NEW YORK - Hundreds of U.S. Salvation Army officers welcomed home Israel L. Gaither as their new national commander Friday night, after his official installation as the first African American to lead the evangelical body in the United States.
The Army's worldwide leader, General Shaw Clifton, charged Gaither and his wife Eva, now national president of women's ministries, as the new U.S. heads in front of spirit-filled and overjoyed Salvationists who partook in the celebration from all over the world.
"Welcome back to the American mission field," Commissioner Philip D. Needham, commander of the Southern territory, told the Gaithers Friday during the installation ceremony at the Centennial Memorial Temple. "You come ready."
As the 26th national head, Gaither is the first black commander in the 126-year history of the U.S. Salvation Army, an evangelical denomination famed globally for its compassion and social services. But Gaither does not draw attention to the racial aspect.
"I'm not here because of my color, and I wouldn't be here if I thought I was," Gaither told The Associated Press in an interview prior to Friday’s service. "I want to serve all men and women. I am aware I can serve as a model to African-American, as well as to whites and Hispanics."
And many officers have testified the over 40 years of "exemplary" service the Gaithers have given.
Lt. Colonel Judy Falin of the national headquarters acknowledged The Salvation Army's enthusiastic acceptance of their new commander, drawing from a poll that confirmed an overwhelming approval rating for the Gaithers. They have "already won the hearts of the Army," she said.
Prior to returning to America's headquarters, Gaither had been serving as Chief of the Staff, the second-ranking officer at world headquarters, in London for four years. He was the first to hold the position since the founding of the organization in 1865. There, Eva served as the world secretary for Women's Ministries.
Appointed to their new leadership positions in the U.S. on Feb. 1, 2006, the Gaithers were commended by General Clifton and Commissioner Helen Clifton who both comforted the American Salvationists of the Gaithers' return home.
"They are here for you," the General told the full house of Salvationists.
And more than ever, "America needs The Salvation Army," the commander underscored. Although the number of Army officers has declined in the past five years, according to AP, Gaither is set on leading Christ-centered soldiers to do its mission of good.
"I believe its time for Salvationists in America to become soldiers," he told the crowd, alluding to the cultural war, natural disasters, attempts to recast God's intentions for family, and the ugliness of wrong being reshaped to look like its right.
This past year, the Army has collected record donations in hurricane relief aid and the red kettle campaign. The organization now faces the second phase of its Katrina recovery plan, preparations for potential new disasters, the building of Community Centers and operating other social services.
The path ahead is not going to be an easy one, both for the national commander and the Army as a whole.
"The task ahead is not a small one," Clifton said as he addressed the new national leader. "The task ahead is large and the path ahead is strewn."
Following that, Gaither gave the Salvationists the real picture of their mission path as well.
"Doing God's good purpose in the world will have us moving in places and among people where we will be uncomfortable," he said. "But it must be done. It is for the mission."
Gaither advised the crowd that they will be hearing those three words - "for the mission" - from him all the time.
"We're excited about having the new national commander and his message tonight was that we're delivering a promise to the American public, and we have articulated that as doing the most good for the most people," commented Major George Hood, national community relations secretary. "But it comes with strings and those strings are Jesus Christ. And if we live it, then we know that people believe it."
"God wants the Gaithers to lead an Army in the United States of America that is Christ-centered," Clifton accented. "These are the right people at the right time."