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Salvation Army to install its first black U.S. commander

Few blacks have served as the top officials of majority white U.S. religious bodies.

Published May 12, 2006

NEW YORK - The Salvation Army is poised to appoint a black leader for its U.S. operations today, the first time a black church official has led the predominantly white, evangelical denomination in this country.

Commissioner Israel L. Gaither is scheduled to become the commander of the army in the United States at a ceremony featuring brass band and choral flourishes.

Few blacks have served as the top officials of majority white U.S. religious bodies. Other examples include Archbishop Wilton Gregory, former president of the Roman Catholic bishops' conference, and the Rev. William Sinkford, current president of the Unitarian Universalist Association.

Gaither downplays any racial aspect in his choice by General Shaw Clifton, the new world leader of the army, a denomination famed for its social services. Clifton will preside at New York's Centennial Memorial Temple at the installations of Gaither and of his wife, Eva, as president of Women's Ministries.

"I'm not here because of my color, and I wouldn't be here if I thought I was," Gaither said. "I want to serve all men and women. I am aware I can serve as a model to African-Americans, as well as to whites and Hispanics."

Eva is white and their 1967 interracial marriage was the first between American Salvation Army officers.

"I grew up at the edge of the civil rights era" and "there was a lot of Jim Crow-ism around, behind your back. You didn't see it, but you could feel it," Gaither said. He said the army "disallowed" certain appointments early in his career "but we understood the times. We hope we were able personally to influence change."

Racial statistics aren't recorded, but Gaither said blacks are a very small percentage of U.S. members and "officers" (equivalent to clergy). Does the army need more black officers? "Yes. We could use more officers, period, and more African-Americans," Gaither said. "But this is not employment. It's a calling."

That's a major problem facing Gaither, 61, who reaches retirement age in five years. There are only 3,661 officers, down a third in the past five years. Gaither attributes this to the army's "high standards."

The small, disciplined officer corps leads 422,543 church members (112,513 of them oath-bound "soldiers") and an extraordinary charity empire with 60,642 employees and 3.5-million volunteers that annually spends $2.6-billion to aid Americans.

Another challenge is the army's insistence that staffers uphold its beliefs.

"We're going to obey the laws of the land. However, we will not give up our standards. We are rooted in biblical concepts," he said. "We want employees to understand our values and abide by them ... we're not going to compromise."

[Last modified May 12, 2006, 07:38:31]

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