Volunteers serve lunch before a worship service at The Covington Salvation Army.
People know them as the bell-ringers, the Merry Christmas well-wishers, the quick-responders when the chips are down. But what people might not realize is The Salvation Army is also a church founded in 1865 by a traveling evangelist who set out to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ to the poor, the homeless, the hungry and the destitute in London.
Today, The Salvation Army spans the globe with service centers across the U.S., including in Covington, and recently that location expanded its work by becoming what the organization terms a "mission station." As a mission station, The Covington Salvation Army will offer spiritual programs in addition to its other services.
The Covington Salvation Army has offered assistance to the community since it began in the mid-1960s as a food pantry at the Newton County Board of Education. Volunteers also administered financial assistance to people who were facing past-due bills, in need of prescriptions or experiencing a crisis or emergency.
The Covington Salvation Army held its first worship service on May 12.
"It was wonderful," said mission team member Chrissy Busbee. "We were not sure how many people would come, but we had quite a number. It was amazing. We served 100 meals that day. We had four people come to Christ that day."
Busbee, who is the assistant director of the Covington Service Center for The Salvation Army, said the June service was even larger than May's service. Volunteers served 120 meals and even more people attended the June service, held in tents on the lawn of the service center off Washington Street in Covington.
As part of the mission team, Busbee assists Maj. N.J. Pope, a retired Salvation Army officer, who was instrumental in getting the Covington center designated a mission station.
"He is actually the founding father of this mission station," Busbee said. "He helped with the study and saw the homeless population was much greater than what we were aware of and has taken his own time and own money and poured it into Newton County."
Busbee said people call Pope "Colonel Sanders" because he looks so much like the Col. Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame. She also said he volunteers "100 percent of his time and gets paid nothing."
"He's a wonderful man and a huge asset to Newton County," Busbee said. "He goes out into the neighborhoods on Mondays and visits. He's very spiritual and down-to-earth. I love to hear him preach. He's one of those preachers who is not condemning you for everything, but teaches you about the love and grace Christ offers."
Covington Service Center Director Jody Carver said the idea of offering worship services at the local center in Covington is to reach a group of people who are not being reached with the gospel message. She said The Salvation Army is not in competition with other churches, but with more than an estimated 70 percent of Newton County residents not attending any church, "we felt a call to action."
The Salvation Army currently offers a monthly worship service the second Sunday each month and Carver said plans include moving toward a weekly service in the near future. The service begins with lunch served at noon followed by a worship service of singing and preaching at 1 p.m.
Carver said the center's spiritual ministry is under the leadership of Pope, and the whole team is excited about being recognized as a mission station because she said it brings The Salvation Army's mission statement full circle.
"The Salvation Army is an international movement and an evangelical part of the universal Christian church," she said. "Its message is based on the Bible. Its ministry is motivated by the love of God. Its mission is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human needs in His name without discrimination."
Carver said volunteers have begun visiting local neighborhoods and sharing Christ and praying with area residents. The first worship service was held under a tent last month and additional Bible studies and other programs are in the works for the coming months.
The Salvation Army Service Center opened in Covington in 1996 at 5193 Washington Street, where it continues to operate its Family Store. The Family Store offers new and gently used household items, clothing and furniture at a discount price.
Also at that location is the Donation Center and Family Service Office which helps families and individuals with financial assistance for past-due utility, rent and mortgage payments and prescription assistance for the uninsured. There is also a food pantry and clothes closet.
The Salvation Army aids about 500 children each year, providing them with Christmas toys. The organization also supplies turkeys for the Community Thanksgiving Dinner. Each year, the Salvation Army also sponsors about 25 children from Newton County to attend Camp Grandview, a weeklong camp for boys and girls ages 7 to 12.
Carver said The Salvation Army did a study in the local community in 2009 and discovered there was a homeless population that was not being serviced. The organization partnered with Eastridge Community Church and began training. Todd Newman is now the team captain and Carver said he has gone out as many as seven times in a month to feed low-income and homeless families and individuals.
"We began to see relationships develop and were able to offer resources that they didn't know existed," Carver said.
The Salvation Army has also partnered with other groups including Repairers of the Breach, the Rainbow Shelter, Journey Church and the Salvation Army Disaster Team, which provides the four tents being used for the monthly worship services.