Everything I knew about the Salvation Army could be summed up by – fire and brimstone speeches involving multiple mentions of damnation, novelist, Jeanette Winterson’s strange upbringing, lots of brass instruments, and my friend, Caralinda Booth, now an A & R woman in Bejing, but also the great, great granddaughter of William Booth, its founder. In 1865, I read later. They are also evangelical Christians. There is a large building in Manor Road that proclaims Salvation Army from the outside in big, bold letters, with a brown and white cross to back it up. I’d been meaning to get in touch with them. Somehow, I’d imagined a shabby interior with heaps of second hand clothes ready for the homeless.
So I was genuinely surprised to discover a huge, fairly freshly painted hall/place of worship – in fact, it’s been there since 1903 when there were well over a hundred Harlesden residents at services with a full band on the stage – a very modern screen showing a baby for Mother’s Day and a mixed congregation of about twenty people. Mind you, the original crest declaring more lustily Blood and Fire is still there. And copies of their old-time newspaper, War Cry, are also available.
“Where are the officers?” pipes up one evidently regular member. A ripple of laughter wings its way around the attendees. And territorial envoys – yes, a fascinating title, which makes them sound like they have arrived temporarily from an alien planet and maybe they have – Mark and Julia Cozens appear. To cheers. Another shock is their lack of uniform, well, I should say the casualness of their apparent uniform. They are attired in dress down black trousers, navy blue sports shirts with a up-to-datish red shield Salvation Army logo and black shoes, their navy fleeces are on the backs of their chairs. They look as though they are about to facilitate a social workers’ meeting. Which turns out to be an apt impression.
There are more formal uniforms – navy, lots of badges, with mini bowler hats – but they are in the congregation. ‘Soldiers’ – I find out later are members who commit to the S A core belief system including no alcohol, no smoking, and no gambling, – are allowed to buy themselves uniforms. The flags, the colours, the uniforms, the ethos – they all remind me of the girl guides. Yes, there’s definitely the same do-gooding spirit. Just this seems like a lot more fun.
Julia takes to the lo-fi pulpit (there are several kerfuffles around sharing a mini-mic) which really is in the midst of the people. There is the Mother’s Day introduction, and then Mark on the piano. Absolutely no pomp and ceremony, not to mention sacraments. This is very much employing the love of God as a community reassurance and inspiration. I’m an agnostic but I can appreciate these sentiments.
Psalm 139, thanks to the mothers, and those who act as mothers for instance, foster mothers, then Mark encourages everyone to dance as they sing. There’s clapping and swaying and giggles. And lovely inclusiveness. Jasmin, is invited to read a poem she found on the internet about mothers, there’s a history of Mother’s Day ( apparently it goes back to Isis days, but Christians typically appropriated it for the fourth Sunday of Lenten and by the 1600s, it was a day when servants and tradespeople could visit their families) and a lot of little jokes.
Natasha, a British Asian woman, has her husband and her baby son, Adam with her. It’s his first birthday today. We sing Happy Birthday. Where else do you have birthday singing in the middle of a service? Natasha tells us how she was a successful career woman who never even considered having a child. And now, she prefers to stay at home with him rather than go out to work. There are wild whoops.
However, my astonishment rises to its zenith at the next section. Mark actually introduces a Mother and Daughter Quiz using the screen on the wall. I’m thrown into a publand state of altered reality. Princess Grace of Monaco and Stephanie, Judy Garland and Lizzie Minelli and many more are all part of this compelling challenge. All I can say, is thank goodness I am here. Because no-one else recognises Peaches Geldof. Frankly, we could be in the Misty Moon next door and I think that’s the point.
We’re even invited to talk about our own mothers. As you can tell, I’m being swept along on this wave of participation. And I find myself describing a fish n’chip meal, my mother and I shared recently up in the market town of Otley(we were both born there). The haddock was so fresh, the batter so light, it’s a Yorkshire thing. We were both in bliss. And that is very much what my mum has taught me. How to derive contentment from the simplest of activities.
A young woman – she must be in her 20s – called Fui stands up to talk about her mother. She’s from New Zealand (like many here, her family are all Salvation Army members) and her roots are Samoan. “I have an extraordinary mum,” she says softly but proudly, “she’s very giving, and she also worked her way up from being a cleaner to being the vice president of the most successful cleaning company in New Zealand. I find her inspiring.”
A daffodil moment follows. “If you are here with your mum,” says Julia, “take a bunch of daffodils and give them to her, and give her a kiss too.” These territorial envoys have been out shopping for mother’s delight.
“There’s one son being very quiet,”mentions Mark and he’s talking about their 17 year old son, Luke who is himself a ‘soldier’ based at the Regent Street Salvation Army. He’s sneaked out but comes back and makes his way forward to hug his mum.
Informality with a capital I. That’s what impresses and surprises me most about this service. I’d imagined something musty with a large helping of ‘you will die in hell if you step on a crack in the pavement’, and what I found is so much more compassionate and friendly.
There is a moment of prayer led by Mark. He asks us to think about our mothers, those who have cared for us, and extends his invitation to all of those who love and care for children including doctors and nurses and gives us the opportunity to say ‘thank you’. I find it useful to have a little time to reflect in this way. About others.
He reads from the Old Testament, and there’s a “Is that a new bible, you’ve got?”. It’s Carol again, she is a regular who is a bit of a joker. I love these interruptions and the way they are so naturally threaded into the more reverent. This bit of the Bible talks about treating others as though they are your family. Mark quotes a sticker – this is making the Old Testament relevant time – he saw on a bus. ‘Treat cyclists as if they are your granny.’ Exactly, that’s Mark’s view too. He wants us to know that there would be no trouble in world, if that simple message was adhered to. He’s not afraid to mention the difficulties involved either. “It’s not always easy to love our family,” he says, “but ask God and he will give us the compassion we need. When you meet someone whether a shop keeper or a bank assistant, treat them as a family member and see what a difference it makes.” We end on a song – ‘Let there be love shared around us’.
I find myself smiling despite the potential dreaded sentimentality, and asking Joyce, the 80 year old (OK, I have to admit the majority of the congregation are over 50), Joyce what had made her decide to attend the Salvation Army services. “My family is Methodist,” she says, “and this was the nearest thing I could find. I would describe it as very comfortable as a place of worship. I come to their luncheon club as well.”
The Salvation Army is the polar opposite to high church, they started up to help the alcoholics and homeless in Bethnal Green and their key words were soup, soap and salvation. They don’t do the sacraments like baptism and holy communion, they focus on the message rather than the rituals of Christianity.
Tea and cakes follow. Someone even saves me a piece of Adam’s first birthday cake. People chat. I ask 64 year old Jean who is a soldier (ie more committed than Joy who is an adherent) how she got involved. “I was brought up in Paddington,” she says,“and the Salvation Army ran the nearest Sunday School. It was the Good Will section and there were a lot of slums in that area at that time. I started helping out and have carried on. I also play the cornet.”
Ah yes, the cornets, back to them in a moment. Jean starts talking to me about the symbols in the SA flag, and Leeroy Simpson, chair of Harlesden Town Team 2010 (in charge of all sorts of action from cleaning up Station Road to Willesden Junction), who has a certain swagger about him, happens to be standing nearby. “The blue is for the purity of God, the yellow is for the Holy Spirit and the red is the blood of Christ,” says Jean quietly. “That’s almost the same as the Jamaican flag,” counters Leeroy noisily,“black is for our skin, gold is for the riches to be found there, and red is for the blood spilled by our people and green is for the lushness of the landscape.”
Mark very kindly shows me a sepia photo of the Harlesden Salvation Band in 1934 – with their trumpets, trombones, cornets in this very hall – and leads me to a back room where there is a lot of brass ‘umpahing’ going on. Not to mention squeaks and groans. It’s cornet practice taken by David whose family has also been in the Salvation Army for years. “At the turn of the century, it would have been all the local business people who were members here,” he says.
“Julia and I like to make everyone in the service feel at home. For us, the content is all about what we call the Kingdom lifestyle,” says Mark,” we want to talk about God’s kingdom as it is in our daily life. It’s all about our relationships with each other. That’s why I mentioned treating everyone as if they were a member of our family, and related it to the cyclist and granny poster.”
What does evangelical Christianity really mean, I wonder? Evangelical comes from Greek which translates as bringing good news. I’d always thought it meant that they are ardent proselytizers, in other words, their propensity to stand on street corners proclaiming that we would all go to hell if we did not repent and join them. But my impression is anachronistic if this service is anything to go by. “Living out the core beliefs and sharing them by example,”says Mark as his explanation of the modern ethos. He also mentions that this approach is post-modern in that the realists in the Salvation Army have to take on board the dwindling congregations and develop new ways of telling their story.
Ah ha, it seems these particular territorial envoys are not from alien planet after all.