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Salvation Army Officer Wages War for Poor, Homeless

December 27, 1987|STEPHANIE CHAVEZ | Times Staff Writer

There he was, dressed in his navy blue uniform, standing on a crate in front of the sprawling mall, shouting through a megaphone for shoppers to fight the "crass commercialization" of Christmas and give their money to the poor.

He brought along a small band with a drummer boy to help attract attention. Whenever he got tired of talking, he would break into a verse of "Joy to the World." The drummer boy would play along on his kettle drum.

Later that same day, he found himself lashing out against a city plan that shelters the homeless in what he describes as "hellishly dangerous hotels." The situation calls for action and so, he said, "I decided to open up my own shelter."

Capt. John Purdell, commanding officer of the San Fernando Valley Corps of the Salvation Army, had stepped into the limelight this holiday season for a reason: to fight "in a war against homelessness and poverty."

Armed with Bible verses and a flair for oratory, Purdell is a "vintage Salvationist," as one Corps official put it.

Just as the pioneers who founded the 109-year-old Christian organization did, Purdell stands on a soapbox and preaches on street corners. He serves up hot bowls of stew to winos. And he's not afraid to take a gutsy stand when he thinks he is right.

"He's a maverick, a holy maverick," said Dick DeMattos, the Salvation Army's Southern California spokesman.

Purdell, 55, a tall Englishman with a proper British accent, attributes his high profile these past three weeks to a California chill, both of the soul and in the air.

"It's the cold spirit of indifference and the cold weather snap got me in the position," he said.

First, he became indignant when several large Valley shopping centers prohibited him from placing red Salvation Army donation kettles and workers ringing little silver bells outside mall doors.

Some of the mall officials claimed that they had to bar the bell ringers because, if an exception was made, all kinds of organizations would be demanding equal treatment. Shoppers, they said, would be harassed at every door by solicitors.

"How could a kindly person with a silver bell bother anyone?" Purdell argued. "It was just this same type of cold business practice that kept Mary and Joseph out of Bethlehem inns. I cannot and will not stand for this."

So Purdell made a big banner proclaiming: "Sadly, there is no room for us at the inn either." He brought out his soapbox--actually a sturdy crate with "soap" stenciled across it--stood on top and preached on sidewalks outside the malls.

Then he put his uniformed workers on corners with large nets so passers-by could drop in donations from their cars. He showed the workers how to attract attention by beating drums and singing Christmas carols and then checked on them every afternoon.

One day, as he approached the Topanga Boulevard entrance to Topanga Plaza and saw five teen-age cadets ringing the hand-held bells, pounding the drums and pushing the nets into car windows, he burst out with a "Hallelujah!"

"It does look kind of funny, doesn't it?" he said, laughing. "It serves Topanga Plaza jolly well. I must be honest. It does feel wonderful to take a stand."

Bible Says So

Not only is it wonderful, it is even permissible because the Bible says so, Purdell reasons.

Purdell said he took his marching orders these past weeks from Ephesians 6:13: ". . . take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand."

Although mall officials may have been a bit annoyed by the public stand Purdell staged in front of their centers, none attempted to have the Salvation Army workers removed, even when they strayed onto private parking lots.

"At this point, we're not going to do anything about them," said John Lyda, regional director of May Centers, which owns Topanga Plaza.

One mall official, who asked not to be named, said the Salvation Army's street-corner fund-raising efforts are "outdated methods of the 1930s and '40s. They need to change with the times."

But, if this year's Valley contributions are any guide, Purdell's collection tactics don't need changing.

Each net was catching about $300 a day, double the amount that usually goes into one of the little kettles.

Although Salvation Army officials reported last week that kettle contributions in Southern California were down 20%, San Fernando Valley contributions are expected to surpass last year's by thousands of dollars before the holiday season ends, Purdell said. On Saturday, the tally hit $52,000, matching that of the same day last year, he added.

Although he concedes that he is getting a "kick" out of the kettle controversy, especially because it is such a financial success, Purdell doesn't want to gloat. He said, "I don't want to match their rotten spirit with a rotten spirit of my own."

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