Commissioning Weekend 2024

Reported by Robert Mitchell, Hugo Bravo, and Warren L. Maye

A bright Pennsylvania sky was no match for the exuberance felt by as many as 2,000 Salvationists inside the Hershey Lodge. Famed for its chocolate factory, Hershey is nicknamed “the sweetest place on earth.”

Indeed, a “sweet, sweet, spirit” filled Hershey’s Great American Hall during Commencement, Ordination, Commissioning, and Appointment services for the Defenders of Justice session. Commissioning Weekend kicked off Friday morning with a spirited commencement service. Cadets received their associate in applied science degrees, along with academic awards for their two years at the College for Officer Training (CFOT) preparing to be Salvation Army officers.

Cadet Richard Mahida earned valedictorian honors; Cadet Janet Menendez was salutatorian. Awards for both Bible Knowledge Achievement and Doctrine Knowledge Achievement went to Cadet Luis Menendez. Cadet Kenia Godoy received the Bible Knowledge Progress Award, and Cadets Holly Bilbay and Mahida took home the Doctrine Knowledge Progress Award.

Lt. Colonel James LaBossiere, the CFOT’s training principal, presented the cadets—who showed up for training during a time of great uncertainty as the world recovered from COVID-19 and social unrest—to Commissioner Ralph Bukiewicz, territorial commander, as “fully prepared” for service. “They said, ‘I will go,’” LaBossiere said.

Mahida, who also won the coveted Commissioner’s Award for contributions beyond academics, wasted no time in addressing his classmates: “To God be the glory!” He looked forward, he said, to seeing what the class could accomplish as officers. “We may be small in number, but we are mighty in God’s strength.”

Commissioner Susan Bukiewicz read portions of Romans 14 before praying for the session. “How we need reinforcements in the salvation war,” she said.

Commissioner Ralph reminded the cadets about the purpose of their seminary training, as the people they’ll serve won’t care about the degree on the wall. “It’s not something you can hold in your hand that’s conferred to any of us, but it’s to be recognized through the eyes of the spirit when God says there are people out there who need to be loved and served and reached in Jesus’ name,” he said. “They will care about how you love them, how you serve them, how you speak with them, and how you listen.”

Friday night’s festivities began with recognition of local officers and the retirement of Territorial Sergeant Major Kris Hevenor after five years in that role. Commissioner Ralph installed her successor, Heather Green.

Next came a spectacular show of music and arts by the New York Staff Band, Move Dance Co., Unbound, the Eastern Territory Staff Songsters, and the USA East drama team.

Christian multiplatinum recording artist TAYA led the audience in worship for more than an hour, performing “For All My Life,” based on Proverbs 3:5–6, “Gonna Be Good,” “Come Into the Light,” and more, concluding with the wildly popular praise song “Oceans” and “We Exalt Thee.”

An afternoon of stars

Saturday belonged to the Star Search showcase and awards. Army youth traveled from as far as Puerto Rico to demonstrate their talents in drama, music, dance, timbrel, and more. After months of practice, they were ready to perform for the judges and the Lord Himself.

Salvation Army pastor and rapper Lieutenant Christopher Brown, corps officer at Philadelphia Temple, also performed his song “The Comeback” with the Move dancers.

“We’ve got to start thinking about failure in a different way, especially when we’ve got God in our life. He’s getting ready to start a comeback in you,” Brown said. “People told me I would never be a good pastor, or a good rapper. And now I’m doing both!”

Chief of the Staff Commissioner Edward Hill, attending his first Star Search, said he was blown away by everyone’s talent and dedication. He reflected on how the word star spelled backwards—rats—came up in his own life. If he missed a shot at basketball, made a mistake playing music, or forgot to bring that one thing back from the store, Hill would say, “Rats!”

“We focus on the rats when we should be looking at the Star, and the ultimate star is the Lord Jesus Christ. He describes Himself as the bright and Morning Star,” Hill said. “Friends will come and go. Money runs out. Our talents and skills can diminish over time. But the presence of the Lord will always be with us.”

As the Star Search awards were presented, the audience competed to see who could root for their corps soldiers the loudest. Cheering, clapping, and even the blowing of party horns met every announcement.

Secretary for Program Lt. Colonel Kathleen Steele closed with a benediction, asking the Lord to continue to bless each young person who participated.

Ordination, Commissioning, and Appointments

Commissioner Ralph Bukiewicz wanted to be sure everyone in the hall and the thousands watching online Sunday didn’t miss the most important part of this long-awaited meeting.

“If you have already enjoyed the fellowship, the wonderful food, the great opportunities—if you’ve been inspired and thrilled by the music and the performances and the recognition of our youth—that’s only part of it. Because if you go home and have only experienced that, can I suggest this: You’ve missed it. If we don’t go home as different people, then we’ve been in the very presence of God and have not allowed Him to do His work. So, friends, the focus is all on Him.”

The Chief of the Staff delivered a powerful message on the need for civility, particularly among Christians who find themselves entangled in battles on social media. “Let’s be careful not to strike out at the opposition as if they were enemies in our midst,” he cautioned. “Instead, let’s strive to be defenders of justice who look on the broken, who look on the lost, who look on the dissenting, who look on the distressed with a passionate longing. Let’s strive to be more than preachers but let’s strive to be reachers—reaching out with the hands, with the heart, and with the mind of Jesus Christ.”

Among the many memorable moments, a highlight came when Bukiewicz invited prospective officers to the platform. “We already have cadets who are eager to be commissioned and ordained,” he said. “We have Champions of the Mission who are ready and eager to go out this summer and minister throughout the territory. We also already have 23 accepted candidates for the Keepers of the Covenant session. That’s well worth applauding.”

He asked Majors Rohan and Sheila Gage, assistant and territorial candidates secretaries, and the Keepers of the Covenant session to join him. “If God has called you to be a Salvation Army officer, I’m going to ask right now that you would stand up and come join us right here on the platform. Some of you, if you’re ready, if you’re willing, you might want to run up here. Because I know your spirit is that eager.”

The platform filled with Salvationists who began to sing, “Here I am.”

Throughout the prayerful ordination and commissioning ceremony and the intimate appointment service, the focus remained unwaveringly on Christ.