Onward, Christian Soldier
Major Dulce Fletcher would be the first to admit it. "I am not a genius," she acknowledges. "I am not creative." Yet this is the person who single-handedly chooses the sentiments that guide her city. Or so she hopes. As a Salvation Army co-commanding officer and co-minister with her husband James, Fletcher is responsible for selecting the weekly inspirational sayings that appear on the signboard outside the organization's northwestern Vermont headquarters on Main Street in Burlington.
At one point last March she settled on "God is like Scotch tape -- You can't see Him but you know He's there." In June Fletcher went with "Kindness is the oil that takes the friction out of life." By late October, Fletcher must have been in a connubial frame of mind for this message: "Marriage is an investment that pays dividends if you pay interest."
The 44-year-old Pennsylvania native and mother of three has a rosy complexion, honey-colored hair tied back, and a warm, down-to-earth manner. Although raised as a Catholic, Fletcher first heard "a calling from God" in the early 1980s, after graduating with a psychology degree from Behrend College in her home state. That certainty hit while she and her husband, who had met as counselors at a summer camp in 1979, were doing community work in Spanish Harlem. From there, they attended a Salvation Army training school for two years to learn the history, doctrine, policies and procedures required for a life of devotion.
SEVEN DAYS: First of all, what the heck is the Salvation Army?DULCE FLETCHER: Someone recently wrote a terrific history book about us, Red Hot and Righteous. This is a hands-on service organization and registered denomination with churches in 107 countries. It was started during the Industrial Revolution in 1860 by William Booth, a former Methodist pastor who opened missions in London, England. His main purpose was the salvation of souls. The motto is "Heart to God, hand to man."
SD: But why all the military lingo?DF: Booth felt like a general leading his soldiers, which is what we call our church membership. And he needed commanders. They adopted uniforms to be recognized when they went out into the London slums. For us, an officer is like a pastor in a regular congregation. And like the U.S. Army, you are moved around if you're a commanding officer.
SD: Where have you been?DF: We were sent to Peekskill, New York, for a year in the mid-1980s. Then we had a church and food pantry in Wellsville, New York, for four years. We spent another four years in Lancaster, Ohio, running a church and day center for seniors -- which was very cutting-edge back then. We were transitioned into adult-rehabilitation work with recovering addicts and alcoholics in Saugus, Massachusetts, and Utica, New York, before moving here in 1993.
SD: So Vermont has been more stable for you?DF: That was part of the bargain. We had moved our kids around so many times that we wanted to stay put for a while.
SD: What was the local Salvation Army operation like when you arrived?DF: There was one thrift store and a feeding program that now helps 100 to 150 people a night. We opened two more stores, in South Burlington and St. Albans. In our Friendly Kitchen here, we serve meals six nights a week. On Sundays, the King Street Youth Center takes over so that this space is free for worship. Our newest project, in February 2000, was the Women's Center of Hope on the Trinity College campus. It's a one-year residential recovery program for females who have been addicts or alcoholics to work on their sobriety.
SD: Do you and your husband have a division of labor?DF: (laughing) He raises the money and I spend it. We have no government funding, but we do get some from the United Way. Then our kettles go out on the street after Thanksgiving. I oversee the entire Christmas effort. We provide 500 families with a boxed holiday dinner and toys for the kids, none of it donated. I do our Christian education program for children on Sundays and I'm also in charge of the 66-member Women's Ministry on Wednesday evenings.
SD: How do you find time to organize those words of wisdom outside?DF: I enjoy doing the sign. We bought one that's lighted about six years ago. One of our volunteers, Allen Rosa, helps me make the changes. We usually do that on Mondays. I like to put something out there for people to think about. They won't always agree with our spirituality, but it might convince them to take a good look at life.
SD: Where do you find the homilies?DF: I get a lot of them from The Complete Book of Zingers, by Croft M. Penz. Those are kind of topical. Friends drop other ideas off. The staff brings them in. People e-mail things to me. Sometimes they even come to me in the middle of the night.
SD: What are your best lines?DF: Hmmm, my two favorites are "Mental floss regularly with God's word to avoid truth decay" and "Redemption isn't just about bottles." The alcoholics really love that one. There's a phrase my mom used to say: "It's nice to be important but more important to be nice." I used it on the sign in 2001.
SD: Do you ever repeat yourself?DF: Yes. I've done "No God, no peace. Know God, know peace" a few times. I even had it on my car as a bumper sticker for years.
SD: What are the letters made of?DF: They're 5 inches tall on Plexiglas. If the snow melts and then the temperature drops, sometimes they freeze in place.
SD: Have you had any other hassles with it?DF: Every now and then, until we put on a lock, someone would rearrange the message. Whoever it was probably thought they were being cute. Sometimes 'God' would become 'dog.' Occasionally, they'd even spell out four-letter words.
SD: Curse words? Did that upset you?DF: (shrugging) I figured, 'Well, at least people are looking.