In Salvation Army, He Returns The Favor

Posted: December 24, 1988

Life was hitting James Francis hard. His wife abandoned him and the two kids. The job was going sour. Finally the electric company sent a shut-off notice.

The Philadelphia native swallowed his pride and took himself to the Salvation Army.

Praise God, another light bill paid.

That was long ago. Francis is Lt. Francis now, married to a fellow lieutenant in the same blue-suited army, doing the Lord's work. In a Frankford neighborhood that is trying to stave off encroaching drugs and despair, he runs day-care, latch-key and senior-citizen programs, a soup kitchen, basketball leagues and music classes. On Sundays, instead of resting, he delivers sermons.

"My lifestyle has completely changed," said Francis, a former electrical engineer's assistant who is now director of the Salvation Army's Northeast Philadelphia Community Center, "because the Lord has changed me. I'm trying to be as much like Him as I can."

His last day off was before Thanksgiving. Like thousands of others in the Salvation Army come Christmas season, he has been ringing the bells and manning the kettles. He's been packing the food baskets and collecting the toys. He's been listening to the hard-luck stories for hours on end.

Francis, 42, is living out a religious awakening. "I felt the Lord call," he said.

More than 5,000 American men and women have heeded the same call, eschewing normal standards of pay and working hours to become officers in an exceedingly demanding corps. It is an army that requires its married members to bring spouses along, through seminary and frequent job changes. It requires a willingness to live on modest allowances. It demands a desire to embrace society's outcasts as part of the family.

"Christmas is a very rough time," Francis said a few days ago as volunteers helped pack turkeys and fixings for 300 families. "When you're going 15 hours a day, you can't even find time to write a decent sermon. And that makes it hard. You don't want to shortchange God."

Since its founding in 1865 by William Booth, a Methodist minister who was appalled when established churches would not admit the slum-dwellers he had converted, the Salvation Army has ministered to the hungry and homeless. Based in London and active in 90 countries, it provided help to 17 million Americans in 1987 alone.

More than a million volunteers helped out with Salvation Army programs in the United States last year. That was in addition to 434,000 church members - "soldiers," in the Army's parlance.

Running things were 5,211 ordained clergy - the officers.

Some, like Francis, are repaying a long-ago debt to a Salvationist's kindness. Many others were reared in the Army. Their parents were officers, moving from city to city every three to five years, as the Salvation Army demands. They played bugles as preschoolers, attended Army camps as kids, found future wives and husbands among the other families.

"I was born in a Salvation Army hospital," says Capt. Donald MacMurdo, director of development for the organization's Eastern Pennsylvania and Delaware Divisional Headquarters. His parents' Depression-era soup kitchen served Baby Face Nelson dinner one night. It was his last dinner. The gangster was shot the next day.

MacMurdo, 53, wanted to be a sportswriter until he heard the call about 30 years ago. His Salvation Army work took him to Cleveland and the 1964 New York World's Fair before he came to Philadelphia. He and his wife, Ann - a captain in charge of dozens of women's programs - earn a total allowance of $195 a week. "God has not called us to be big deals," Donald MacMurdo said. "He's called us to serve people."

The clergy's lifestyle is modest, but not penurious. Officers like the MacMurdos live in Army-owned houses and drive Army-owned cars. They get additional allowances for every child under 18. Unlike the picture painted several years ago by radio commentator Paul Harvey in a widely heard broadcast, and reprinted recently by columnist Ann Landers, officers do not live in poverty. "There's no living on a pot of soup for four days," Donald MacMurdo said.

Still, there isn't much attachment to material things. After 31 years of marriage, the MacMurdos take little more than a VCR, their clothes and some personal pictures as they move from furnished house to furnished house. "You learn," Ann MacMurdo said, "to leave even the sheets real nice and clean when you move out, so the next family can move right in."

The rewards are in "seeing people's lives change," Donald MacMurdo said - helping alcoholics turn away from drink, the addicted escape from drugs, the lonely feel a human touch.

"A phrase I like is: Changing the world - but one life at a time," he said. "If we can change one life at a time, it does contribute to a better world."

Francis grew up in Roxborough, a regular guy who drank beer and liked weekends down at the shore. He didn't worry about things like homelessness. ''I'd see bums in Center City," he said, "but I never thought there was something I should do about it."

After a business and his marriage fell apart, he began to stitch himself back together. His new wife, Mary, had attended Salvation Army Sunday school as a girl. He began to help out with the Army's youth activities. His involvement grew. When he felt the call six years ago, he was the father of five, living on 2 1/2 acres outside Stroudsburg in a five-bedroom house with a two-car garage.

At first, Mary said she wouldn't join him in this officer business. But after four days of wrestling with her conscience, she changed her mind.

They sold the house, cashed the stocks and bonds. Together they attended a Salvation Army seminary in Suffern, N.Y, studying the Old Testament the first year, the New Testament the second. They graduated in 1984.

The Frankford community center was their first assignment. Virtually nothing was going on inside the building. Salvation Army higher-ups had recommended closing it.

Now Francis has 21 employees. They assist 300 families a month.

Francis' day begins at 8 and ends well into the evening. His desktop is a confusion of papers, screwdrivers, holiday cakes, an address book, a telephone, Christmas presents, miniature American and Salvation Army flags.

"I'm working a lot harder than I've ever worked," he said, "and when I go home, I sleep comfortably. I don't worry about where I am in life. You see people smiling and helping, and it does something to you."

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