Salvation probably is not on most drivers' minds as they climb Hawthorne Boulevard on the Palos Verdes Peninsula.
Then the road crests like a roller-coaster ride, starts downhill and--for one exhilarating moment--you seem suspended between sea and sky. It's a perfect spiritual prelude to the Salvation Army's western regional headquarters--40 acres on a high bluff that appears to face infinity.
It is not the sort of spot one imagines for an organization that runs soup kitchens, thrift shops, rehab shelters for addicts and youth centers for runaways or latchkey kids.
But many people forget--if they ever knew--that the Salvation Army is an evangelical Christian church as much as it is a charity. It is its own denomination: Salvationist. The Palos Verdes Peninsula school is one of four in the United States where Salvationist ministers are trained.
The decision to become a Salvation Army minister is no small matter for children of the '90s. It means they must devote the rest of their working lives to God by helping those who are down and out.
They must dispense with dreams of material things. Their savings accounts will not flourish on a salary of $128.25 a week, which is what each minister receives, regardless of seniority.
Married couples earn $213.75 a week, with an allowance for each child. (All ministers receive free housing, health insurance and a pension if they retire at 65. They also have access to a car or van.)
What's more, the Army has been run like a military corps since it was founded 125 years ago by Methodist minister William Booth in the London slums.
The church community is called "the corps," regular parishioners are "soldiers," and those who want to make the Army their career must pass rigorous psychological and intelligence tests before they enter a two-year school like the one in Rancho Palos Verdes.
At graduation they are "commissioned" as officers and ordained as ministers. Then, they go wherever the Army sends them, always in uniform when on duty.
They perform marriages, funerals, offer Sunday sermons and care for the congregation at their assigned churches, while also overseeing outreach programs.
Salvation Army ministers are shipped to new posts on an average of once every four or five years. They never know where they'll be living next, or what kind of congregation they'll be ministering to.
It could be a skid row parish with an addict rehabilitation center, or a suburban facility with programs for young people and senior citizens.
None of this seems daunting to the 106 students at the Rancho Palos Verdes training center.
Nathan Newell, minister-in-training, is handsome and clean-cut, with the posture of a West Point cadet.
His soft voice and slight drawl are courtesy of Little Rock, Ark., where he was born and lived until he dropped out of school in ninth grade. He joined the U.S. Army at 17, says he was "booted out" at 19 for drug abuse, and then went "from job to job and from heroin to barbiturates to hallucinogenics to anything I could find."
He finally found a job he liked in Little Rock, earned good money, settled into an apartment and bought a truck. Still, he wasn't satisfied. He married and divorced, then moved to Los Angeles on a quest for . . . he didn't know what.
Newell wound up on the streets and on drugs once again, then sought help at the Salvation Army adult rehabilitation center in Canoga Park. After nine months of hard work, good food, shelter and spiritual guidance from the minister there, Newell says, he was a different man. He wanted to become a minister himself.
Now 36, Newell says the Salvation Army is "like one gigantic family." When he graduates, he assumes he will be asked to help others who are down and out.
"I don't want anything but the opportunity to serve God," he says.
Terry Perry, 40, is slim, attractive, and athletic looking with precision-cut bobbed hair. She looks exactly like the type who might sell yachts and/or expensive real estate--both of which she used to do in the Bay Area. She says she also used to drink a lot. But after she joined Alcoholics Anonymous and later, the Salvationist church, she turned her life around.
As a Salvation Army soldier in Oakland, Perry volunteered to help with a youth group, a homeless shelter and an adult rehab program. "Then we had the earthquake, a year ago in October. I worked on the Salvation Army phone bank, helping people trace their relatives. Then they sent me out to the front lines" at a freeway collapse.
"I'd been on duty 36 hours at the canteen set up for rescue workers, and one of them asked me to pray with him. We walked and prayed, walked and prayed. I came back and I knew I couldn't just be a soldier any more. I had to be a minister. Now I'm here and I know it's right."