Lessons Learned At A Christmas Kettle Stand

Banner Image of Salvationist Joseph Cohen

Joseph Cohen was a young adult who needed a job. His sister and brother-in-law (then Captains Don New and Kelley Cohen-New) were corps officers in Selma, Alabama at the time, and needed help for their Christmas kettle campaign in 2007.

It seemed a logical arrangement—a “win-win” for both. So, Joe left his native Florida for seasonal employment in Alabama. It didn’t go well at first.

“It was alienating,” Joe exclaims. “For hours on end I was ringing a noisy bell, blistering my fingers holding that bell, hearing that bell in my sleep every night, and putting on a ‘Merry Christmas’ smile to people passing by that I didn’t even know!”

This wasn’t a job, Joe concluded, it was torture!

This wasn’t Joe’s introduction to The Salvation Army—that came years before, when Joe was 10. Joe’s aunt and uncle (Majors Bill and Jan Criss) invited the Cohen family to attend the corps in Brooksville, Florida.

“We attended Sunday morning services, weekly children’s programs, Vacation Bible School, and more,” Joe says. “My older siblings traveled to summer camps, weekend spiritual retreats, theme parks, and just about everything else The Salvation Army offered.”

Joe adds that his siblings became Soldiers, program helpers, volunteers, camp workers, local officers, and one (Kelley) became an officer.

“I, however, was less than interested in all of that. Even while I was there on Sundays, weekdays—any days—I was disengaged and wishing I were somewhere else.”

Anywhere else.

“I ‘excused’ myself from the Army and as a teen I felt a repulsion to the thought of attending the corps. I slid into disbelief in God and became agnostic.”

Until at age 20, Joe had an epiphany.

“But then something very special happened out there on that cold kettle stand at the Demopolis, Alabama Wal-Mart,” Joe says.

Two US veterans—one who served in Vietnam and the other in WWII—on the same day came up to Joe and thanked him for his service.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Joe marvels, “Hours apart, these two heroes were thanking me for what I was doing!”

Joe adds that the WWII vet shed tears as he told Joe how The Salvation Army had met his basic needs while he fought in the war, and how the loving gestures of simple hospitality from dedicated Salvationists so long ago were the only glimmers of light he’d seen amid the grim brutality of war.

Who knew, Joe reasoned, that a doughnut and coffee in a moment of crisis, accompanied by a prayer, could be a testimony of God’s existence?

“I was convinced—not converted, but convinced—that there was something there, so when I came home from that Christmas season, I began again to attend the corps in Brooksville,” Joe says.

Joe’s corps officer was Captain Samuel Kim, who exemplified a strong attitude of faithfulness in prayer.

“So, I latched onto the same attitude and my prayers became a fight to realize God’s presence in my life. I wanted to know that I was in the right place, and that the Holy Spirit was in me.”

Joe attended the corps and continued to seek a relationship with God for several months. Through a process of continual repentance and seeking, his doubt and disbelief waned.

“In their place certainty and faith found a home, and I was saved!”

In the years of 2008 to 2013, Joe became a Soldier, Sunday School teacher, Men’s Ministry secretary, Adventure Corps leader, youth group leader, camp counselor, kettle coordinator, international missionary, and a Blood & Fire Initiative youth worker.

Today, Joe is the Young People’s Sergeant-Major, and Praise & Worship leader at the Sherman Avenue Corps in Washington, DC.

“Initially, it was the words of those two veterans and the reputation of The Salvation Army that drew me in,” Joe admits. “However, what keeps me in is that the Army serves people, and through serving people, it serves God.

“If that weren’t the case, I would be elsewhere!”

—Major Frank Duracher, Assistant Editor, USA National Publications