Christmas isn’t Christmas without Salvation Army bell-ringers and red kettles. When I was a child in Brooklyn, those bell-ringers were usually Salvation Army (SA) officers in full uniform. Sometimes there was a small brass ensemble playing Christmas carols rather than a simple bell. They were usually outside of the Woolworths on Fifth Avenue BROOKLYN (not Manhattan).
I knew the Captain of the local Salvation Army Corps. Like most everything we associated with in the neighborhood, she was Norwegian. My first memory of the leader of the local corps was walking with my father and coming across a street meeting in progress. Street meetings had a little music, a short sermon, an invitation to receive Christ right there or to the local church.
When I was five or six, I first met Captain Johnson. It might have been Lieutenant Johnson then but mostly I remember her as Captain. While we were not Salvationists, my father loved to go to different churches when there was a service in Norwegian. My father was an immigrant from Norway. So with my hand tightly in my father’s we walked the 3 ½ blocks to the SA Corps once afternoon. I was to become a Sunbeam.
Sunbeams are a scouting type program connected with the SA. I met Captain Johnson. She knew my dad and this was pre-arranged. She smiled at me and welcomed me with her strong Norwegian accent. I remembered her from the images of her in uniform, standing on the curb, Bible in hand, preaching. Captain Johnson was a single woman who was Pastor and leader of that Norwegian SA Corps in “Norwegian” Brooklyn NY.
I got my drab grey Sunbeam uniform with the complementary beanie. Soon my sash was filled with badges for my mother to sew on my uniform. When I was seven, Captain took me to Manhattan with her. I do not recall how we got there, probably the subway. As every true New Yorker knows, you do not drive in Manhattan.
We walked into a big auditorium with a full brass band playing the songs of spiritual war. My uniform was freshly pressed and every badge straight. Soon an impressing SA officer announced that they were giving the Commissioners medal to me. He further explained that normally you had to be 8 years old to receive this medal but that I had completed all the requirements. They were making an exception for me. I walked to the front of the auditorium and saluted the officer. He returned the salute and pinned the metal on my uniform. I was the only Sunbeam from our Corps to receive this medal.
Captain took me to summer camp in the van, drove me back. She took me to rallies of various sorts. I went to VBS all through my childhood there and later was a helper. My reward for helping was a SA flag and American flag on a small stand. She took me to the officer training school. I wonder, did she see the call of God in me? Did she think I should be an officer? It was never spoken, but I think she did.
Later when I was old enough to be a Girl Guard (GG), the scouting program for older girls, I was asked at times to lead the meeting. Captain didn’t lead the Girl Guard’s. Kari, her young assistant, fresh from Norway, led it. She was amazing with the tambourine with streamers. She tried to teach me but I never excelled.
One GG meeting I decided we had become too “worldly.” I took it upon myself to preach a short sermon from John 3, Ye Must Be Born-Again. I must have been 11 years old. I even gave an invitation. At the end, Kari smiled at me and prayed. She thanked God for the reminder of God’s love for us. That was my first sermon.
I have so many wonderful memories of Captain (and later Major) Gurli Johnson. I imagine she has been promoted to glory as they say in the Salvation Army. When asked what ever gave me the notion that a woman could serve in ministry I think of Captain Johnson.
Captain Johnson was a single woman who gave her life to ministry through the Salvation Army. I have no idea how many people came to the Lord during those street-meetings. Nor do I have any idea how many people received the charitable ministries of her local Corps. I know she preached faithful on the street as well as every Sunday morning at the Corps. She was the sole Pastor of that Corps. I know she worked tirelessly for the Kingdom. I know she was a spiritual giant in that Norwegian community in Brooklyn. I know she forever imprinted and influenced my life. She gives me courage to minister.