matters to heart, listened with his eyes as well as his ears, and advocated for a simple but reliable approach to care that was designed to meet troubled men and women at their obvious points of need. He famously said, “You cannot warm the hearts of people with God’s love if they have an empty stomach and cold feet.” Since its inception in 1880, rudiments such as “food, shelter, work,” as well as, “soup, soap, and salvation,” have been at the heart of the Salvation Army’s holistic approach to mental and spiritual health.

So, from the outset, it was quite clear that Booth’s perspective helped fill the void left by many well–intentioned makers of intelligence tests and behavioral studies of the day. Booth instead focused on developing the skills of empathy and compassion for people, which, according to Blocher, seemedto be missing from the conversation.

Down through the years, The Salvation Army continued Booth’s ministry to homeless people, alcohol and drug misusers, and victims of natural disasters. Even during the most recent COVID–19 pandemic, Army counselors, who were no longer allowed to listen with their eyes in person, relied instead on phone and Zoom conversations to stay in touch. In each instance, the Army’s aim was to help house, feed, socialize, educate, train, guide, and employ people, while allowing them to remain independent and active.

Emotional and spiritual care

“When you go back through any of the disasters, you see that there has always been this compassion for people that has set the Army apart from other agencies that may have had more people on site, more equipment, and other resources,” said Michael Orfitelli a former Emergency Disaster Services (EDS) director for The Salvation Army. “It’s not just about what we do; it’s about who we are in the process. We try to infuse and synthesize emotional and spiritual care into everything that we do. We’re not a drive–by service. We’re someone to talk to, someone who gets it, someone who cares.”

A ministry of presence

At the essence of Chris Farrand’s EDS focus, is what he calls “a ministry of presence.” As a seminary graduate and mental health professional, his experience in working with people who have suffered mental illness, trauma, and loss has taught him valuable lessons. “Sometimes, there’s almost nothing else between this person and their grief or hurt except me,” he said. “Frequently, I’m in a role where I’m put into incredibly terrible situations, and yet I can be the presence and comfort of God and bring hope in a way that that changes lives; just being there can be life transforming.”

“When people have lost so much so suddenly, the first thing to do is show the community as fast as possible that they are not alone,” said Farrand. “The second thing is to remember that you are there to listen. It’s not about what you can say, it’s about the ministry of your presence. Being a shoulder to cry on, an ear to listen, or a voice of prayer can be just as important as putting food in their mouth. You give hope to someone that they could not have had if they were dealing with this alone.”

“At that moment, you are the hands and feet of Christ. You become a conduit in which that broken person is connecting with God, whether they realize it or not.”

When your whole world changes

In 2004, The Salvation Army teamed up with the International Bible Society (IBS) to help address the spiritual needs of people faced with trauma. Peter Bradley, then the president of IBS, said, “We have a partnership agreement with The Salvation Army so we can be on stand–by to supply them with Scripture for any emergency crisis that may happen, especially in the U.S.”

Crisis counselors had learned that anger, frustration, doubt, and blame typically sets in after a disaster, and most of the time, depression follows. Bradley said, “People who, after a crisis, are really in despair. They’re seeing their whole world change. They’re looking for hope and that’s what the Scriptures provide.”

So a team of Salvation Army writers joined forces with IBS and created the booklets When Your Whole World Changes, and Where Is God Now? There was also a special collection of Psalms and another booklet called Building a Mosaic which provided help to aid workers.

When Your Whole World Changes was a 30–day devotional. Each reading was divided into sections. The first was a question or thought from a survivor. The next included Bible passages. Below each scripture was a reference showing its location in the Bible. At the end of each reading was a space to journal thoughts to work through the healing process.

Stanley Jackson (right), an Adult Rehabilitation Center (ARC) counselor, prays with a beneficiary in the program. Stanley was once a beneficiary himself.

Coping with life

Ultimately, professional counseling based on the Salvation Army’s model became a big part of the Army’s frontline ministry to promote abstinence and to facilitate rehabilitation and spiritual renewal.

For instance, Don Coombs provides consultation for 29 of the Army’s Adult Rehabilitation Centers (ARCs) in the USA Eastern Territory. His services include guidance on how to minister to persons who often have a history of adversity, starting in their childhood and continuing into adulthood. His responsibility involves partnering with others to provide such care. In an exclusive interview with SACONNECTS magazine, he talked about his work as it relates to mental health.

“Our goal in counseling is the same as in rehabilitation, which is to assist a person as he or she moves from being a victim of life’s adversities to becoming victorious,” said Coombs.

“For many individuals, including those who participate in the ARC program, they have found that the use of addictive substances hinders the growth of mature coping skills to deal with life’s adversities. Persons who enter the ARC find three empowering themes: freedom, maturity, and healthier relationships.

“The ARC program is truly a residential church where people learn to live according to God’s holy design in the presence of community. They learn new coping skills consistent with the advice of Scripture. They find more power and freedom to live victoriously. The ARC ministry provides both the education and experience of learning to live with life’s challenges, but without the use of chemically addictive substances.”

Today, after decades of research, leading professionals in the field of counseling and psychiatry still struggle to understand the human mind. Dr. Thomas P. Insel, 70, ran the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), for 13 years. It is the top research organization of its kind in the U.S.

In Insel’s new book, Healing: Our Path From Mental Illness to Mental Health, he writes, “Nothing my colleagues and I were doing addressed the ever–increasing urgency or magnitude of the suffering millions of Americans were living through—and dying from.” This most respected neuroscientist of our time cited among the major failings: ineffective delivery of care, the gutting of community health services, and the reliance on police and jails for crisis intervention.

So, The Salvation Army must continue its own brand of care, particularly during these tumultuous times.

Read more from the latest issue of SAconnects.