Magazine Features

Returning love for love

When the van pulls into the parking lot of the Bangor, Maine, Citadel Corps (church), the children jump out and run excitedly into the building and down the halls shouting “Mary! Mary!”

They’re looking for Mary MacKay, the young people’s sergeant–major (YPSM).  Fifty years ago, she came to the Bangor Corps as a scared victim of sexual abuse, seeking a place of refuge from a cruel world.

Her family—already reeling from the sex abuse allegations—lived in an old farm house in Hudson, Maine when life took an unexpected turn.  One night, when someone tried to break in, Mary’s mother, Damaris, quickly moved the family to an unfinished apartment over a barn in Kenduskeag, Maine. Sometime later, they moved to Bangor, where her mother was born and raised and she knew people from The Salvation Army. Her mother had once been involved in the Girl Guards youth program.

“My mother was familiar with the Army programs and some of the people who were still involved,” Mary says. “At the time, she sent me, my sister, and four brothers to The Salvation Army. Out of the six of us who went, I’m the only one it stuck with.

“For me, The Salvation Army became a haven of safety and release. People loved me, people cared about me, and that was something that I had never really had before.”

Mary’s family was poor, and she was often teased, such as the day a group of girls threw sticky burdock plants at her as she walked from school to Girl Guards.

“I had them in my hair,” Mary recalls. “I had them on my clothes. They made fun of me the whole walk. I was very distraught.”

The YPSM at the time, Lillian Bragg, picked the burdocks off and helped calm Mary once she arrived at The Salvation Army.

“I remember her combing my hair and pulling them out of my hair as I sat in her office crying,” Mary said. “She soothed me and combed every one of those things out of my hair and off my clothes. That’s just one example of the love and the care that was always given to me at The Salvation Army.

“There were many people that invested in my life when I was a young girl at The Salvation Army, and I think that’s one of the things that always stuck with me. In turn, I wanted to invest in the young people involved now.”

Grace and a parking space

Mary has done that for the last 30 years as the YPSM, overseeing all youth programming, including Sunday school and youth groups, and making sure the programs are staffed and that the teachers have supplies and training. She once led Girl Guards and Sunbeams, including when her own children were in the programs.

“I’ve always told the kids, even if only one person came, we would still do the youth programs because they’re important,” Mary says. “If they’re making an effort, then we certainly should be making an effort to be there for them.”

Mary, who has played cornet in the corps band since she was a pre–teen, also occasionally teaches music. “I’m not a teacher so that’s always interesting,” she says. “I teach them what I know.”

Her motivation is quite simple and harkens her back to when she first arrived at the corps.

“Somebody invested in me,” Mary says. “It seems only right to invest in young people. I love kids. I love young people. I’ve taken some into my home. I always want to be there for kids and teenagers and whoever needs the help because people were there for me. It just seems right.”

Mary lived with her corps officers, Paul and Ruth Sweger, during her teen years and that hospitality rubbed off. She has invited several relatives into her home, as well as students from The Salvation Army’s War College in Vancouver, British Columbia.

The War College, where student live incarnationally amid drug addicts and prostitutes, holds a special place in Mary’s heart. Several years ago she served a 10–day internship with the students there. She also has attended conferences at the Glen Eyrie Conference Center in Colorado and holiness institutes held in the USA Eastern Territory.

“All of those things shape you and help you to see that having a relationship with Jesus Christ is most important—a relationship where you can talk to Him,” she said.

“My kids and the kids that I’ve worked with over the years think it is hysterical that I will pray for parking spots,” Mary said. “I will pray for green lights, I will pray for directions, and they will see those things happen. They’re silly little things, but I think it’s important that we’re constantly connected. The Bible says to pray without ceasing.

“He never leaves us. When we feel alone, He never leaves us. He is always involved in our lives.”

Training in righteousness

Mary also believes in maintaining a strong devotional life through Bible reading, a daily devotional, church, and fellowship.

“It’s important to continue to maintain my spiritual balance to be the woman God wants me to be,” she said. “Christ means everything to me. I wouldn’t be here without Him. I don’t get through life without Him. I’m here because of Him. I’m here because He loves me unconditionally, no matter what.”

She also understands the importance of being in church regularly.

“It’s nice to have individual worship and things like that, but I think it’s very important to have corporate worship and that we set an example for those young people that we work with all the time to see us in worship and for them to know that’s a natural part of being a Christian,” she said.

Captain Rebecca Kirk, the corps officer in Bangor, said soldiers like Mary are the backbone of the corps.

“Mary is such a beautiful example of committed service to the Lord,” Kirk said. “As she has walked through victories and hardships, Mary’s consistent and steadfast faith in who God is, and His love for her, can be seen woven throughout her story. Although she has gone through many seasons of her own life while serving as our YPSM, the love and kindness she gives to the youth who come through our door has never changed.

“It is so awesome to know that as officers come and go, there are generations of Salvationist children who have been loved and mentored by a dedicated and compassionate soldier in Mary.”

Mary also lets everyone know what The Salvation Army is all about. About a decade ago, she remembers one child becoming emotional and upset when someone accidentally hit him.

“In his anger, I looked at him and I said, ‘This is a place of safety, a haven of love.’ That student is now a volunteer here at the corps.

“I’ve received many letters from people who are now adults—some of them Salvation Army officers—and others who have families and have written to me and thanked me for my time and my efforts in showing them love. That came easy for me because it was done to me.”

She finds healing

Mary has also been able to share her sexual abuse experience with a few young girls who went through similar experiences. Over the years, she has come to forgive her abuser, who threatened to cut out her tongue if she ever told anyone.

“When you’re 7, you believe it,” Mary said. “You do what you’re told because you believe someone may actually do that. You do what you’re told because you’re being threatened all the time.”

While attending a conference at Glen Eyrie, she was asked to write a letter of forgiveness to her accuser. She never gave it to him, but the exercise was therapeutic.

“The forgiveness was the hardest thing,” she said. “The Bible says, ‘vengeance is mine saith the Lord.’ You forgive, but you don’t forget. If we don’t forgive, God can’t forgive us.”

Mary, who also is the development assistant at the corps, began working there in 1986 as a part–time secretary for Captain Frank Kirk. Today, Kirk’s son, Jeffrey, is her corps officer. She also was a bookkeeper and program director.

Besides her corps responsibilities, Mary cares for her husband, a former medic in Vietnam who suffers from PTSD and is disabled. Except for a four–year period when they moved to New Hampshire, the couple has lived in Bangor, where they raised four children. The couple has six grandchildren.

Mary also is an advocate for children’s health issues; her son had leukemia when he was 4.

Three decades ago when Mary took over the YPSM job, the woman she succeeded was in her 70s. Mary didn’t anticipate doing the job as long as her predecessor.

“I said, ‘I’m not going to be doing this when I’m 70.’ But I’m 68 and I’m still here so, I don’t know,” she said.

by Robert Mitchell

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