An interview with Major Algerome Newsome
By: Lt. Colonel Allen Satterlee
How did you meet The Salvation Army?
I grew up in New Orleans. Lt. Steve Smith came knocking on doors in the community. We lived just around the corner from The Salvation Army. He was the first white man I can recall coming into my home. We saw a lot of activity at The Salvation Army but never quite knew what was going on; we never were invited to come until now. But my parents did not allow me to go because all of them were white, and we were African-American. It wasn’t something my parents felt was a safe environment at that time. In our neighborhood, we had gangs, not like gangs today, but just kids who got into trouble. To move from the smaller gang to the older gang, you had to do certain things. A group of kids came around on my thirteenth birthday and told me I had to go through an initiation process. So, we went to a drugstore with a list of things to steal. For one of the big items, they took me to The Salvation Army. We were supposed to go back that night and break in to steal things. We looked through the windows to see what we would steal. Lt. Smith saw us, came out, and invited us into a Boy Scout meeting, so we thought, “What better way to scout out the place?” We all went inside for a Boy Scout meeting. We never returned that night to break in, but we all became Boy Scouts. It was the atmosphere of love that we were embraced with when we walked through the doors that kept us coming back.
How were you called to be an officer?
The Salvation Army was perceived by my family as an all-white organization. My family grew up Baptist; two grandfathers were Baptist ministers. My grandfather had designs on me becoming a Baptist minister and taking over his church one day. In The Salvation Army, you got out after an hour of worship, and the Baptists were there for 3-4 hours. It encouraged me to attend The Salvation Army to spend less time at church and more time doing other things I wanted to do.
I received the call at youth councils. I had already accepted Jesus Christ, but I felt the strong sense of God speaking to me about being an officer. I didn’t necessarily want to embrace it because, at youth councils, I was the only African-American in a room of 300 people. I felt out of place, different. I could not understand why God would want me to be a part of that, especially when I was so well accepted in the Baptist community because of my family. Why wouldn’t He call me to be a Baptist minister? Why The Salvation Army? I ran from that for several years, leading me to the military to run away.
I went to the Marine Corps. My goal was to get away from New Orleans, away from everything, and think about what my future held. In boot camp, I drew the closest to God I had ever been, trying to understand what God’s purpose was for my life. I understood clearly: He wanted me to be a minister. I still fought being a Salvation Army officer. Before boot camp ended, that was settled in my heart to do just that.
Growing up in the Deep South New Orleans, it was very prevalent everywhere I went as an African-American that the city was divided in many ways. It was not a surprise that The Salvation Army would be that way. The difficulty was understanding why more African-Americans did not embrace The Salvation Army. From what I saw and understood of the Christian faith, there was no church that was a better model than The Salvation Army. When we began to attend as teenagers, we were thrown into prison ministry, nursing home visitation, reaching out to the community, and finding ways to represent Christ. No other church, including my grandfather’s, did all of that. It was commonplace within The Salvation Army. I didn’t recall seeing the other churches reaching out to my community as The Salvation Army did. Why didn’t people embrace it? People did not understand The Salvation Army because Southern culture taught them to be separate. There were definite struggles within The Salvation Army as folks grappled with living out the Pauline command to bear one another’s burdens.
Even today, there’s still an awkwardness for some to talk to me because they are not quite sure what to say or how to say it or feel they may say the wrong thing. As more African-Americans started coming to The Salvation Army, I saw a good portion of the awkwardness begin to fade away
Were there actual barriers, or people thought there would be barriers?
There were barriers, like Southern cultural systems. This culture was how people were raised in the South—the same for the African-American side of this equation. Efforts had to be made to try to come together to identify what the barriers were and to eliminate them as best as possible.
The landscape has changed dramatically. The Salvation Army has, better than most denominations, organizations, or individual churches, maneuvered the waters of racism and racial equity. We, as Salvationists, don’t give ourselves enough credit for that. If you were to go to Salvation Army events anywhere in the territory, you would find multi-ethnic congregations. A young lady came a few years ago to speak to our young adults here at THQ. Her field of expertise was helping groups navigate creating diversity to become multi-ethnic congregations. She struggled speaking to us because she had never spoken to such a diverse group. She said, “You don’t need me to come and speak to you because you’ve already accomplished something in all the areas I typically address with groups.”
The problem isn’t that our landscape isn’t diverse. The problem is that we have to understand that presence isn’t always acceptance. We must cross that barrier, which is the one area where we still have room to grow. Yes, we still have work to do. Yes, we still need to remove some barriers, but we’ve come a long way.
As the first African-American to become a divisional leader, what do you think your appointment says about the Army and our territory in the 21st century?
This is one of those areas that many people struggle with because it’s the timing of how things played out. The question then becomes, was I made a division leader because I earned the right to become a division leader? Or was I made a division leader because society at the time was pressing that change take place? You’ll find people on all sides of the fence when it comes to that. Yes, it was time for that to happen. Could it have happened earlier? Yes. There were officers of great standing that could have held the position. Was the Southern Territory ready for that? Probably not at that time. The Southern Territory is behind the rest of the Army world in this area.
We need to grow in how we evaluate and support our minority officers. While serving at territorial headquarters in the Evangelism and Multiculturalism Department, we looked at all African-American officers going back to the early ’80s. We tracked cadets that had gone through training and into their officership career and how well the Army invested in training them to become leaders. It was clear that we didn’t do well in that area. So we began to look at ways in which to make changes that would address the issue. The awareness of the problem was extremely important at the time because we saw increased numbers of African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asian Americans entering the training college.
Do minority candidates feel there is an open field for them or are there lingering concerns?
If you talk to most of them, they will say they have concerns. That is due to a lack of trust in leadership.
One of the things I share with folks is that when I was called to become a Salvation Army officer, God wasn’t concerned about my upward mobility. God was more concerned about my presence in The Salvation Army, which would open the doors for others who would gain upward mobility. God was more concerned about my presence. When we start our officership off with the concept that we want to be in leadership, we miss the point of what God wants us to do in and through us. I was trained and understood that wherever God placed me was where He wanted me to minister. I’ve always been blessed to know in each location, no matter how small or large, I was there to serve God and the community of people. Working for upward mobility wasn’t something I craved or desired.
What have you learned since becoming a divisional leader that you never knew before?
I have learned a lot more about the processes of The Salvation Army at the upper levels of leadership as far as Territorial Executive Council (TEC) and National Headquarters and how things fit together. The struggle with the Army isn’t the process. It’s not bad or evil. Some will say everything needs to change. No. Everything doesn’t need to change just because society is pressing buttons. I believe the processes to be good. They are there to protect the people and protect the Army.
The issue is we lack trust in people. One of the things I’m getting to know is the heart of leadership. There are a number of people who believe their leaders to be callous and cold in their decision-making. They forget they’re people who are not perfect, make mistakes, and need their prayer support, just like I do. I believe that if the leader’s heart is good, God will guide them even through the mistakes, and we, as The Salvation Army, will be okay.
Share your responsibilities in your other appointment as the Territorial Secretary for Diversity and Inclusion.
It is to represent minorities within the Southern Territory to the leadership and to sit on committees and boards in order to ensure that racial equity is being observed. We work to ensure that we don’t just bypass the concept of racial equity for fear of societal pressure but to embrace the Christian concept of understanding that the ground is level at the foot of the cross. An example of the work would be my role on appointment boards, ensuring that minority individuals and those from other cultures with the proper education and training are being considered for appointments fitting their qualifications.
What would you say to another young Al Newsome if you met him right now?
The call of God is a real thing. When God calls us, we may not see or even understand what it’s all about and what the future might hold. But I could say that I’m a testimony; I’m a testament to the fact that God watches over you, God cares for you, and God leads you through every day of your obedience to His call for you. Will it be easy? No. There will be plenty of challenging days which you will find that come for every officer, no matter what ethnicity they are. There will be difficult days, but if God called you, He will equip you and lead you to where He wants you to be and to what He wants you to do. There will be nobody in leadership or the Salvation Army structure who will be able to change that. My God is sovereign.
Don’t run! Your running is just a waste of time. Especially in today’s chaotic world, there are so many issues that God wants The Salvation Army to address. So don’t run. Don’t waste time because the eternal lives of people are at stake.
If I can leave you with a verse of Scripture that you are familiar with, Romans 8:28 “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” God reminds me today that there is nothing I’m experiencing or will experience that He doesn’t have the power to redeem, whether in this life or in eternity. Don’t be afraid to run to His call on your life.