New Salvation Army directors ready to march

Having been Salvation Army officers for 12 years, and volunteers long before that, Brett and Mary Meredith know well the public perception of this evangelical Christian ministry. Most of that perception involves Christmas fundraising and homeless outreaches.

“I think it is very incomplete,” Brett Meredith said. “I think most people see the bells, see the kettles, they see the family stores but they don’t really know what we’re doing.”

If he and his wife have their way, that will change.

The Merediths, who took charge of the Salvation Army of Greater Baton Rouge in June, know their organization does more — substance abuse treatment, senior programs, youth initiatives. They also know there is more to be done, and they have a plan to get there.

One of the most visible ways will be a community center destined for land on Airline Highway across Maribel Drive from the Salvation Army’s main facility, where construction to replace the existing homeless shelter is about a month away from starting. There is still fundraising to do for the community center, but the goal is to start building in about a year and a half.

“That may be a little bit aggressive, but we’ll see,” Brett Meredith, 47, said.

Aggressive or not, the Merediths have been getting such things done in other cities.

After four years in Dallas, the Ohio natives were appointed to Kerrville, Texas, near San Antonio, where they built a center using part of a $1.6 billion bequest from Ray and Joan Kroc. Then, they were sent to Hampton Roads, Virginia, where they led the design and building of a $42 million, 90,000 square foot community center, also funds the Krocs had given to expand the Salvation Army’s work throughout the country.

The Kroc money is gone, but the need for community centers as bases for outreach remains, Brett Meredith said. The goal is to have adult programming by day, youth programming in non-school hours.

“We’re going to take our experiences and build those experiences into a community center here,” he said.

“It will be unique to Baton Rouge,” said Mary Meredith, 47.

If not unique, having husband-wife teams in charge of ministry is a distinctive trait of the Salvation Army, which in the United States allows single officers, but if they are married, husband and wife must take the same training, and both are ordained and commissioned. That was a roadblock when Brett, who sang in a Southern gospel band, felt called to become a Salvation Army officer. Mary, then a commercial property manager in Columbia, South Carolina, wasn’t interested.

“I asked God to remove us from the responsibility of ministry that we were in, and to change her heart,” Brett said. “I prayed it one time; that was it. I thought in five years that’s going to work out wonderfully. In six months, God removed the responsibility and changed her heart.”

Since then, they have wanted to change things for the less fortunate by expanding existing outreach efforts and creating new ones.

This year, the back-to-school program will give out about 300 backpacks to children. Next year, Brett said, it will be 500, and the following year, 1,000. With music and dance programs already in place on Monday nights during the school year, they want to create after-school programs to include tutoring and character building.

“As we open these programs, one of the things we have to look at is how do we help young people not be the ones we’re helping in addiction today or are homeless today,” Brett said. “That’s an important thing. We’ve got some things we want to accomplish. We’re going to build some buildings, but buildings aren’t half the battle. It’s the actual programming we put in the buildings that makes a difference in the lives of people.

“We really do view this as a ministry to the community. We want people to come to know Christ, but it’s not about beating anyone over the head about it. It’s about providing a cup of cool water and serving the community so that people see Christ in a way maybe they haven’t seen before, and maybe they want to know Christ. Whether they become part of the Salvation Army as a church is really immaterial to us. There are a lot of great churches out there. There are a lot of great people out there in those churches. The greatest compliment we can have is we have a ministry that reaches people.”