Bell ringers with red kettles collecting donations for The Salvation Army are a classic sign that the holidays have arrived, but for some, the choice about whether to drop in a few dollars has become as political as it is personal.
The religious nonprofit, which describes itself as the “largest social services provider in the world,” has made headlines recently as the fast-food restaurant chain Chick-fil-A announced it would be changing its charitable giving strategy.
Salvation Army and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, which also has local chapters in Umatilla and Morrow counties, will no longer be receiving funds from the restaurant’s charitable foundation.
“Staying true to its mission of nourishing the potential in every child, the Chick-fil-A Foundation will deepen its giving to a smaller number of organizations working exclusively in the areas of education, homelessness and hunger,” the restaurant said.
Many have speculated that The Salvation Army and Fellowship of Christian Athletes were among those that didn’t make the cut because both organizations have come under fire from activists who say they discriminate against members of the LGBTQ community. Chick-fil-A itself has also been boycotted by LGBTQ groups for its founder’s stance against gay marriage and for donations to organizations considered anti-gay.
Pendleton Salvation Army staff directed questions on the subject to Alexa Morris, director of communications for the Cascades region of The Salvation Army. She said the organization does not turn away people in need of services based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
“We serve everyone and anyone who comes through our doors,” she said.
Posts that have circulated on social media in recent years tell stories — often anonymously — of discrimination at the hands of Salvation Army employees and volunteers, claiming they have made derogatory comments, turned transgender people away from shelters if they were not willing to sleep in areas according to their assigned sex at birth, or required homosexual couples to sleep in separate areas while allowing heterosexual couples to stay together.
In 2014, a transgender woman in Texas named Jodielynn Wiley told the media she had applied for a housing program through the Salvation Army that would have involved sharing a room and bathroom with other women. Wiley said she was told by a caseworker she wouldn’t be accepted because she hadn’t had gender-reassignment surgery.
Critics also point to the Salvation Army’s religious doctrine requiring celibacy outside of marriage and restricting the definition of marriage to between a man and a woman. In 2015, the magazine Queerty published internal documents from Salvation Army directing officers to decline to perform same-sex marriages.
Today, The Salvation Army’s website has a section dedicated to dispelling what it calls “myths” about its treatment of LGBTQ people, stating that it does not discriminate in hiring or providing services, such as emergency shelter. The organization points to its practice of hiring openly gay employees and that it offers the same benefits to employees in same-sex marriages as it does to all married employees.
The organization states due to homophobia, youth who identify as LGBTQ are more likely to be homeless, making up as much as 40% of the country’s homeless youth population. The Salvation Army assists them with food, clothing, shelter and counseling resources.
“We serve more than 23 million individuals a year, including those in the LGBTQ+ community. In fact, we believe we are the largest provider of poverty relief to the LGBTQ+ population,” The Salvation Army said in a statement responding to Chick-fil-A’s decision to not donate to the organization in 2020. “When misinformation is perpetuated without fact, our ability to serve those in need, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, religion or any other factor, is at risk.”
Morris said all donations made to red kettles and events, such as The Salvation Army’s red kettle kickoff fundraising dinner, stay locally, supporting programs like meals for the homeless that The Salvation Army provides in Pendleton six days a week. Even if someone makes an online donation, the money stays within the ZIP code associated with the credit card used to pay.
“You’re able to give right in your community,” she said.
Morris said a volunteer bell ringer will on average bring in enough money in one hour to pay for 13 meals for a homeless member of their community. Major DeWayne Hallstad of the Pendleton Salvation Army told the Hermiston Herald earlier this year there were 73 people at a meal the previous day.
“We urge the public to seek the truth before rushing to ill-informed judgment and greatly appreciate those partners and donors who ensure that anyone who needs our help feels safe and comfortable to come through our doors,” The Salvation Army stated.
In 2019, Chick-fil-A donated $115,000 to The Salvation Army for its Angel Tree program, which provides Christmas gifts for children, and $1.65 million to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes to pay for underprivileged youths to attend sports camps at historically black universities, such as Morehouse College.
Rod Bragato of Hermiston, who supervises the Umatilla and Morrow County chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, said the money Chick-fil-A has donated to the organization in the past has stayed on the other side of the country and not been used to fund programs locally.
“The issue is really irrelevant to us,” he said.
Locally, the FCA offers optional religious devotionals to student athletes after practices, hosts athletic activities, such as broom hockey, and offers weekend camps. Bragato said they serve about 300 students on a weekly basis.
The organization has been criticized for the “statement of faith” on its website, which says, in part, that sexual relations should only happen within marriage and that marriage is “exclusively the union of one man and one woman” and that leaders must agree to follow teachings on sexual purity.
Bragato said despite the national organization’s religious beliefs, local students are never turned away for being LGBTQ and he has not been instructed by the organization to do so.
“Anyone can come,” he said. “I don’t think anyone is discriminated against.”
Instead of donating smaller amounts to a long list of organizations as it has in years past, Chick-fil-A plans to donate a total of $9 million in 2020 to Covenant House International, Junior Achievements USA and food banks in areas where its restaurants are located.