by Gwen Orel
When you see a soldier march, you snap to attention.
At least that’s what Major Brett DeMichael of the Salvation Army hoped would happen when he walked 26 miles around Montclair this past Saturday, Aug. 8.
DeMichael, commanding officer of the Salvation Army Montclair Citadel, walked the marathon to raise awareness and resources for the work the Salvation Army is doing to help homeless and hungry people during the COVID-19 pandemic.
He walked an eight-mile loop three times, a loop that included part of Bloomfield Avenue down to Lackawanna Plaza, past the hospital, Brookdale Park, Mountainside Park, Presby Iris Gardens and Van Vleck House & Gardens.
DeMichael is an ordained minister in the Salvation Army, and he and his wife have been in Montclair for two years.
He came up with the idea to walk a marathon on one of his daily walks for exercise, one of the only ways he has been able to get out of the house during the pandemic.
“I wanted to do something like that for some purpose other than my own benefit,” he said.
The Salvation Army has continued its work with the homeless and food-insecure during the pandemic, but things have changed.
The organization’s 26-bed family shelter at Cornerstone House, 68 North Fullerton Ave., has been unable to take new clients until recently, he said. They have just begun taking applications to fill empty spots.
Normally it is an evening shelter, with people leaving in the morning to go to work or to the library — but under the shutdown it was not realistic to ask people to leave.
So the staff had to allocate more hours, with some of them taking on more.
The Salvation Army normally would have many volunteers along with its staff of seven, but that has not been possible.
Casework with individuals looking for secure homes continued, but had to be arranged by phone.
The lunches the Salvation Army serves three times a week would normally be served inside, but since the pandemic began they have been served as to-go meals.
In addition to that, DeMichael said, the Salvation Army works with the Community FoodBank of New Jersey to supply grocery baskets to distribute to needy families, about 20-30 meals in each one for a family of four, and a total of 50-60 baskets per week. The Salvation Army adds to baskets supplied by the food bank, and distributes locally.
“We were determined not to shut down, and to be available,” DeMichael said.
Montclair Emergency Services for the Homeless continues to serve dinner every night out of the Salvation Army parking lot.
‘FOLLOW THE FOLD’
Many people know the Salvation Army primarily from the musical “Guys & Dolls,” where the strait-laced Salvation Army Sergeant Sarah Brown, singing “Follow the Fold and Stray No More,” ends up falling for gambler Sky Masterson.
“That did us some good work,” DeMichael said with a laugh. “It tells people who we are, and what we’re about.”
In fact, the Salvation Army works with many high schools every year to supply uniforms for school productions of the 1950 musical by Frank Loesser, Jo Swerling and Abe Burrows, based on stories by Damon Runyon.
Unlike the Salvation Army in the musical, however, today the Salvation Army does not insist that anyone listen to a sermon before they are given food or help. However, it is true that at its core, the Salvation Army is a church. And the musical’s look at the Salvation Army helping what society would see as hard-core sinners is accurate.
“When our church was founded in London in the 1860s, and when it came to the United States in the 1880s, the founders were adamant that part of what the church should be doing in the world was serving the most vulnerable,” DeMichael said.
“Alcoholics and their families at that time were not welcome in church. Our founders felt that it was hard to tell people about their spiritual needs if they are hungry or their physical needs are not met. That continues to this day. Our mission statement is to serve human needs in God’s name, without discrimination.”
The Salvation Army holds worship services on Sunday, as many churches do. What the Salvation Army calls officers are what other denominations would call priests, DeMichael said.
His own parents were officers in the Salvation Army.
The walk’s goal is to raise a few thousand dollars. People are able to donate even after the walk itself.
“I don’t think people will give based on whether I finish or not,” DeMichael said. “This is a mechanism to do something that may catch somebody’s eye.”