Teamwork was on the minds of 1,800 delegates who walked onto a full–sized, turf–covered, indoor football field. It was just one of several immaculately appointed fields at the Dallas Cowboys training facility in Texas. But rather than play football, they quickly took positions at white, cloth–covered dining tables that aligned the gridiron.
As they did so, it was clear to everyone that the Salvation Army’s week–long “Better Together Conference 2023” would close as spectacularly as it had begun. Heartfelt music, riveting speeches, and reunions with friends would hallmark this post COVID–19 event.
On opening night, Commissioner Kenneth Hodder, national commander, stirred the crowd when he said, “We’ve got people here tonight who specializes in social services, serve in emergency disaster services, and community relations and development. We’ve got officers from across the country and international visitors from more than 20 other countries!”
With his contagious exuberance, Hodder named each country: “Australia, Austria, Bermuda, Brazil, Canada, Costa Rica, The Czech Republic, Germany, Hungry, Indonesia, Ireland, Kuwait, Lithuania, Malaysia, Mexico, Moldova, Mozambique, Myanmar, Nepal, Netherlands, Poland, Rwanda, Singapore, Slovakia, South Africa, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom!” The audience exploded in cheers and applause.
Commissioner Jolene Hodder, national secretary for Program, encouraged everyone in the Hilton Anatole’s Trinity ballroom to stand, greet each other, and say, “We are better together this week because you are here!”
What appeared next on the enormous video screens captured everyone’s attention. It was a hand–drawn 19th century illustration showing Army Founder William Booth’s memorable “In Darkest England and the Way Out” scheme. “I want you to focus on a particular part,” said the national commander. It was a portion of the drawing that showed Salvation Army officers and soldiers working together to help people in desperate need. Commissioner Jolene Hodder said a modern–day version would also include volunteers and
employees. “It takes all of us!”
From Monday to Thursday, the conference served as a place of spiritual growth, designed to motivate everyone to “overcome
the ‘silo mentality’ that can sometimes hinder our efforts in the fields of community relations and development, emergency disaster services, and social services,” Commissioner Kenneth Hodder wrote in an open letter to the delegates.
Speakers and special guests included: Herman “Art” Taylor, president, and chief executive officer of the Better Business Bureau (BBB) Wise Giving Alliance–give.org, which sets standards for soliciting organizations; Scott Zimmer, a keynote speaker who helps organizations bridge generational gaps around communication and collaboration; Michael Jr., a gifted speaker who uses comedy and dynamic storytelling to move audiences; and Dr. Bill and Rev. Diane Ury, former Salvation Army national ambassadors for holiness.
On Tuesday, April 18, during General Session 1, three guest speakers shared aspects of their specialized discipline in the style of a TED talk, called “Salvo Talk.” They were Chris Farrand, regional director of Emergency Disaster Services (EDS) for Mass., Conn., and Rhode Island; Major Nesan Kistan, corps officer of the Tustin Ranch Corps, chair of the National Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Commission and on the Commission to End Homelessness in Orange County, California; and Onesa Anozie, MSW, a social worker and Pathway of Hope director in the Southern Territory. Each speaker addressed the general topic of “Better Together,” specifically completing the statement, “The Salvation Army is at its best when….”
As many as 105 workshops, conducted in five sessions, offered delegates a wide variety of mission–related topics to explore. The exhibit hall provided ample space for creative and informative displays from as many as 50 exhibitors and sponsors.
The Dallas Cowboys organization, a major sponsor of the Army for more than 25 years, graciously hosted the closing festivities at their training facility. Charlotte Jones, EVP, chief brand officer for the Cowboys and daughter of Jerry Jones, the Cowboys’ founder, spoke eloquently and enthusiastically as she told the story of how The Salvation Army and the Cowboys became partners. “We wanted to partner with an organization known across the nation as having great integrity and trust. We realized that was The Salvation Army,” she said.
As delegates enjoyed a catered meal on the field, some also received awards for modeling exemplary service in their various disciplines. Among those recognized was the USA Eastern Territory’s Puerto Rico and Virgin Island Division for its outstanding Emergency Disaster Services (EDS) in response to Hurricane Fiona in September 2022. Miguel Rivera, emergency disaster director, joined Kevin Smith, National Emergency Disaster Services director, on stage to receive thanks for the division’s hard work.
Major Margaret Davis, national secretary for Social Services & Public Policy for The Salvation Army, and formerly of the USA Eastern Territory, announced several award winners. Among them was the “Better Together Collaboration Award,” given to the Northern Division for its “compassionate and courageous response” during intense social unrest in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd.
In a special moment, Commissioner Hodder recognized Commissioners William A. Bamford III and Commissioner G. Lorraine Bamford, leaders of the USA Eastern Territory, and Commissioners Bradford and Heidi Bailey, leaders of the USA Central Territory, for their years of service to The Salvation Army. “I thought it would be appropriate tonight to thank these four individuals for what they have done for this country,” said Hodder. “This will be the last national conference that they will attend.” He thanked them for their vision, energy, dedication, and commitment and invited the audience to give them a standing ovation.
Throughout the conference, the music of Phil Laeger, a singer and songwriter; and Brittany Parks, worship leader and camping director for the USA Eastern Territory, brought delegates into the presence of God. The music, via keyboard, guitar, and singing was a blessing to all.
Comedian Michael Jr., author of “Funny How Life Works,” closed the conference by challenging delegates to be open to receive from others especially during hard times. He said that in receiving, one allows the giver space for growth and healing from personal trauma.
“Giving is fun. Receiving is amazing—if you can do it,” Michael said. Through his unique skill of mixing levity with gravity, he used heartfelt examples on video and in spoken scenarios to show why one must receive intentionally. “Just like a healthy heart pumps blood in and out, you must also give and receive from others to function properly.”
As Michael’s voice echoed throughout the sports arena via loudspeakers everywhere, his message resonated with words spoken at the outset of the conference by Art Taylor and Commissioner Hodder.
“But it is faith that will get us through these moments,” said Taylor. “The Salvation Army can do this great work for its institution, and by being ‘better together,’ you can show this nation how it is done!”
Hodder concluded, “Friends, all of this brings us to the real point. We are better with God. Whether we are talking about Him or working in His name, it’s all about Jesus!”
Better Together is a national professional development conference for Salvation Army officers and staff working in Community Relations & Development, Social Services, and Emergency Disaster Services. Their work includes corporate partnerships, major gifts, volunteerism, capital campaigns, online fundraising, and planned giving opportunities.