Uniforms were everywhere! From the Toronto lakefront to the Rogers Centre, from City Hall to the Eaton Centre, from the downtown theatre district to the corner of Yonge and Dundas—centrepiece of the city’s successful downtown retail and entertainment regeneration project—The Salvation Army made its presence known in a big way. “I haven’t seen so many people in uniform since last Remembrance Day,” said one Friday morning commuter dashing past the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, site of the Harvest of Hope Congress.
The Thanksgiving weekend event, October 10-12, was not simply a conference. It was a gathering of delegates from wide-ranging regions of Ontario Central-East Division to renew the joy of serving and find new ways to meet what Commissioner William W. Francis, territorial commander, termed “the greatest Salvation Army challenge of all.”
Winning the Victory
Thousands of Salvationists and friends of the Army attended the congress for music, devotion, meals, fun-loving fellowship, 14 workshops and two outdoor events during the weekend.
In his Friday morning officers’ councils address, Commissioner William Francis discussed recruitment and retention as important Army issues. “Yet the greatest challenge to The Salvation Army,” he said, “is unity.” Using a military metaphor, the commissioner emphasized that victories are won because of critical mass. “The critical mass of the Army is our strength,” he told the crowded meeting hall. “There are many voices but one Salvation Army wins the victory over evil. There is always a risk that too many voices become factions.” The commissioner counselled that there is unity in diversity, that views ranging from traditionalist to seeker-sensitive to radical to neo-salvationist are all important and well-respected. Citing Psalm 133:1—“How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity”—he led a prayer for the mission of the Army.
The “victory” theme was echoed in Sunday morning’s stunning hour-long presentation by Toronto Argonauts CEO and Hall of Famer Michael “Pinball” Clemons. “Coaches don’t win football games,” Clemons said. “Players win football games, and ‘team’ is the basis of every win. It’s the basis of humanity.”
Clemons cited the Argos’ 2004 Grey Cup win as a victory of attitude and teamwork, telling those gathered that quarterback Damon Allen got it right the morning of the big game when he looked every player in the face and said, “I’m playing this game for you.” It was his way of stating that every player needed to play for his team as a unit. The Argos 27-19 win over the B.C. Lions and Allen’s MVP award that year proved his point.
“The Salvation Army has already won the victory,” Clemons said, “because Christ died for us and all we have to do is carry the message. But it takes a vigilant team every day because the devil is very busy.”
Race to the Mission
Busy is exactly what Harvest of Hope youth were, starting with Friday night’s Club Salvo, a teen party with music, games, guest speaker and worship. But it was Saturday’s Go T.O. Race to the Mission, an Amazing Race-like relay, featuring detours, roadblocks, treasure hunt-like clues and surprises at every corner of Toronto’s downtown streets that had participants energized. Teens in teams ran to the Eaton Centre food court, for example, to find their next instruction on the back of a Mrs. Fields’ cookie. “A great race,” said runner Fiona O’Neill. “I love the food court, love the cookies, love my friends, love the Lord.”
The relay race was fun but it was also an experience in facing challenges, knowing that you can only win as a team. “It really tested the young people’s ability to work together, solve problems and stretch their faith,” said Kevin Slous, youth venue co-ordinator.
Saturday’s warm autumn temperatures and blue skies provided Bandmaster Geoff Norton’s 40-member Heritage Brass (formerly Ontario Central Reservist Band) a perfect day for mounting the bandstand at City Hall’s Nathan Phillips Square. The group played a concert of crowd-pleasers including 76 Trombones; The Radetzky March; Deep River; Holy, Holy, Holy and the much-loved Amazing Grace. The march Montreal Citadel was appreciated by Montreal visitors Sarah and Richard Provost and daughter, Deborah. Salvationists from Cuba, on hand to join in the weekend festivities, also turned out for the occasion.
Captain John Murray, divisional secretary for public relations and development and chairman of the congress planning committee, commented, “There’s something important happening for everyone. And nearly all events have been planned around meaningful worship, practical learning opportunities, and joyful renewal of mind and spirit.”
Rallies and Exhibits
Chief among weekend events were the women’s and men’s rallies, retired officers’ dinner and an exhibition hall featuring a wide range of presenters including a book signing with Commissioner Dudley Coles and a visit with a genuine Army biker “gang.”
Major Calvin Collins, corps officer of West Hill Community Church, was the man with the Honda Valkyrie, known for attracting crowds at bike rallies around the province. “I guess you could call us ‘Heaven’s Angels,’ ” he said, “but we’re just a group of Army officers and friends who don’t mind attracting a little attention from the hundred thousand or so that turn up at an annual biker rally in Port Perry, Ont. It’s another chance through a unique ministry to get the good word out, especially to young people.”
Lt-Colonel Ruth Crezo and Major Maria Yepez, visiting with a group of women Salvationists from Mexico, launched the women’s rally with a prayer in Spanish and English. In her high-energy, 40-minute presentation, Commissioner Marilyn D. Francis, territorial president of women’s ministries, brought the group to both applause and laughter. Quoting a lyric from Janis Joplin’s hit tune, Me and Bobby McGee—“Freedom is just another word for nothin’ left to lose”—she declared that a totally committed, focused and united Salvation Army is free to win the battle and achieve the mission because, unlike any other organization, it is free to act quickly and decisively against the worst of human conditions.
Simultaneously at the men’s rally, Christian dramatist Jason Hildebrand performed his one-man show, Life of David, a unique theatrical performance breathing new life into the classic story of David and Goliath.
Messages of Hope
Congress messages were simple, direct and clear. Lt-Colonel Donald Copple, chief secretary, said it right at the start: “We are here to provide light for today, to give strength when peril surrounds us, to stand up, to rebound, to forgive. We can do everything through Christ.” Those messages carried through every event, every day.
At the closing luncheon following the Sunday morning service, “Pinball” Clemons mesmerized the audience with a reminder to keep things simple. “Children can understand the Scriptures,” he said. “It’s scholars who have the problems. We reap what we sow. Let us not grow weary doing good. Treat God’s people well. Live like you have the victory. Did you ever notice there are no heroes when times are good? It’s adversity that reveals heroes.”
Clemons praised The Salvation Army for doing God’s work and was joined at the podium by a tearful Commissioner Marilyn Francis. Admitting she was emotionally moved by the power of his words, she held him close as she prayed for Clemons and his wife, Diane.
The three-day event was a blessing for young and old. One retired officer, Lt-Colonel Hugh Tilley, commented, “It’s remarkable to see so many people here—old friends, new friends, just-getting-started friends, retiring friends—all renewing their energy for the work that we do and committing to one voice.”
Like The Salvation Army’s motto, Giving Hope Today, Lt-Colonel Donald Copple suggested those assembled will always need a “light for today” to maintain their mission focus. Referring to Acts 13:15—“Brothers, if you have a message of encouragement for the people, please speak”—he said, “Giving strength when evil abounds, being able to stand up, rebound and forgive, realizing we can do anything through him—this message is central to the 2008 congress and to our entire mission.”
Photos: 1. Commissioner William W. Francis speaks during officers’ councils; 2. Toronto Argonauts CEO Michael “Pinball” Clemons at Sunday morning breakfast; 3. Club Salvo—Friday night youth event; 4. Heritage Brass in action, Nathan Phillips Square; 5.Children enjoy their own congress experience; 6. Cpt Danielle Strickland, a Canadian officer currently serving in Australia, leads worship in one of the main sessions; 7. Carol Jaudes, centre, with members of the U.S.A. Eastern Territorial Arts Ministry team, who ministered throughout the weekend; 8. Mjr Floyd Tidd, DC, Ont. CE Div, welcomes congress delegates.