Roamer: Celebrate with the Salvation Army

William and Catherine Booth
William and Catherine Booth

With most of the festive hubbub past and gone, and with the traditional seasonal look-backs at last year over and done, Roamer has been gathering his wits and trying to return to ‘business as usual!’

There are some important matters that were pending even before the recent festivities took hold - the growing backlog of readers’ letters that need urgent attention, and also some unfinished business.

The latter matter includes story-teller Eva Baxter’s gripping account of the life of Susanna Wesley, the ‘mother of Methodism’.

I promised to return to Eva’s well-researched profile of Methodist founders John and Charles Wesley’s mother, and also to Aidan Campbell’s second compilation of wonderfully evocative reminiscences of East Belfast.

These, and many other readers’ observations, anecdotes and memories held over from last year will be shared on this page very soon. Please keep sending them to Roamer!

But returning for a moment to the Christmas just passed, I sensed last week that there was more than the usual cacophony of so-called ‘seasonal music’ in our shops, supermarkets and garage forecourts.

My ears seemed to ring relentlessly with Slade’s Merry Xmas Everybody, John Lennon’s So This is Christmas and Wizard’s persistent wishing that it Could be Christmas Every Day!

Whilst an occasional old-fashioned carol punctuated the pop classics, Away in a Manger sounded somewhat incongruous as trolleys overloaded with food and booze trucked past the tinsel-clad cash tills.

Amidst the merry mayhem I had reason to be paying daily visits to a hospital where the background music was quieter and less forthright.

On Christmas morning a completely different sound echoed through the wards and corridors. It was the clean, clear, rich harmonies of real, live Christmas music, played by a Salvation Army band.

There was a huge contrast between the lovingly-blown cornet, trombone, tuba and euphonium and the recorded, repetitive pop tunes that emanated from shops’ ubiquitous loudspeakers.

Later on Christmas day, and completely co-incidentally, a reader’s note appeared in Roamer’s in-tray wishing me seasonal greetings and adding “I enjoyed your look-back at 2014, but there’s something coming up this year which I’m sure will attract a lot of attention - the 150th anniversary of the Salvation Army.”

I turned to one of my reference books and discovered an article entitled The General Next to God. Condensed from a book with the same title by Richard Collier, the article began “He came up the Mile End Road in London’s East End, a tall bearded man in a frock coat. Outside the brick façade of the Blind Beggar public house he halted and drew a book from beneath his arm.”

The year was 1865, the book was the Bible and the man in the frock coat was William Booth. “There is heaven in the East End for everyone,” he proclaimed amidst a volley of jeers and insults as a rotten egg head hit him on his forehead.

The 36-year-old itinerant evangelist held his ground, paused, prayed, and strode on into London’s stinking slums with egg yolk trickling down his face.

William, later to be joined by his wife Catherine, and then by their children and grandchildren, had taken the first steps of a journey that ultimately brought the endearingly nicknamed Sally Ann to nearly 130 countries around the world.

On 2 July 1865 William Booth commenced his first open air evangelistic campaign in an old Quaker burial ground on Mile End waste in Whitechapel, preaching in a tent. It was noted that “the breath of any reeked with the fumes of gin or beer which drove from the already heavy air within those canvas walls the last vestige of wholesomeness.”

William became the military-structured Salvation Army’s first General.

Today millions of people worldwide attend the Army’s religious meetings, indoors in their halls and outdoors at their characteristic ‘open air’ gatherings around the red, yellow and blue flag. And of course, the big drum!

The organisation is hugely regarded for its charitable and community work here and around the world, and for its global work with missing persons, its hospitals, homes and hostels.

As the organisation celebrates its 150th year in operation, I hope News Letter readers will share their reminiscences of, and memorable encounters with, the Sally Ann.

One of last year’s letters in Roamer’s back-log came from Ballymena reader James McIlhatton. Around the time in 2014 when this page carried a number of stories about Gracehill’s Dark Hedges James noted an article in a popular national newspaper about a Save our Trees campaign. The article listed some of the UK’s most famous trees and James “was delighted to see illustrated amongst them, our own Dark Hedges.”

It seems that Gracehill’s ancient archway of trees ranks equally with “the 1,000-year-old oak tree where Robin Hood sheltered in Sherwood Forest.”

James pointed out that the article also included “Sir Isaac Newton’s apple tree in Lincolnshire and the 300-year-old Hornbeam of Hainault which is a hollow tree in North East London, a unique sanctuary for owls, bats and woodpeckers.” Gracehill’s Dark Hedges may have soared into arboreal history, but I’m sure there are many other trees across Northern Ireland that have a special place in our past, whether personal or historical.

I’m also quite sure that News Letter readers will let Roamer know about them. Please send pictures if you have them!