Salvation Army commanders answer call to serve despite challenges of COVID & Hurricane Ida

Published 6:30 am Sunday, October 10, 2021

St. James and St. John the Baptist are two of the seven parishes served by the New Orleans Command. 

NEW ORLEANSAs co-commanders of the Salvation Army New Orleans Command, Majors Christopher and Lynda Thornhill have been at the helm of the non-profit for nearly a year and a half, and yet, both will tell you with a bit of a chuckle that they are still waiting to see what a normal day looks like. It was challenging enough to take command of a new location during the height of the COVID-19 lockdown, but now they are also facing the daunting task of assisting those impacted by Hurricane Ida, as all the parishes they serve were hit by the Category 4 storm. While most people would be a bit deflated by this one-two punch, the majors see the challenges not as setbacks but opportunities.

“We’ve certainly had a few curve balls thrown our way,” comments Major Lynda, who is heavily involved in the social services and the day-to-day programs of the Salvation Army. But, despite the ongoing problems with COVID and now Ida, both Thornhills know their leadership is needed now more than ever.

 “The day after Ida hit, we were out in the street with 23 canteens and a team of volunteers doing what­­­­­­­­­ we do; helping those in need providing nourishment and emotional support,” notes Major Chris, who handles the financial and strategic operations of the organization. This immediate response occurred even though their buildings were damaged and uninhabitable, but as Major Chris explains, helping others comes first. “We’ve never been on the receiving side of a disaster like a hurricane; we’ve always been the ones to go into a community and help after a disaster. So immediately after the storm, our instincts kicked in, and we got to work doing something we love, and that is serving those in need in the community.”

You could figuratively say that serving others is in the Thornhill’s blood; both majors are multi-generational Salvation Army commanders. Their parents, grandparents and other family members have served in the 156-year-old evangelical organization that exists to meet human needs wherever, whenever, and however it can. Ironically, Major Chris can look out his office window and view Ochsner Baptist Hospital, the very hospital he was born in when his parents served as New Orleans commanders. And because all commanders are also ordained ministers, both Thornhills find themselves preaching from the same chapel pulpit Major Chris’ father preached from years ago. They are happy to be in New Orleans and have found the community welcoming and supportive. While they have met many new friends and neighbors, their daily interactions with those they serve are limited because of the pandemic restrictions and the age and population of what Major Lynda calls their flock, and that is the one aspect of their tenure to date that has bothered them the most.

Since March 2020, all of their programs and facilities have been impacted due to COVID capacity regulations, which is noticeable in the Salvation Army’s Center of Hope. The center is a multi-purpose facility that provides a hot meal and overnight lodging for single adults, families, seniors, and the disabled who have no other option for safe shelter. There are also transitional apartments and space for numerous children’s programs and a food pantry. In addition, there is the chapel that provides a spiritual home to those in Salvation Army programs and to anyone in the community who wishes to attend. They have had to limit the number they assist and turn to porch visits and calls to many seniors due to their hesitancy to leave home. While they are doing their best to serve, they know many who need help are not getting it.

Adding to the challenges now is the Ida impact, which has once again upended programs and people. When the storm hit, the majors evacuated 60 people out of the Center of Hope, and they and those in their care moved to the organization’s rehabilitation center in Jefferson Parish. They spent ten days in the building with a small generator that allowed for a few fans and a functioning kitchen but little else. The 60 men who usually live in the center were evacuated earlier to Memphis so their rehabilitation program would not be disrupted. Once the majors were able to return to their Claiborne Avenue campus, what they found was extensive water damage throughout the facility. More concerning now is this is the time of year when the Salvation Army is the busiest as their most visible public outreach revolves around Christmas with the Red Kettle Campaign, Angel Tree and Silver Bells program, and that has them scrambling.

Last year the Angel Tree and Silver Bells campaign resulted in more than 1700 requests for children and seniors to be adopted. As Major Lynda explains, “We rely on residents to purchase toys, clothing and other presents, but with COVID, we were not able to secure enough donations, which was understandable. Our concern this year is that many families are still financially hurting, and now we have the Ida aftermath that will add to those financial burdens.” The majors are anticipating even more requests for adoptions, and at the same time, they are preparing to have fewer donations, but they see this as just another challenge.  As both majors say, “All the adversity we’ve faced since moving to New Orleans has made us 100 percent stronger in our faith. There is a reason for everything, and we have no doubt that God will provide and help get us through.”

The Salvation Army, an international movement, is an evangelical part of the universal Christian Church. Its message is based on the Bible. Its ministry is motivated by the love of God. Its mission is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human needs in His name without discrimination.