Maj. Frank Gordon is used to having people in hotels and airports notice his Salvation Army uniform and ask him to carry their bags.
More often, the familiar navy blue suit opens doors. One Christmas the major and Santa Claus were asked to visit a jailed prisoner's home, and the troubled wife was suspicious of the person dressed as Santa. "As soon as she saw my uniform, she let us in," Major Gordon says. "It happens all the time."
Although its blue outfits and red shields stick out as symbols of help, many people know little about the Salvation Army beyond its bell-ringing kettle crews. The quasi-military group is personified here by Majs. Frank and Louise Gordon, nearing the end of their four-decade careers together as soldiers for Christ.
For 115 years, the army has filled social needs and ministered with an evangelical fervor to thousands and thousands of people in Baltimore.
"You don't tell people about the Gospel until you first fill their empty stomachs, clothe them and shelter them," Major Frank Gordon says. That was a dictum of William Booth, a one-time Methodist minister who founded the Christian Revival Association in London in 1865 and soon created the Salvation Army hierarchy with himself as the general.
The Baltimore Area Command's 16 officers, who are also ministers, direct activities in the metropolitan region. Below them are 1,200 soldiers -- active members of the Salvationist church, a Protestant denomination.
Filling out the mission are 72 employees and hundreds of volunteers, including Catholics, Jews and Protestants who are drawn by the social service commitment.
"In many ways, we're invisible, but we're in many places," Major Frank Gordon says.
They shelter families, organize youth recreational activities, visit the lonely and sick, help in disasters, run the oldest day care operation in Baltimore (started in 1907) and in all, work in more than 20 programs.
From a nondescript office building in Remington, the Gordons oversee a budget of $5.3 million while drawing a combined weekly salary of $330. One, or both, often puts in seven days a week, 12 hours a day (17 hours during the Christmas season).
"We came here with a suitcase and we'll leave with a suitcase," he says of the culture of frugality. "But we don't take a vow of poverty. The army provides the house, car, furniture, phone. We bring the necessities." Explaining that they are reassigned every three to four years, he adds: "We have only a little time in each place and focus on what needs to be done."
Most commands are headed by married officers. Women have been ministers and officers almost from the start. Frank Gordon is major No. 1 here. When he's away, Major Louise Gordon, coordinator of women's activities, is in charge. Her background is typical.
"I never could have done anything else," she says. "I came from a large, poor, good family in North Carolina. My mother's church was on the front porch where we 11 children gathered on Sunday mornings. I started in the army's youth program, the Sunbeams. Then Bible study, music, character building, outreach -- I worked with the old road gangs at prison camps. It's all based on Christian principles of service."
A former U.S. military officer in the Korean War, her husband adds, "The Salvation Army has taught me to appreciate the sanctity of human life. There's so much good in the worst of us, so much bad in the best of us."
The Gordons serve the country's most popular charity, which had private donations of $726 million in 1994 (second nationally was the Red Cross with $497 million), according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Overall, in 10,000 American communities, 87 cents of every dollar donated to the Salvation Army goes directly to charity, the army says.
An international nonprofit operating in 101 countries, the army is rated by Fortune Magazine and others as one of the best-run charities in the world.
The Gordons face regular internal and external reviews and audits. The transfers come often because personality cults have no place in Christ's army, Major Frank Gordon says.
During their 40 years, the Gordons lived in 15 homes while raising five children. One of their children, Frederick, is a Salvation Army lieutenant in Florida.
American recruits simultaneously become officers and Salvationist ministers in two years of study at one of the four officer training colleges.
To do battle against evil, the Gordons step with a kindly and purposeful air, developed in Atlanta in the early 1950s when they joined the Salvation Army for life.
"We met on assignment in Ashville, North Carolina," he says, "and two years later we decided to marry. The army told us to wait another two years. In those days, it was much stricter you had to get permission to correspond, to be engaged, to be married."
She picks up the story: "We decided not to wait. We got married and resigned our commissions. Three years later, we decided our only life was back in the army. We reapplied and received our old rank of lieutenant."
They've lived a life of working for God in unmistakably military as well as religious terms. The uniforms are worn everywhere. Soldiers and officers sign a covenant called "Articles of War" promising a life of Christian integrity (including no smoking, drinking or gambling). They read about colleagues in The War Cry magazine. They can be court-martialed if they seriously offend organization rules.
Local army financial officer, former oil company lobbyist Roger Friskey, marvels at its single-mindedness. "It's a pleasure to see an organization so unconflicted as to its purpose," he says.
Hanging in most army buildings is the famous old banner with the words "Blood and Fire," representing Jesus' blood and the fire of the Holy Spirit. Not so prevalent is the believers' greeting -- an index finger pointed to heaven.
Some Baltimoreans didn't take to the early Salvationists. A few pioneers began rallies in 1880 and had a "rough reception and many years of struggling against prejudice and persecution," says a 1982 history by Evelyn Allison.
"Rotten eggs, stale vegetation, dead cats, stones and such were the order of the day. Wires and ropes were stretched across the street close to the ground, tripping the Salvationists when on open air marches. They were also days of great spiritual victories," she wrote.
The two majors say they admire Baltimoreans who remain for generations, something impossible for them. When they retire next year, the Gordons will move to the first home they can call their own, in Phenix City, Ala., near their children.
Quietly, unmilitarily, the majors talk back and forth almost as the one spiritual entity they feel they are. On this team, it doesn't matter greatly who said what.
"The causes of problems today are the same as before, but the temptations are so much more visible today," says one.
Grateful to donors and workers, the other says, "Thank you for allowing us to be an extension of your hands in the caring ministry."
The Gordons say each feels privileged to deliver sermons in any of the army's four local churches, privileged to help provide necessities for the sick and needy, privileged to counsel people on marriage problems, AIDS, suicide threats -- even at 3 o'clock in the morning.
And privileged, when the end comes, not to die but to be "promoted to glory."
The Army's activities
Salvation Army activities in the Baltimore Area Command, which includes the city, four counties and northern Anne Arundel, are supported by United Way, private donations, grants, thrift store sales and other sources. Here are major programs and numbers served in 1994:
* Adult rehabilitation, a 90-day recovery program for more than 1,144 adult alcohol and drug abusers, West Patapsco Avenue. It operates five area thrift stores.
* Booth House sheltered 560 families and served 53,000 meals at 1114 N. Calvert St.
* Day care for 250 children at centers in Patterson Park area and Federal Hill.
* League of Mercy. About 1,200 volunteers visited 15,540 old or ill people.
* Feedmore mobile kitchen served 21,000 meals to more than 18,000 persons.
* Corps Community Centers, the "Heart of the Army," offered 54,000 people religious, social and recreational services at Glen Burnie, Hampden, Middle River and West Baltimore.
* Family services. About 3,400 people received emergency food, clothing, furniture, medical aid, housing and other help.
* Holiday assistance. Through Christmas Cheer and Angel Tree Adopt a Child, 10,000 families got toys, food and services.
* Boys' and girls' clubs. About 7,500 children took part in activities at clubs in Franklin Square, Highlandtown and Middle River.
* Camp Puh'tok offers camping for 675 boys and girls, northern Baltimore County.