IT IS OUR first cold, cold day. The temperature is around 43 degrees. I am walking across the street from the Cross Street Market in South Baltimore, which is getting ready to close. I'm eating an expensive sandwich. I see a cluster of people standing in the shelter of a brick wall, a place where the homeless usually congregate when the weather gets bad.
Suddenly a van pulls up and a man and a woman open the side door and the line of men, women and children move toward the warmness of the van. It is the Salvation Army Feedmore Canteen, and volunteers are handing out sandwiches and hot coffee.
I watch fascinated and guilty -- guilty that I just paid $3.50 for a sandwich, and fascinated that the Salvation Army can spot where there is immediate need.
John Kelly, a spokesman for the Salvation Army, tells me that Cross Street is one of their four scheduled stops in the city.
"After 6 p.m. from October to April we feed about 300 hungry people each night," he says. "Soon we will have our kettle at that corner, and a worker to man it."
I have always wondered about those kettles. Do enough people who pass by really drop their money into those kettles?
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Salvation Army Christmas Kettle. Locally, the charitable organization has collected on the average of $150,000 a year from the kettles.
The kettle idea got its start in 1891 when a Salvation Army captain in San Francisco wanted to provide free holiday meals to the poor. And having been a sailor in Liverpool, England, he remembered a large pot on the wharf in which people used to put money for the needy.
By 1895 there were kettle locations in 30 different cities. In 1898 the kettle effort came to Baltimore and other locations across the country, enabling the Salvation Army to serve thousands of Christmas dinners.
Nationally, the Salvation Army aids more than 5 million people at Thanksgiving and Christmas. In Baltimore alone they have helped more than 30,000 annually with food, clothing, toys and holiday dinners.
The Salvation Army, founded in 1865 in East London, is on the spot at disasters. They have shelters, they aid the poor, the homeless, the ill and the elderly.
I know a lot about this great organization because I have a nephew who grew up in the Salvation Army. His father and mother were high-ranking officers in the worldwide organization. Bill, in the Army still, is the bandmaster of the Jacksonville (Florida) Citadel Corps, while holding down a full-time faculty job as director of the Jacksonville University Orchestra.
I did not know until I met Bill that there is a two-year training course to get into the Salvation Army.
The Army was a way of life for his family, enabling him to get musical scholarships and an excellent education.
On the phone the other day, he told me what he liked about the Salvation Army training; that it is a fine blend -- part service organization, part church: "And we give service to all races and all creeds -- to anyone in need."
And certainly in Baltimore the Salvation Army is like a "Mother Teresa" to the poor.
Everyone in this Army is a soldier of a kind. They just don't fight.
These days, in closed spaces and malls they do not have bells -- they're too noisy -- but that does not silence the Army's message of "sharing is caring." And the bells still ring on the streets.
Today's kettles sometimes have self-ringing bells and a public address system.
So when you pass the kettle and the volunteer who patiently stands on the street in rain or cold -- give of your heart and feed the kettle. This is predicted to be a cold, cold winter.