UPDATED 1:15 p.m. | Leaders of a leading local gay rights organization say concerns about the Salvation Army’s historic stance on LGBTQI+ issues shouldn’t stop Bloomington-Normal residents from contributing to the local chapter or prevent someone from seeking assistance.
The Prairie Pride Coalition’s board said in a statement Saturday that it recommends LGBT community members support the local Salvation Army and that those who are homeless or in crisis to seek assistance from the organization’s Safe Harbor shelter and other services.
The Prairie Pride Coalition’s board investigated the “climate and culture at our local branch” this year. They were told that the Salvation Army had worked to “create a welcoming environment for all people regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” including LGBTQI+ awareness training for staff members at Safe Harbor.
“Given this information and the sincere, earnest efforts by the staff and leadership at our local Salvation Army, we feel comfortable recommending that members of our community support our local Salvation Army, and we urge members of our community who are homeless or in crisis to seek assistance from Safe Harbor and Salvation Army’s other services,” Prairie Pride Coalition’s board wrote.
The coalition noted that several studies have determined that LGBTQI+ people comprise a disproportionate percentage of the homeless population.
“We recognize this local endorsement might not sit well with all members of our LGBTQI+ community. We understand that this might be one of those contentious issues where unanimity is not possible. However, at the very least we hope this document will spur conversation, reflection, and continued dialogue,” Prairie Pride Coalition’s board wrote.
In an interview Monday on GLT's Sound Ideas, Prairie Pride Coalition Board President Dave Bentlin explained the decision.
"We found an operation that has been making some great strides in the last few years. Director of Social Services Gaby Buntea demonstrated to us that they have been doing a lot of work in this area. Gaby and her staff have attended national regional conferences which included sessions on serving the LGBTQI+ community. And these were conferences that were sponsored by the Salvation Army. And that told us a couple of things. It told us on the local level there was an interest in better serving the members of the local community, but also the fact the national Salvation Army is sponsoring these conferences, it tells us that at least it is on their radar, that they realize they need to do better in this area," said Bentlin.
Salvation Army Responds
The Salvation Army, a Christian organization, has faced criticism for years over its position on LGBT issues—concerns that typically flare up during the holiday Red Kettle donation season.
One example: As the national conversation swirled in 2012 about gay marriage, Salvation Army leader William Roberts co-signed a letter from many religious groups “to affirm that marriage in its true definition must be protected for its own sake and for the good of society.”
“Therefore, we encourage all people of good will to protect marriage as the union between one man and one woman, and to consider carefully the far-reaching consequences for the religious freedom of all Americans if marriage is redefined,” the letter read.
In a statement Monday, Bloomington Corps Officer Major Dan Leisher responded to the Prairie Pride Coalition's endorsement.
"We at The Salvation Army serving McLean County are happy to have this discussion with Prairie Pride Coalition and are glad they support us in our efforts to serve without discrimination. While we understand PPC only feels comfortable giving their support to our local Salvation Army Corps, we would like it to be known that nationally, The Salvation Army operates under the same beliefs as our local corps. Our organizational mission statement ends with the words 'to meet human needs in His (Jesus) name without discrimination.'
"We hope to continue these open discussions with PPC and the LBGTQI+ community as we strive to learn how we can continue to help all of those in need in our community and throughout the world," Leisher added.
Prairie Pride Coalition's board said they were told by local Salvation Army leaders that the Safe Harbor shelter “does not proselytize on behalf of the Salvation Army organization … and no one who enters the Salvation Army facility is preached to or required to attend religious services.”
That distinction is important, Bentlin said.
"In looking at our local operation, it was looking at the boots on the ground rather than the philosophical aspects of the Salvation Army. We got a chance to talk with staff members here and got a very different picture. We got a picture of staff who were very caring, who were very careful about learning more about the LGBTQI+ community, about having the cultural competency necessary to better serve members of our community who need their services," said Bentlin.
Bentlin acknowledged the coalition's answer would have been different if the Red Kettle donations were not used solely locally and if the local organization were proselytizing in addition to offering help to the homeless.
“We continue to oppose the national organization’s position statement and urge members and allies of our local LGBTQI+ community to donate here rather than send money to the national office,” Prairie Pride Coalition’s board wrote.
You can also listen to GLT's full interview with Bentlin:
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