A ministry to the missing
In 1959, my 5–year–old daughter Lena* was being watched at my mum’s Liverpool home after school. That day, Lena’s mum, from whom I was divorced, picked her up. That was the last time anyone saw my daughter. Despite my every effort, I was not able to locate Lena. As time passed, I moved to the United States, but I never stopped thinking about Lena and the years I was missing from her life. Even though I believed I would never see her again, I needed to know I had done everything in my power to find her. Then, during a trip to England, I came across a service that The Salvation Army provides to reunite families.
— John Whittle* (JW)
The Salvation Army’s Missing Persons Program began in the 1800s, as heads of households were moving out of rural London to find work, leaving their families behind. As loved ones were losing touch with each other, Catherine Booth, co–founder of The Salvation Army with her husband, William Booth, developed a system to make connections between workers and their families. Today, Booth’s work lives on in Army offices in Europe and Africa. But in the United States, all Missing Persons cases are forwarded to the Salvation Army Eastern Territory Headquarters in West Nyack, N.Y. Missing Persons in the United States is a ministry that helps people reconnect with their loved ones, even after after years of searching for answers.
“This is not a typical service that one would find in many churches. Internally, more awareness of this program should be emphasized,” says Missing Persons Specialist Erika Llanos, of the territory’s Social Services Department. Llanos is able to electronically search and trace dates of births, addresses, and other key information for people who have been missing for years or even decades. She also has access to Booth Hospital records, information from hospitals formerly owned and run by The Salvation Army.
“Originally, these hospitals were homes for young women who could not get medical care,” explains Llanos. “The Army took care of them until they were well and their babies were born, ready to be given a safe place to stay through adoption or otherwise.”
Grief and duty
JW: I was put in touch with Mrs. Erika Llanos in New York, who would work for a year with offices in England to help me find Lena. They said I was fortunate to still have kept Lena’s birth certificate; it proved to be invaluable in their search. There were days when I wanted to give up, thinking that I was only wasting their time. But whenever I needed assurance, Mrs. Llanos would speak life into me, and I felt ready to continue on, no matter if they found Lena or not.
When Llanos took on the role of Missing Persons Specialist two years ago, she hoped to bring families together and bring closure to people whose searches were unsuccessful or ended with tragic results.
“When a person is deceased, their death record becomes accessible for the Missing Persons software. Often, I have to tell someone that their missing loved one is no longer with us,” says Llanos. “When someone is found alive and well, there is always a next step, but even more so when the missing person is deceased.”
For those cases, Llanos reaches out to the Salvation Army corps near the family and informs the corps officers that there is a person in their community that has just received dire news and may need them. “Sometimes, the family is willing to speak to the officers. Other times they just want to speak to me,” says Llanos. “I pray with them over the phone, listen to them, and put them in touch with other Social Services in their area such as mental health services, suicide prevention, Salvation Army officers around them, and make recommendations such as follow ups and encourage them to continue taking necessary steps toward healing.”
When Llanos fears that the found person is alive but in danger, she asks the local law enforcement to do a welfare check. “I feel it’s my duty to do everything I can for someone who has concerns about a loved one,” says Llanos. “When I say I’m from The Salvation Army, it motivates others to be of help in this ministry. I’ve never had someone from a police department tell me, ‘I’ll check in on your person tomorrow.’ It’s always, ‘I’ll be there in half an hour.’”
Pain and closure
JW: One early morning in 2018, I got a phone call from Mrs. Llanos. She said Lena was found living in England, and she was open to reconnecting with me. After a shocked moment of silence, every emotion built up from a lifetime of searching came out. I was so eager to see Lena and explain everything to her, but afraid that she could not understand after so much time passing. Mrs. Llanos advised me to not stress and just wait until making the first connection. The long search was now over.
In 2013, before Llanos worked in the program, a mother from Flushing, Queens, N.Y., contacted Missing Persons. She was looking for her son who had moved away from the family after he had returned from the military.
“He was found living in upstate New York. He had gotten involved in drugs and said that he did not want to be found by his family. As an adult, that was his choice and the program had to honor it,” says Llanos.
Years later, when the family asked for an update on their son, they discovered that he had died in a care facility. He was suffering from severe memory loss, and unable to inform the facility staff that he had a family.
“Though that search had a heartbreaking ending, finding the son’s care facility was important to the mother because she recovered his body and obtained a proper death certificate,” remembers Llanos. “The care facility administrator also said the son was part of the facility’s Bible study classes. He died surrounded by people who cared and prayed for him.
“The mother had prayed her son would be comforted and rekindle his relationship with Christ no matter where he was. Knowing that God answered her prayers brought her a sense of relief and closure that she did not have before.”
JW: The Salvation Army in England and in New York worked together to relay letters and communication from me to Lena until I was able to see her. After so many years of slowly waiting for answers, everything was now moving quickly. Today, I am happy to say that Lena and I are working to make up for lost time. I can reach out to my daughter, hear her voice, visit her, and have her as part of my life again. As it helps so many others, The Salvation Army helped me have a second chance at life.
“Every day of searching is worth it to solve a case like John and Lena’s,” says Llanos. “There is something within a person who is looking for a loved one that always remains hopeful,” says Llanos. “In most cases, no matter how much time has passed, those found are open to reconnecting. Family ties are too strong to just say no.”
Llanos hopes that The Salvation Army will promote the Missing Persons Program as a modern ministry that is able to transform and redeem lives. “All of us, whether we’re searching for someone or not, are looking for answers in our lives. This program helps people find those answers.”
by Hugo Bravo
*Names have been changed.