Kenneth G. Hodder: “We’re all the same”

The Salvation Army houses nearly 10 million people every year who would otherwise be sleeping in their cars or under an overpass. One of our programs, Pathway of Hope, works to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty. It often starts on the streets — our teams let those in need know we’re here for them. In several […]

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The Salvation Army houses nearly 10 million people every year who would otherwise be sleeping in their cars or under an overpass. One of our programs, Pathway of Hope, works to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty. It often starts on the streets — our teams let those in need know we’re here for them. In several cities across the West, our teams use vans to distribute food and supplies to those experiencing homelessness, and invite them to receive long-term help.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Commissioner Kenneth G. Hodder. He is the National Commander of The Salvation Army, the largest social services organization in the country, with 7,600 centers of operation that serve 23 million people each year. Before becoming the National Commander in July, Hodder served as the Territorial Commander of the Western Territory in the United States, where he worked diligently to address the growing homelessness crisis.

Thank you so much for joining us Kenneth! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your personal background? How did you grow up?

I’m a sixth-generation member of The Salvation Army, or a Salvationist. My parents were both Salvation Army officers when I was growing up, meaning, we moved a lot, and I was automatically involved in the ministry. My parents were always deliberate about making their work a fun, fulfilling experience for the family, and their encouragement helped me understand what it meant to serve the Lord at a young age. We had a deep familial bond.

I didn’t originally intend to become a Salvation Army officer — I thought my work would be done as a soldier, or lay member, of the Army. After a few years of practicing law, though, I discovered that God had other plans for me: He called me, I responded, and I’m awfully glad I did.

Is there a particular story or incident that inspired you to get involved in your work helping people who are homeless?

I practiced law in Los Angeles, an experience I thoroughly enjoyed. It was intellectually challenging and financially rewarding — I was living the dream. One day, I was called into the office of a senior partner, who presented me with a generous bonus check. I gratefully accepted, of course, but as I returned to my office, I realized the stack of papers sitting on my desk was a representation of my contribution to the world. I stared at the papers for a moment before looking down at my check. I knew then that all the money in the world wouldn’t give my life greater meaning, and I felt a definite calling to become a Salvation Army officer. That was a moment I will never forget.

When I was an attorney, I told my father I would buy him a Cadillac, so when I told him I decided to be an officer, he responded by saying, “So, I guess that means I won’t get my Cadillac.” He laughed, but was thrilled by the announcement. (And I ended up buying him a golf club made by Cadillac years later, so I suppose I’ve fulfilled my promise.)

Homelessness has been a problem for a long time in the United States. But it seems that it has gotten a lot worse over the past five years, particularly in large cities such as Los Angeles, New York, Seattle and San Francisco. Can you explain to our readers what brought us to this place? Where did this crisis come from?

Homelessness has been a crisis for all of recorded history, and The Salvation Army has been combating homelessness since its inception over 155 years ago. The causes have always been many and varied, ranging from family breakdown and addiction to poverty and social limitations. After my wife and I returned from Kenya and the United Kingdom (we were overseas for 11 years, starting in 2002), we were in disbelief after realizing how much worse the problem had become during our absence. As Salvation Army leaders, we’re determined to get individuals and families off the street. There’s no short answer for “how we got here,” but my job is to get people out of homelessness.

For the benefit of our readers, can you describe the typical progression of how one starts as a healthy young person — with a place to live, a job, an education, a family support system, a social support system, a community support system — to an individual who is sleeping on the ground at night? How does that progression occur?

Homelessness can occur in several situations, but that’s only one subset of the problem. In my experience, people experience homelessness because of factors such as substance abuse, job loss, relationship troubles, death of a spouse, and mental illness, to name a few. The fact is, though, most people don’t begin from a position of strength — most have a far more fragile set of circumstances, which typically means their options and resources are quite limited.

A question that many people who aren’t familiar with the intricacies of this problem ask is, “Why don’t homeless people just move to a city that has cheaper housing?” How do you answer this question?

People relocate when there’s an economic opportunity to do so, and the people we serve typically struggle to make ends meet, often living paycheck to paycheck. The people we serve, who are suffering from homelessness, have lost their jobs or struggle with substance-abuse issues, so they need to live where jobs are most available. The majority of the time, however, they aren’t able to take advantage of employment opportunities.

If someone passes a homeless person on the street, what’s the best way to help them?

In my opinion, it’s always best to refer them to The Salvation Army, or another direct service organization that can help that person address their long-term needs. I always keep a small number of business cards in my pocket with information on how someone can get help if they need it.

Can you describe to our readers how your work is making an impact battling this crisis?

The Salvation Army houses nearly 10 million people every year who would otherwise be sleeping in their cars or under an overpass. One of our programs, Pathway of Hope, works to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty. It often starts on the streets — our teams let those in need know we’re here for them. In several cities across the West, our teams use vans to distribute food and supplies to those experiencing homelessness, and invite them to receive long-term help.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the homeless crisis, and the homeless community? Also, how has it affected your ability to help people?

There has been a dramatic increase in the opportunities we’ve received to address homelessness in the past four to five months. We’ve collaborated with hotels, governments at every level, and corporations amid COVID-19. That’s a positive thing! It has allowed us to help thousands more people in a compressed time frame. However, questions remain. What will things look like six months from now if our economic circumstances continue to deteriorate? The initial response from the public has been outstanding, though — people are suddenly more aware of how the well-being of those living on the street contributes to the overall well-being of society.

While there’s still a lot that’s unknown, one thing is for certain: The Salvation Army will continue doing everything possible to help those in need with the resources available to us.

Can you share something about your work that makes you most proud? Is there a particular story or incident that you found most uplifting?

When I first accepted God’s call to be an officer, I wondered whether my training as an attorney would be helpful. Salvation Army officers are ordained ministers and responsible for organizational and social service programs in their assigned areas, but they typically don’t have legal responsibilities. Soon after becoming an officer, though, I was appointed to a small facility in California, where a young lady would often visit for food assistance. She suffered from drug addiction, and at one point, she was charged with several minor drug offenses. I’ll never forget the day I went to speak on her behalf in court. I stood there, in my Salvation Army officer’s uniform, and it was at that moment that my professional life and my calling came together.

I know that this is not easy work. What keeps you going?

Over the years, I’ve received notes from people telling me about something I said or did, which I’d forgotten about, but which made a deep impression on them. I keep those notes in my desk drawer, and in challenging or difficult times, I pull them out and think back to the precious opportunities that I’ve been given to impact the lives of others. Those notes — along with God’s Word — that’s what keeps me going.

Can you share three things that the community and society can do to help you address the root of this crisis? Can you give some examples?

Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God.

As communities, and as individuals, we should seek to be wise, striving for knowledge and discernment; to be kind, demonstrating gentleness, understanding, tolerance, compassion, and grace for each other; and to be helpful, continually lifting others up.

Every morning, in my personal devotions, I ask for guidance to be wise, kind, and helpful. If we all committed to doing those three things, the world would be a very different place.

Do you have hope that one day this great social challenge can be solved completely?

I certainly have hope, but in the meantime, my job is to do what I can in my little corner of the field. I take great joy in seeing individuals and families who have not only escaped homelessness but have come to understand that God loves them.

What are your “five things I wish someone told me when I first started,” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

I can’t say that there are a lot of things I wish someone had told me, but there are a few things wise people told me that I wish I’d listened to more closely.

For example: “It’s not about you.” When you’re young, it’s easy to think everything is about you and the contribution you’ll make to the world. In the end, it’s not about you — it’s about lifting others up.

Another example is, “We’re all the same.” When I was younger and immature, I was more willing to draw dividing lines between situations and individuals. As I’ve grown older, though, I’ve come to understand that people face a lot of the same issues — the need for acceptance, fulfillment, and finding a place in the world. These are basic human needs, and they should unite us.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

I don’t have to inspire one, because I’m already a part of one. Christianity is a movement about unconditional love, grace, and acceptance that could wipe away anger, resentment, bitterness, addiction, unkindness, and discrimination. If people recognized that there was a God who cared, that they had a place in His creation and were loved, that they were worthy of respect and attention — it would change everything.

Can you please give us your favorite “life-lesson quote”? Can you share how it was relevant to you in your life?

I still use an old-school Day-Timer, and at the beginning of every month, I write out my personal mission statement:

“I will serve my God, to whom I owe everything; my family, whom I love limitlessly; and the Army, to which I am called.”

That little sentence keeps me focused on the things that matter.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Unfortunately, all the tagging in the world won’t help arrange my dream lunch. The two people I’d be honored to have that experience with would be President Abraham Lincoln and Sir Winston Churchill.

I’ve always respected Abraham Lincoln’s ability to grow as a leader, and I admire his willingness to change. I strive to be like that every day.

Lunch with Winston Churchill would also be memorable — there’s no one with more quotable statements than him. I could share Winston Churchill’s quotes with you all day long!

How can our readers follow you online?

You can always visit The Salvation Army’s website or social media pages on Twitter (@SalvationArmyUS) and Facebook (@SalvationArmyUSA).

You can also follow me on Twitter: @NatlCommander.

This was very meaningful. Thank you so much!

If there’s one message that I want to get across today, it’s that people who read this piece should ask themselves what they’re being called to do. Whatever it is, do it, because nothing else will ever be enough. You don’t have to worry about your passions, and you don’t need to figure out what you’d like to do — God already knows all of that. He’s just waiting for each of us to say that we’re ready to do what He asks, and He’ll take it from there.

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