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And so this is Christmas for the Salvation Army in Winnipeg.
Throughout the city, bells jingle as volunteers staff the iconic kettles to collect funds for critical year-round programming.
At police stations, fire halls and Scotiabank locations, growing piles of toys are gathered through the annual Toy Mountain campaign, ensuring thousands of Winnipeg children will have a special gift come Christmas morning.
On Winnipeg’s coldest and cruelest nights there is always room at the inn as the Centre of Hope provides a warm bed for those experiencing homelessness.
It is the busiest — and most visible — time of year for the Salvation Army.
Working quietly behind the scenes, far from the spotlight, are two people performing their own Christmas magic.
Maj. Shawn Critch, 52, and his wife Maj. Brenda Critch, 56, are the husband-and-wife team responsible for overseeing all the good works of the Salvation Army in the Prairie region, including Manitoba, Saskatchewan and northwestern Ontario.
They humbly downplay a suggestion they are the unsung heroes of the holiday season, that they are no different than the Bombers’ dynamic duo, the talented quarterback tandem of Zach Collaros and Chris Streveler that led the team to a Grey Cup championship last month.
No, they say, they are only doing what they’ve been called to do.
"We want to be relational leaders, down to earth, connecting with those who work on the front lines who really make the work of the Salvation Army happen every day," Shawn says.
"We have 1,000 employees throughout the Prairie division. They are the heroes in my mind, they are the engine behind the work of the Salvation Army. We’re in the background, giving the executive oversight and the leadership and encouragement, walking alongside and just being there. I’ve never considered myself as part of a dynamic duo."
Brenda gently chimes in: "We would never see ourselves in that role. We work a lot on boards, a lot of decisions to be made, our work takes us behind the scenes. We see headquarters as supporting the front lines. We see ourselves as the pastors for the pastors."
“We have 1,000 employees throughout the Prairie division. They are the heroes in my mind, they are the engine behind the work of the Salvation Army." – Shawn Critch
Shawn is the commanding officer for the Prairie region, while Brenda is the divisional secretary for spiritual life development and director of women’s ministries. They have one son, Jacob, 19, who is a second-year business student at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.
"They are definitely a leadership team," Capt. Jamie Rands, the Salvation Army’s secretary for public relations in Winnipeg, said of the married majors, who occupy offices next to each other in the organization’s Vaughan Street divisional headquarters.
"They have different responsibilities, but they work together as a team. They are absolutely the best — very nice people, down to earth, very family focused and Salvation Army-focused. I consider it a privilege to work under them."
It’s an understatement to say Christmas is the busiest time of year for the Salvation Army and its leaders. What with travelling to ministries throughout the region and attending events such as the Portage division’s Jingle Bell Breakfast, the only time the Critches could spare for a chat with the Free Press was 7 p.m. on a bitterly cold Monday night.
It marked the first time this husband-and-wife team had ever been interviewed as a couple.
As division commander, Shawn is responsible for virtually all of the activities of the army on the Prairies. He’s the one ensuring the charitable group’s business affairs are in order, along with employee relations, fundraising, public relations and a million other things.
While both are quick to deflect praise, the commander is visibly proud of the fact he and his wife of 28 years are able to work hand in glove to keep the organization’s charitable house in good working order.
"I take great pride in the fact the Salvation Army has, and continues to recognize, the equal right of a woman in leadership. I think that’s a critical part of our history that some may not be aware of... it’s a principle on which the Salvation Army continues to operate around the world," he says, sharing a Diet Coke with a visitor in his office.
Brenda is quick to agree. "There’s not one position in the army that, because I’m a woman, I cannot hold," she says. "There are days when our work takes us in different directions, even though we’re in the same building, side by side. I’m the director of women’s ministries and he’s not involved in women’s ministries at all.
"The role I have my greatest passion for is the divisional secretary for spiritual life development. In that role, I encourage the front-line leaders to care for their own souls.... You can be so busy in ministry that you neglect your own self."
In the most literal sense, these are two people on a mission. "That mission is to share the love of Jesus Christ, to meet human need and be that transforming influence in the community... that’s our mission, that is the influence of who we are as the Salvation Army," Shawn says.
"I think Job No. 1 is staying true to our spiritual calling as an organization. Seeing change in individuals and families is one of the great joys we have as an organization. It’s what drives who we are."
Posted: 18/12/2019 7:00 PM
The Salvation Army's annual kettle campaign is almost $190,000 short of its $385,000 goal for Winnipeg, making it an unexpected victim of this year's rise in theft and violence at Liquor Marts.
The Army pulled its kettles from Liquor Marts after last month's violent attack at the Tyndall Park outlet where three employees were injured, including one requiring hospitalization.
While most of their social work targets the most vulnerable, downtrodden members of society, Brenda says the army’s goal is more inclusive.
"When we say we meet the spiritual and physical needs of the marginalized, we feel our ministry is more than just to the marginalized. Any level of society, any socio-economic level, can be members of our church. We have doctors and nurses who are Salvation Army. The invitation is to everyone."
For the uninitiated, the Salvation Army, which works in about 400 Canadian communities and 132 countries around the world, is the largest non-governmental provider of social services in Canada. It has its fingers in more than a few pies, offering programs and services on everything from job searches and addictions counselling to mental health and people winding their way through the court system.
In Winnipeg alone, it operates six churches, a correctional and justice services facility on Logan Avenue, a family resource centre serving newcomers in St. Vital, at least 10 Thrift Stores that fund programs and the 116-bed Golden West Centennial Lodge for seniors, along with a community venture program for adults with disabilities at various locations in the city.
It’s signature facility, however, is the 400-bed Centre of Hope, formerly known as the Booth Centre, which provides emergency shelter, transitional housing, addictions treatment, residential mental-health programming and a family shelter.
The Critches arrived in Winnipeg in 2014, just in time to oversee a five-year, $14 million redevelopment of the centre.
"If the Salvation Army is going to be known for one thing in the city of Winnipeg, it’s going to be known for the Centre of Hope," Shawn says. "(It’s) where we offer emergency shelter, cold-weather response, programs in partnership with the WRHA on mental health; the family shelter, to my knowledge, it’s the only family shelter in the province."
Along with being an international charitable organization, the army is also a Protestant church structured along military lines in the sense its clergy are considered officers with military ranks, and its congregants are deemed soldiers, provided they have signed a covenant with the army.
In the Prairies, there are 47 active officers, 47 retired officers, 3,352 congregants and 964 employees, the bulk of whom are civilians, because you don’t have to be in the army to work for the army.
In many ways, the two soft-spoken majors appear to be cut from similar cloth, in the sense both were born in Newfoundland and both came to the Salvation Army at an early age.
"I grew up in the Salvation Army... attending the church... my mom and dad joined when I was seven, and that’s when I joined," Brenda says. "I was just a child at the time. For me, the majority of my childhood memories are being involved with the SA.
“I take great pride in the fact the Salvation Army has, and continues to recognize, the equal right of a woman in leadership. I think that’s a critical part of our history that some may not be aware of..." – Shawn Critch
"A lot of people who are officers in the Salvation Army would have the same story... especially in Newfoundland and Labrador. The Salvation Army is known more as a church in Newfoundland than a social agency. It’s a mainline Church just like the Anglican Church or the United Church, whereas in mainland Canada we’re seen more as a social agency."
Shawn, an avid stamp collector who dreamed of a life in medicine or accounting, became involved at the age of 12, drawn in by the allure of the army’s iconic brass band.
"That’s what brought me in at the age of 12 was the band. I was invited to learn how to play an instrument. That was my entry point into my journey of faith. It would have been the cornet... I left the cornet and went to double B-flat bass. It’s like a tuba. And I haven’t played either for almost 30 years."
He recalled sitting in a youth event, holding an instrument and looking at a close friend. "I remember looking over at my friend who was playing bass next to me and saying, ‘We know what we should be doing with our lives.’ I no more had those words out when I found myself standing and walking forward to declare to the congregation of peers that I was going to be pursuing officership in the Salvation Army to become an ordained minister. I went back home and started my process."
Brenda spent three years as a nurse on the island in the 1980s, whereas her future husband went to Memorial University, where he lasted just two weeks before realizing school wasn’t for him.
In 1988, they both attended the two-year officer training program in St. John’s, which led to them becoming close friends, ordained ministers — and falling in love. "It was a cool fall evening in St. John’s; we took a walk around Kenny’s Pond near the training college and the relationship took a different turn," Shawn recalled.
"We’d known each other 15 months and we were really good friends. There were many in our group who thought we would likely be a couple, but it didn’t start out quickly. It was a very strong friendship that transitioned."
They received their commissions in 1990, tied the knot in 1991, and, for most of the past three decades, have travelled as a husband-and-wife team, with postings in Newfoundland and Labrador, and Ontario, not to mention four years in the tropical island climes of Bermuda, which is where they spent four years before taking command in our beloved winter city with its famously cruel climate.
"It was for me a difficult transition," Shawn concedes. "There were parts of Bermuda that it was difficult to leave. The two greatest challenges for me coming in were climate and geography. Our furthest place of responsibility today would take us 13 hours one way to Maple Creek, Saskatchewan, whereas in Bermuda we lived in the centre of the island and the furthest we could drive was 30 minutes.
"That first winter was brutal; it was a nasty winter, even though it was mild for Winnipeg. But it was a tough go…. Now that we’re into winter No. 6, we got this now. We’re good."
For Brenda, who loves dressing up warmly and going for a walk, the transition to Winnipeg was easier. "I didn’t find the climate change as difficult. I just sort of accepted this is a Canadian winter, I no longer live in Bermuda, I can do this," she says. "I was grateful to have four beautiful years in a place like Bermuda. I found it difficult to leave, but once I landed in Winnipeg I was fine."
The harshness of our winters underscore the importance of two of the army’s key programs — sheltering the homeless and operating an emergency vehicle that rescues people from extreme weather.
"What spawned that (rescue van) program was the death of a woman in Christmas of 2015, I think it was, in a bus shelter here in downtown Winnipeg," Shawn says. "The question to us was — what can we do? We very quickly put in place this response vehicle. It’s been great."
It’s quite humbling to know it is part of the DNA of the Salvation Army to journey with those who find themselves in difficult situations. At the core of who we are, none of us are really that different.” – Shawn Critch
The couple’s passion for Winnipeg and its most vulnerable citizens becomes apparent when the topic turns to Christmas — a time when the army ratchets into overdrive with its iconic kettles and Toy Mountain campaigns — and the plight of those who try to survive on the streets when the mercury plummets.
"We’re so well known at Christmas time. You take the iconic Christmas kettle, which I think is approaching 130 years, the kettle that started in San Francisco way back. If the Salvation Army wasn’t visible in community and present in community during November and December, it would be significantly missed," the commander says.
"The need is always there, but during this special time of year it’s felt more intensely. People want to be very giving to community. We’re one of the charities that is most recognized... that’s on top of everything we do at this time of year."
Along with ensuring no child goes without a toy under a tree, these officers are especially proud their flagship homeless shelter that never turns anyone away.
"Take, for example, when we were facing the asylum-seeker issue a couple of years ago in the dead of winter," Shawn says. "We made the commitment we would not displace any of our community by adding this to our responsibility. We were able to find space. We would not displace local need to respond to this international need. I know at one point we were housing 100 plus asylum-seekers without displacing anyone local.
"That meant our population in that facility was approaching 500. Hats off to the team there. They did an amazing job. I think on a night when it’s -30 windchill and we make extra space for individuals... we don’t turn anyone away. If we’re at capacity — it depends on the season — we’ll work with our partners to say we don’t want anyone left out in the cold, do you have space?"
Earlier this month, the Centre of Hope hosted its annual Christmas feast. In talking about the emotional evening, the Critches display a common trait of long-married couples — finishing each other’s sentences.
"I don’t know how many people we served, probably up to 500. But just to be there …," Shawn begins.
If you’d like to help the Salvation Army make Christmas a bit brighter for those in need on the Prairies, there are several easy ways to donate:
1. Call their local office: 204-975-1033 (during business hours)
2. 1-800-SAL-ARMY (725-2769)
4. At any Kettle location in the city up to Dec. 24.
Source: Salvation Army, Prairie Division
"And see the smiles and hear them say how much they were enjoying their meal. You could see they were really appreciating …" Brenda says.
"To have the Salvation Army band playing Christmas music in the background..." Shawn continues.
"It was a turkey dinner…"
"Just to be able to walk the dining room and interact with individuals who for various reason find themselves in a different space than I have ever known but to hear the words of appreciation …"
"And to see their smiles, to see the children, the people that come to sit down as a family..."
When it was pointed out the commander hadn’t gotten around to finishing his thought, he laughs and beams at his wife sitting across the table at the end of another very long day preparing for the holiday-season crush.
"She finished it for me. We’ve had 30 years together, man... to hear the words of appreciation from those who experience life in a way I have not known. It’s quite humbling to know it is part of the DNA of the Salvation Army to journey with those who find themselves in difficult situations. At the core of who we are, none of us are really that different," he says, smiling.
Doug has held almost every job at the newspaper — reporter, city editor, night editor, tour guide, hand model — and his colleagues are confident he’ll eventually find something he is good at.
The Free Press acknowledges the financial support it receives from members of the city’s faith community, which makes our coverage of religion possible.