The streets of Moscow.
Colder than it was in Toledo last week.
Men with bushy, unkempt beards — their noses running,
Their clothes inadequate to the weather and torn.
None of them speak.
They do not meet your gaze or each others.’
But you can feel surliness, and brokenness, in the air.
There seem to be a lot of them.
They are lining up for soup.
A hot thick soup — served out of the trunk of an old car.
They scoop it and drink it from half milk cartons — cut or torn in half and kept by most, but not all, from meal to meal.
The woman serving them is Salvation Army Maj. Ivy Nash — a stout English lady of a certain age. She chastises those who have lost their ersatz soup bowls. After all have been served, and some have seconds, she begins to ask some how they are and if they have been home and seen their families or looked for work. She touches one or two on the shoulder. They still don't look up. But some of the anger and the sadness is gone.
This is the scene of what you might say was Tawny Cowen-Zanders’ reconversion experience. She witnessed it as a student in Russia almost 20 years ago. This is when she saw, with total clarity for the first time, compassion in action. This is when she knew what she would do with the rest of her life.
Ms. Cowen-Zanders is not your grandma’s Salvation Army officer.
She has a background in marketing and media as well as social work.
She has traveled extensively, including in Russia.
She lives in Maumee and is, in some ways, a doting suburban mother of two.
She is also, in some ways, a modern female executive. As head of the Salvation Army for five counties in northwest Ohio, she oversees a $3.5 million budget.
Oh, and she is really into high heels and utterly devoid of conspicuous piety.
She says that she is happy that she lacks the musical talent her husband, Kevin Zanders, possesses in spades or she would be a true diva.
And yet she believes, deeply and totally, in the mission of the Salvation Army — soup, soap, and salvation. The founder of the Salvation Army, William Booth, put it simply: Don’t talk about compassion or the spirit of Jesus, do something. Ms. Cowen-Zanders — Mr. Zanders says she is inspired by Pope Francis, whose message is much the same.
She tells me what people often tell her: We are not completely sure of all you do, but we trust your brand. We know that what we put in the red kettle at Christmas time helps people who need help.
How do they help? Feeding the hungry, clothing the cold, counseling; connecting clients to people in the social service system who can help them with housing, food stamps, or unemployment compensation; a make-shift toy store at the UAW hall for parents who cannot buy toys for their kids at Christmas (3,000 children got gifts this year); connecting the people who really need to give with the folks who need help. The day I visited the Salvation Army headquarters in Toledo, a truck full of clothes and gifts for adopted families was pulling in from UT, just as I was arriving.
Ms. Cowen-Zanders is a captain in the army. Her husband is a captain as well. Maybe not so coincidentally, the Jesuits, the order to which Pope Francis belongs, are also based on the army model. Indeed, it was founded by a soldier.
The idea of the Salvation Army, which is a church as well as an army, is the same as the Jesuits: Live simply and do what needs to be done for all who need a helping hand, especially those the world has cast aside.
Ms. Cowen-Zanders showed me her church, where about 60 people worship on Sundays. I asked if she tries to recruit clients to be parishioners. No, there is no pressure, she says. In fact, she tries, when she can, to connect people to churches near where they live or where they grew up.
She tells me about a family she was able to help last year. Both mom and dad lost their jobs. Then they lost the house. They are back on their feet this year. The family’s Christmas gift to themselves? To help another family at the Salvation Army this year.
She tells me also of a lady whose life was saved by an organ transplant. The donor was a 9-year-old boy. So each year this lady buys an extravagant number of gifts for a boy the age her donor would now be — a boy whose parents cannot afford to buy gifts. She does this through the Salvation Army.
Ms. Cowen-Zanders grew up In Newark, Ohio. Her father took her to the Salvation Army every Sunday to worship, and he taught her to root for the Cleveland Indians and work for social justice.
Yeah, social justice. That’s the Salvation Army of today.
But Ms. Cowen-Zanders never saw in Newark what she saw on the streets of Moscow that day so many years ago — a very stark picture of need and practical compassion. It changed her.
Have you ever seen the red kettle outside your supermarket and the woman or man ringing the bell and thought, “I’ll catch ’em next time. I haven’t got any ones and 10 is too much?”
This holiday, I will be with my wife and three children in a warm Toledo home. In fact we will probably have a fire. I know we will have plenty to eat. But I hope Maj. Ivy Nash and Ms. Cowen -Zanders’ father, and those men with the downcast eyes are all with me, somewhere in my head.
Count your blessings .
When you get a chance, do something.
When you see the red kettle, give the $10.
Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.
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