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by General John Larsson
A bit of modest name-dropping never did anybody any harm. So let me indulge for a moment and tell you about a conversation I once had with Lord Tonypandy.
Lord Tonypandy, perhaps better known as George Thomas, was for many years an outstanding member of the British parliament. His career reached a most fitting culmination when he was elected Speaker of the House. As such he presided over the parliamentary debates. I can still hear his resonant voice intoning over the radio waves: ‘Order! Order!’ This son of Wales was universally respected and loved for his wisdom, his Christian commitment – and for his eloquence. He was a master of the golden phrase – and he could spot a nugget a mile away!
On the occasion I am referring to, he was going to grace a Salvation Army event in Cardiff. We sat together in the anteroom, conversing and drinking tea. He opened with a tantalising remark. ‘You know,’ he said, ‘I once heard the Queen say two words that you Salvationists ought to treasure.’
I was all ears. Two words spoken by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II? Two words to treasure? A golden nugget in miniature? I encouraged him to continue.
He told me that the two words were spoken in Aberfan, some days after 21 October 1966 when that Welsh mining community was devastated by a mining disaster. I immediately recalled the horror of the event, how the children were assembling for roll call at the Pantglas infant and junior school when the base of an 800-feet-high slag heap collapsed. This immense mountain of mining waste – boulders, rocks, sludge and slurry – engulfed the school and the playground below. A total of 144 people died, of which 116 were children. Still to this day the name Aberfan is synonymous with that tragedy.
‘The Salvation Army rendered magnificent service among the bereaved families,’ recounted Lord Tonypandy. ‘The marvel was that they were there so quickly and in such great numbers.’
Now it was my turn to add to the story. I explained that when news of the disaster broke, all the Salvation Army corps officers stationed in Wales – about 40 in number – were together in a hired coach, returning from officers councils at Swanwick. They heard the news on the bus radio. After some quick consultation, the divisional commander directed the bus driver to head straight for Aberfan.
As a result, within a few hours of the disaster 40 Salvation Army officers were at the scene, ready to help. The fact that they were dressed in their best uniforms did not matter. They immediately got to work to meet the immensity of human need confronting them. The ministry of some of these officers in preparing the bodies of the children for identification, and then accompanying the parents in the heart-breaking task of identifying their child, is still spoken of with awe.
‘A few days after the disaster,’ continued Lord Tonypandy, ‘Her Majesty the Queen visited Aberfan to express her condolences to the grieving community and to thank all that were there to help. I was Secretary of State for Wales at the time and was therefore present at the briefing she was given on arrival.’
He went on: ‘The details of the grim disaster were described to her and the briefer then paid tribute to the emergency services and all who had aided in practical ways. The official mentioned the military, the police, the firemen, the ambulance service and others. As each category was referred to, the Queen nodded in approval and gratitude. But when The Salvation Army was mentioned the response was more than a nod. It was at that point that she quietly spoke the two words that I think you Salvationists ought to treasure. At the mention of The Salvation Army she simply said: “Of course”.
‘If I were you,’ he concluded, ‘I would treasure those words, for in just two words the Queen summed up the reputation that the Army has built up for always being there when needed. Just two words – but they encapsulate the expectation that people have of the Army. Just two words – but they add up to one of the most eloquent tributes ever paid to the Army! Treasure them!’
I thanked Lord Tonypandy and assured him that we would. And that is why I am sharing this story. But it is an awesome accolade. It is more than we deserve and more than we can really handle. But we try to do all that we can with the resources of finance and people that we have.
The HIV/Aids pandemic rages through the world. The Salvation Army is there – of course. An earthquake rocks Gujarat. The Salvation Army is there – of course. Terrorists devastate the World Trade Center in New York. The Army is there – of course. Prostitution proliferates in Bangladesh. The Army is there – of course. The infrastructure of Iraq needs to be rebuilt. Salvationists are there – of course. Poverty and hunger and ignorance stalk large parts of the world. God’s Army is there – of course. People live in darkness without the light of the good news of Jesus Christ. The Salvation Army is there – of course.
We can’t be everywhere and do everything. We are just a small part of a mighty host of people who are striving to proclaim the gospel and who seek to make this a better world. But wherever we can be, we are there. And once more I pay tribute to all Salvationists engaged on the front lines of ministry and service. Do they want to live up to that two-word eulogy spoken long ago? There can only be one answer.
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All the World
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© 2013 The Salvation Army