More than 15 years ago, Maj. Michael Morton got a word from the Lord that some would fear.
He had a successful career in computer science when God called him to give it up to tend the homeless.
Morton joined the Salvation Army and he says he has never been happier. He sold his beautiful home and took a 50-percent pay cut. He took a 75-percent pay cut 16 months later when he became a Salvation Army officer.
Now he is essentially a full-time volunteer, living in a Salvation Army home and driving a Salvation Army car. He moved here with his wife Annette six months ago to take the position of area commander for the Salvation Army in El Paso.
A loquacious man, Morton has probably never met a stranger and isn’t shy about preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ to everyone he meets. He’s known at the shelter as “Major Mike.”
Morton’s first assignment as a Salvation Army officer was in Charlotte, N.C., where he was the property administrator. Since then, he has been assigned to Myrtle Beach and Anderson, S.C., as well as Arlington, San Antonio, Corpus Christi and most recently, Lubbock, in Texas.
Morton, 56, has a bachelor’s degree in mathematics /computer science from the University of North Carolina. He served for 11 years in the Air Force and four years in the Army Reserve. He’s worked for Pepsico Food Systems and the U.S. District Court, District of Kansas.
Morton’s wife, Annette, is also an officer in the Salvation Army, as are their grown children, son Ray and daughter Kelly.
Now that they are empty nesters, Morton and his wife enjoy taking walks or riding their bikes together.
Morton sat down with El Paso Inc. in his office at the Salvation Army Family Center at 4300 E. Paisano and talked about what the army is doing in El Paso, the red kettle holiday campaign, why a border has nothing to do with need and the true meaning of Christmas to him.
Q: In a nutshell, what is the Salvation Army? It has a somewhat distinctive philosophy.
Our mission statement really does a nice job of saying it. It says, “Our mission is to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human needs in His name without discrimination.”
The Salvation Army is a church, but we are more concerned with missions than we are with sitting in a church preaching. We have services every Sunday, but it isn’t sufficient to only preach the gospel; you have to meet that basic need.
Q: How was the Salvation Army started? I understand it has its roots in London’s East End.
Basically, it was started in 1865 by William Booth, who was a Methodist minister. He didn’t feel like the church was getting out to the streets where the folks were really suffering. If you think in Dickens’ terms, “A Tale of Two Cities” or the street urchins, that was the East End of London at the time. Booth realized something had to be done to help those folks.
Well, he established what he called the Christian Mission to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. We all know that worked and everybody was saved right? No. What he found out was, until you do something to meet the physical needs, nobody is really going to listen to you talk about a savior who loves them and is their solution. So the Salvation Army was founded on that precept, meeting people’s need for food, clothing and shelter.
Q: What is the Salvation Army doing in El Paso to meet those needs?
I’m given the latitude to do anything that is addressing those basic needs – food, clothing and shelter. If you look at it, that’s exactly what we do here. We provide food. Anybody can come here and we will give them a box of food. We put people up for the night and we feed them three meals a day. They can stay with us until they get on their feet.
The army is interested in attacking the root causes of homelessness. While they’re here, we are going to help them accomplish the objectives necessary to obtain independent living, which makes it more than just three hots and a cot. It’s: “Do you have an ID? Can you work? Do you have your Social Security number? Can we help you get a job? How about parenting classes? How about budgeting classes? How about medical care for your kids?” All of these things we take for granted, in the homeless environment, they’re not there.
Q: How many beds are in the shelter here?
We can house 100 comfortable. On a cold night, we might fit as many as 160 or more. We don’t turn anybody away.
Q: How do the needs in El Paso differ from other places you’ve been?
Need doesn’t understand a border along a river. Our first objective in our shelter program anywhere is to get you your documentation so you can get a job. Usually, it’s because people lose their ID or they don’t have their Social Security card and they need to get a new one.
Here that takes on a whole new dimension when some people are undocumented. It adds a degree of difficulty, but it doesn’t change our focus at all. For many folks, they are in my shelter because they don’t have income. So, if I can help them get a job, I am helping them get to that first step.
Q: How supportive have you found the El Paso community to be?
The community is amazing. The network of agencies is amazing. It’s like we understand what the problem is here, we understand the depth of the problem and we all tend to work better together. I like that.
Q: How did you get involved in the Salvation Army?
That’s a long story. But the bottom line was I was serving the homeless a Thanksgiving dinner in Wichita, Kan. It was hot. It was 1993 and there was a major heat wave. I’m in the kitchen, the door is propped open, stirring a stockpot full of green beans. Sweat is pouring off my body, my arms are aching, and I’m having the time of my life. I asked a simple question, “How do I get this feeling on a daily basis?” Well, the journey was arduous, but I have it.
Q: What career did you leave behind when you joined the Salvation Army?
I was a computer scientist. I’m not in this for the money. This is something that transcends all of that. I joined the Air Force right out of high school as a computer operator. I went to college, graduated with a degree in computer science. I had done what I wanted to do and thought I was happy. It paled in comparison to stirring green beans on Thanksgiving. Go figure.
Q: But it’s not everybody who is willing to drop a successful career to essentially volunteer full-time.
When the Lord calls you, you have to go. It’s a long story, but eventually I came to the conclusion the Lord was asking me to do this. Jesus Christ is the answer. Never forget that. It is when we give up our will for his will that we stop whatever we are doing and start doing things the right way.
Q: You’ve been assigned many different places in the 16 years since you joined the Salvation Army. Is it common to move so much?
Well, around four years is the norm. We have moved every two-and-a-half years. My wife and I tend to be troubleshooters, and they send us to where they need something done. We are both very flexible because we don’t have any kids at home with us. All my kids are Salvation Army officers.
Oh, yeah. It is a family thing for us. My daughter and her husband are the officers in Killeen, Texas, and my son and his wife are the officers in New Bern, N.C.
Q: How many bell ringers do you have this year?
Right now, about 300.
Q: Wow. How important is the red kettle holiday campaign for the Salvation Army?
It is the largest fundraiser of any non-profit anywhere in the world. There are 22,000 sites in the United States and 92 in El Paso. This is a significant source of funding for us.
Q: How much?
We did $342,000 last year. I was hoping to get $500,000 this year; I don’t think I am going to. About 90 percent is at a dollar or less at a time. It’s a tremendous story.
Q: How much of the total budget is that?
We are a $2 million-a-year organization. I tell people it’s not about the money. We do monitor everything – I can tell you who is doing what at what kettle site; I know the good and I know the bad – but it’s not about the money. This is about people giving.
Stand out at a kettle for even just one hour and you’ll see that the kettles are about folks who have been helped by the army giving back to the army, and it’s parents teaching their kids to help those who are in need.
Q: So it’s about the gift of giving.
I will tell you, the gift of giving is an amazing thing. It is an addiction. It happens at our kettles, and it happens even more during disasters. People get hooked on it and they literally follow disasters to help people. That’s not a bad thing; that’s a good thing to be hooked on.
Kettles are the very fabric of our Christmas season now. You don’t see a movie that has a Christmas scene without a kettle. It’s become such a common thing that Hollywood is now seeking permission from the Salvation Army to use our kettles when they’re filming a holiday scene, and we allow it to be done because it is such an integral part of Christmas. That is what Christmas is all about, this gift of giving, and it is all based on the greatest gift of all – the gift of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. There is no greater gift.
Q: I understand not all of the bell ringers are volunteers, and many are hired for $8-an-hour from the shelter here as part of a work program.
We employ those who are unemployed or at the lower rungs of the employment ladder, and are teaching them. At the end of the year, I am able to give them a report. That report shows every day that the individual has been out.
If they’ve gone out every day, the report shows reliability. It shows they are handling money. Well, that’s integrity. It shows what they produce per hour. Well, if I’m paying you $8 an hour, and it says he’s producing $18-bucks-an-hour, there isn’t a supervisor in the world that doesn’t understand that’s production.
So I am able to give every one of these bell ringers a report that shows reliability, integrity and production. They can take that report and translate that to a job.
I consider it a very valuable work program. If you count the salaries as a program expense, about 87 percent of every dollar that goes in those kettles is staying right here helping people. That’s a business model that is just wonderful.
Q: El Paso Salvation Army Minister Luis Valdez was suspended this summer after being accused of sexually assaulting a teenager and arrested by police. This happened before you came here, but what are you doing to ensure something like this never happens again?
In this particular case, this is a very abhorrent behavior. We have a case where the individual deliberately violated our own safety checks. If someone deliberately goes out to violate the law, they will succeed. The trick is did we catch it and have we done something about it? And the answer is, yes, we did.
We have a Safe from Harm program that is a tremendous program. We teach the program to not only our officers but also our employees, volunteers and program recipients. We have incredible safety checks. It is one of the most progressive programs I have ever seen. That is why we generally don’t have a problem in the army and it stands above board. I feel confident to say this is not going to happen again.
Q: What’s next for the Salvation Army?
We are developing a whole wellness concept in our shelter. Companies went through this, what, 20 years ago? They got on a kick for wellness for their employees, and it was determined that it was more beneficial to the company if the employee was in a healthy state.
If you consider the population in the shelter, they don’t have an employer who is working on wellness with them. They don’t have anybody.
Right now, the Salvation Army is addressing wellness in various ways. We are doing it by partnering with the Y and bringing in aerobic classes into the shelters, but here in El Paso we are taking a more medical approach. One of the things we do is we ask people when they come in, “Do you have something you need to have checked out?”
We are partnering with the El Paso Visiting Nurses Association and are going to have nurses available to give residents a checkup. Probably 60 percent of our shelter population is diabetic. We are now offering sugar-free drinks and healthier food choices.
To donate to the Salvation Army
call (915) 544-9811
or go online to www.SalvationArmyTexas.org.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter Robert Gray at email@example.com or call (915) 534-4422 ext. 105.