"Do something!" That was the command William Booth, founder of the Salvation Army, gave his son upon seeing homeless men huddled under London Bridge. Booth was a man of action who, in his zeal to save souls, valued deeds over creeds.
What would the 19th-century Christian evangelist have done about the growing number of poor today, huddled in American cities, suburbs and on farms? According to a recent Associated Press article, economists expect that when the 2011 census figures are released this fall, they will show that poverty has climbed to 15.7 percent, its highest level in 50 years. Heavily mortgaged middle-class families, out-of-work laborers and debt-ridden college graduates have found themselves suddenly and unexpectedly joining the ranks of the poorest poor.
Booth, who died 100 years ago next month, believed in sanctification, a second baptism that enabled Christians to overcome evil and dedicate themselves to improving social conditions. He expected that the redemptive work of his Salvation Army - feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless and finding work for the down-and-out - would usher in the Kingdom of God during his lifetime. If that failed to happen, it wasn't because Booth slacked off.
Following Jesus' example, "Whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers that you do to me also," Booth and his followers offered soup, soap and salvation to those in need. Soup, the first step, meant addressing material needs. In Booth's day, there were no food stamps and very few soup kitchens. Homeless shelters were practically nonexistent, and opportunities for job training were scarce. Most churches shunned the poor, and government did not provide social safety nets. The Salvation Army established shelters for men, women and families, opened soup kitchens and inexpensive restaurants, and started work programs and vocational training.
Booth was not alone in advocating church involvement in humanitarian aid. His religious contemporaries on both sides of the Atlantic were experimenting with how best to deliver social services. Still, many of Booth's fellow Christians assumed that the poor were responsible for their plight and were happy to live off others. From this perspective, the Salvation Army's program, offering help to all those who asked, seemed alarmingly naive.
During Booth's time, charity organizations were obsessed with distinguishing the deserving from the undeserving poor. So-called scientific reformers worried more about supporting scam artists and "pauperizing" recipients than relieving suffering.
Many kept busy sorting the "needy" from the "greedy." The Salvation Army worried instead about human dignity, which it felt was in short supply at many do-good missions. That was the reason for the "soap" part of the group's equation, an acknowledgment that self-esteem is hard to hold onto for people who are dirty or without decent clothes.
Of course, Booth's organization was not content just to materially help men and women. Its ultimate aim was saving souls because it saw earthly relief as only a stopgap solution without eternal salvation. But the group's message was holistic: Christians should both keep an eye on heaven and improve life on Earth.
Booth's message that Christians have an obligation to actively engage in civic life is timely. And it's important to remember what he urged his followers to do.
Booth didn't want his soldiers to debate policy, taunt opponents or pursue electoral politics. He commanded Christians to do the unsung work of caring for others. Booth believed in a daily commitment to eradicating injustice, inequality and poverty.
Today, 1.1 million Salvationists worldwide try to meet that obligation.
But changing society, as Booth knew, required more than individual effort. That's why he mustered a Salvation Army whose collective activity transcended each member's good work. Booth tried to persuade others to pitch in too. In his 1890 bestseller, "In Darkest England and the Way Out," he proposed wholesale social schemes to eliminate poverty. When the government didn't implement them, he had the Salvation Army do as much as it could.
It's well and good for individual Americans to volunteer at food banks, staff relief programs and drop coins in kettles at Christmastime. But as Booth understood, these actions need to be accompanied by systemic change, or what he called social salvation. In today's world that means ensuring that social services provide high-quality public education, affordable housing and health care, reliable public transportation and assistance for veterans, families in need and the chronically unemployed.
Even those who don't expect an imminent Second Coming can surely see why increased social inequality, as documented in government data, will lead to crisis.
But rather than doing something, most Americans look away, losing ourselves in the distractions of celebrity hookups, surreal killing rampages and the claims and counterclaims of politicians about the possible effects of tax breaks for the very wealthy over and against the real needs of very poor.
What would William Booth say to Christians today? He'd tell them that we're all sinners in need of God's grace, and to get working.
Writer Diane Winston holds the Knight chair in Media and Religion at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School. She is the author of "Red Hot and Righteous: The Urban Religion of the Salvation Army." She wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.