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Drive to Serve Overturned 2 Busy Lives

Kenneth and Jolene Hodder, officers in the Salvation Army, devote their lives to helping others and must follow orders.

September 27, 2003|Religion News Service

PORTLAND, Ore. — Fifteen years ago, Kenneth and Jolene Hodder had their lives laid out for them, a broad and well-traveled path that led toward a destination they liked.

Kenneth had a degree from Harvard Law School and a job working with a big Los Angeles law firm, mostly in real estate and corporate law.

Jolene was a divisional sales manager at a California department store, with her eye on becoming a buyer. She believed a promotion was just around the corner.

They were buying a house and planning a family when Kenneth headed into his boss' office for his annual review, one that would change their lives.

He was given an envelope that held a big bonus check. "It was a good amount," he remembered, "but it wasn't enough."

There was nothing wrong with the number, he remembered, just the idea "that all my time, effort and energy should find its fulfillment in any amount of money. It just wasn't enough."

Kenneth did what five generations of Hodders had done before him. He knelt by his desk and asked God for help. The solution came to him. "I made the decision to give all I did have to offer to work for the army."

That would be the Salvation Army, the evangelical Christian group that operates worldwide in a quasi-military manner and specializes in outreach to the poor.

Kenneth, promoted to major this summer, is commander of the army's Cascade Division. As a sixth-generation Salvationist, he wears a uniform much like the one his father, grandfather and great-grandfathers wore before him. It is much like the navy, red and white one that his wife, Jolene, wears.

Like Kenneth, she was born into the army. Her parents, both officers, tucked her bassinet under the altar at their church. She grew up in the army, but her own adult rededication came a little later than her husband's.

"We were in the car together," she recalled. "And he reached over and turned off the radio and said, 'I need to share something with you,' and he told me that he wanted to become an army officer. I was stunned."

She knew, from her own family's experience, what being a Salvation Army officer meant. It meant she and her family had moved almost every two years of her life, to Alaska and throughout the lower 48 states.

In most cases, it meant husband and wife would be commissioned together. It meant attending a two-year officer-candidate school, where they would share a dorm room, where someone else would tell them when to wake, when to sleep, what to eat and what to wear.

It meant giving up their car, their house and most of their possessions. It meant serving wherever and for as long as they were needed, never knowing where the next year would find them.

She was stunned, all right.

"We were professional businesspeople," she said. "Our life was just wonderful. I asked him not to speak to me about it again. And he was good about it; he didn't. But he did begin to pray for me."

A few days later, she said, they were in the car again. This time she reached over and turned off the radio. It was her turn to say, "I need to share something with you."

"I just couldn't understand that God was calling me," she said recently, but she agreed to go with her husband. She said she believed God was telling her, "I gave you this husband, and he can't do this without your support."

By the end of that week, 15 years ago, they had sold their car, backed out of their house deal, paid off their student loans, given away most of their possessions and reported, with a few suitcases and some packed boxes, to the Salvation Army's officer training school in Los Angeles.

For two years, they spent their mornings studying theology and their afternoons ministering on the streets and even on the beach. "In full uniform," Jolene said with a laugh.

Since February 2002, they have been in Portland, he as the divisional commander and she, also a new major, as director of the army's women's organizations. Their daughter, Jessica Danielle, is 11. Like her parents, she was born into the army, and so far in her short life, the family has moved seven times.

Both Kenneth, 45, and Jolene, 42, are responsible for all of Oregon and Southern Idaho. They oversee the work of 75 officers and work in shelters, camps, emergency services, prison ministries and senior citizen centers.

They are leaders in trying times. In 2002, Portlanders' public contributions totaled more than $5 million. Last Christmas, the army had anticipated helping about 29,000 people in the Portland area with gifts and food baskets. Instead, they assisted 49,000. In recent months, donations have been down while needs rose.

The uniform they wear offers its own strength, they said. "Whenever we put it on, we're visible Christians," Jolene said. It's only when they wish to pass simply as Jessica's parents that they leave it off.

People do sometimes question their commitment to a church that has been organized on military lines, they said. But the model has proved itself in the army's 125-year history. The discipline of following orders helps create efficiency.

"It's allowed the army to be present and active when people need it," Kenneth said. "The army could call us today and say, 'Ken and Jolene, go to Zimbabwe,' and we'd be off."

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