Where does the military aspect in the name of the Salvation Army come from?

In the Victorian era, when the Salvation Army was founded, the name was completely normal in England. Those were other times. The "Army" was nothing special, it just meant a simple form of organisation. Indeed, we do “fight" against the evil in the world. And a fight fits better to an army than to an association or a foundation, doesn't it? If we founded it nowadays though, we probably would not call ourselves an "Army". But to rename ourselves now would lead to confusion, and people wouldn’t like it.

Who is the enemy of the Salvation Army?

Basically... evil. In a way, this refers to the antagonist of God, which we perceive in our pastoral care and counselling. Obviously, you cannot fight this with weapons but by praying, reading the Bible and guiding people spiritually. Big miracles happen in this area sometimes and we have some examples of these in Hungary. In our social work we fight bad living conditions that people have to suffer in. In "One percent”, a campaign we recently started, we focus on abused and exploited women, which is a huge problem in Hungary. Of course, this problem exists also in other European countries but in Hungary it almost seems to be a part of the culture. We are also active in the field of street prostitution, trying to help people to quit. We don't use the term "re-integration" because those people are integrated in their way. But even if you started to work there voluntarily, you will sooner or later become a victim of the conditions. We try to offer those people a new reality and a life choice. They can choose if they go with God or without God, but we will try to help them either way. This is what our fight against the evil looks like.

What is special about the fight in Hungary?

We are always there for people who are in need; no matter if it is an emotional, physical, mental or spiritual distress. Our core areas of activity are defined in each country by the local situation. Here in Hungary we are especially active with homeless people through our daytime and night shelters, and with our local food banks. We help abused women and their children with our mother-child home. In our community work we are also engaged in Roma villages, where we change the mindset of people through the church and its community life. The key to success in these communities lies for us in prolonged work. We do not just pop up for a project. We stay. We could probably get funding from the European Union to build new container villages into beautiful brand-new houses. Everybody would then have a toilet and a shower in their home. Yet the people would still be the same with the same difficulties, the same fears and the same stresses. Here is where our spiritual guidance starts. We believe that the person and not their environment needs to be changed. We have one Roma community that changed itself simply because its members started to attend service and read the Bible. There is also a nice documentary movie that was shot for the Roma caucus of the European Parliament about our work in one of these Roma villages.

How would you describe the core of your work?

It is extremely important for us that we don't accept the problems of people as given facts. We don't want to manage the poverty of a person but we want to really help. We can do everything for somebody. We can find a flat and work but that barely changes anything. As I said, the person has to change. Our service – whether the pastoral or the social work aspect – consists of helping humans to be able to help themselves and to become strong. We also achieve this with a lot of conversations that take place in our houses. We don't want to show off as do-gooders, we just want to connect humans to useful networks.

What is your credo?

Our belief is that God needs to develop hands and feet. God cannot simply be an end in itself.

What does that mean?

Counselling is always individual, we do not follow schematics. Nine million people live in Hungary and we might need nine million different ways to help these people. In general, you have to love people. This seems to be difficult sometimes. Accepting a homeless person with their smell, dirt or their way of expressing themselves is sometimes hard. If you can succeed with it, then the person also gets a chance to change. That is the work of the church and what my heart beats for.

How can one join the Salvation Army?

We have three different forms of membership. The first way is to show up regularly, which we define as twice a year. The second form is for people who want to be more active members. They are admitted into our church service and they pledge that they will support us with their time, their gifts and their finances. The third form of membership is the uniformed one. For that, you sign our statement of faith and a promise with 11 points. We commit ourselves to uphold marriage, to treat people according to biblical principles and to love one's neighbour. We also renounce alcohol, drugs, tobacco and gambling. This does not come from the Bible but has practical reasons. A lot of the people we work with have such addictions and we cannot fight something that we do ourselves.


# The flag stands in the office of Bernhard Wittwer and he takes it to special events. It shows the theorem of the Salvation Army: The Blood of Christ (symbolised by the colour red) washes us clean of all sins, and through the fire of the Holy Spirit (yellow star) we can live in purity in front of God (blue) and, like this, serve the people. The flag was designed by Catherine Booth, the wife of the Salvation Army founder.


What does it mean for you to be an officer in the Salvation Army?

We exercise this pastoral function — that we call "officer" — together with my wife. It is a lifelong commitment. Of course you can leave when you want or have to because we are not a closed cult, but our intention is to make this a lifelong service. After a two-year theoretical education to become a pastor inside the organisation, you usually go into community life and specialise there. We also agree that we will go where the Salvation Army sends us. We are not forced but a dialogue about it takes place. That is how we came to Hungary first for five years from 1998 and again in 2015. We found our second homeland here.

So you and your wife work together?

Absolutely! On paper, I am the leader and she is my representative because public authorities need a sole manager. Inside the organisation, we both sign everything and we also try to make this principle more popular towards the outside.

For a church organisation this gender equality seems remarkable.

Yes, the women of the Salvation Army are equal. I have, for example, a female boss who leads the region of Switzerland, Austria and Hungary. We have already also had a female general for all 131 countries where we are active. How exactly we share our tasks among us, we define ourselves. When the woman is the better organiser, she takes over the management of the community, and the husband takes care of the pastoral function. But it could be the other way around. Normally, all of our community leaders are married couples. Some of them met before they joined, some were already inside the organisation, like my wife and me.


# Sándor Péter Elek (left) took part in a poetry evening at Rózsakert church. Homeless people recited poems with the help of professional actors. His favourite poet is the Hungarian master Attila József, who reflected on his own fate of poverty in his lyrics of the beginning of the 20th century. (photo: Nóra Halász)


How did you come to the Salvation Army?

The family of my wife joined the Salvation Army when she was a teenager. My parents also served in it. When I was young, I still thought that faith was the world of my father. I was fascinated by music. At the age of 18 then, God spoke to me and told me that he also wants me to become an officer in the Salvation Army. He really told me that, I could hear his voice inside me! So I brought my life in order, got married at 22 and started my pastoral education at the age of 27. Today, I am 58 and I am still here. And I still play music in our brass band.

What does the collaboration with state institutions look like?

Our social work is directly paid by the state according to the Service Agreement. Our houses do not have a direct contract with the state but they are obviously dependent on the government. This is not a bad thing. I think that we do a better job at it than the state because we have a personal motivation to help the people. For the state it is just simply work, but for us it is a calling. In Hungary we have very good contacts with the government. This could be dangerous because if you work too closely with a government you might not be able to remain critical. After all, we do not want to serve the state but primarily the people. But in the 30 years of my career I have not yet encountered a problematic situation because of that.

Do you also work on propositions to change the system for the persons concerned?

Sometimes it would be better if we would already take part in steps of forming a law, especially when it comes to implementation. Between the approval and the application of a law, a lot of steps take place where the involved parties come to an agreement about how to realise the law. In Hungary this does not happen. Here, a law is approved overnight and then you must abide it. This also has one advantage: it is much faster. Democracy has only existed for 30 years in Hungary, so the procedures differ from the ones in Switzerland and there is still a lot of capacity for learning. But whether the system in Western Europe or here is better, does not matter: It is important to help the people.

What other incomes does the Salvation Army have?

The social work is mostly covered by the state. The church work is usually self-sustainable by the offerings of the community. At the moment we are still very far from that in Hungary and the Salvation Army Switzerland still supports our work. A big part of our income here we owe to the one percent tax regulation.

How does paying taxes help your work?

Yes, indeed, it is a typical Hungarian tax regulation but in Poland you will find something similar.

One percent of taxes can be used for church purposes and one percent for social purposes. As the Salvation Army is a church, every private person can designate the one percent for church purposes to help our work. The taxpayer profits because they do something good and don’t even have to pay extra for it, and we profit because we get the financial support for our work that we urgently need.

What is the current campaign about?

The advertising campaign is augmented by our new video campaign. The video is based on the true story of János. He grew up in a children's home, then lived on the street and now works as a chef. Such stories represent our work. With the support of the one percent program, we can give more people a future. Homelessness is a temporary state which can be changed. We have a lot of those examples like a captain who was homeless and is now driving a ship on the Danube. One of our community leaders lived on the street with his wife before. They could all start a new life with the help of the Salvation Army. Generally though, we are not so good in telling these success stories because we do not want to exploit them. We prefer action.


# photo: Nóra Halász


Are there also other ways to support the Salvation Army?

We are always grateful for financial donations. You can also work as a volunteer, for example at the food bank. Also, donations of clothes and donations in kind are welcome. If somebody donated a flat to us, we could renovate it for an assisted-housing program. There are a lot of ways to help us.


To help you can designate the Salvation Army in your One Percent tax declaration or donate online. For further information: udvhadsereg.hu.


The Salvation Army was founded in 1865 by the English Methodist pastor William Booth. He was shocked by the slums in the London East End that were caused by industrialisation. His wife, Catherine Booth, played an important role and she also preached from the beginning, which was unique at that time.

At the end of the 19th century the Salvation Army began spreading around the world. Today they are active in 131 countries. They were first present in Hungary in 1924 but between 1947 and 1989 – as an international organisation in uniform – they were banned in the Eastern bloc. After the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1990, they took up their mission in Hungary again. Today, 14 officers and 116 permanent employees work on location, mostly in the social sector. Their service includes a wide span of activities: they run several shelters for men and women, distribute lunch and are active in the Hungarian countryside, especially in Roma communities.

Several special events are organised each year. In the female shelter in Budapest’s 17th District, the Day of Beauty invites women to free massages, henna tattoos, counselling and pedicures by famous volunteers. The Salvation Army collaborates with the Food Bank and with the Maltese Cross, but also with private companies and supermarket chains that donate food. They maintain contact with the Budapest Social Centre (BMSZKI) and regularly take part in all kinds of social expert panels.



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