Though his uniform sparks questions — "What airline do you fly for?" or "Can you take my bags up to my room?" — Mesa’s top Salvation Army officer is surprised by how many people do, in fact, recognize his uniform and his organization.
"Most people in the community know the Salvation Army does something good, but they are not sure of what, and they are not sure why," said Capt. Will Cobb, who, along with his wife Capt. Bev Cobb, took over as Mesa Citadel Corps officers in February 2002. Salvation Army opened services in Mesa in 1968.
Largely unknown, however, is that each corps also includes a Christian congregation, which holds worship services and classes. About 120 people are members of the Mesa congregation. Bandmaster Orville Payton, 80, has been leading the corps’ brass band for worshi p and around the community since 1977.
For some, the image of the Salvation Army is one popularized by the Damon Runyon musical "Guys and Dolls," which featured the Save-a-Soul Mission, a robust Salvation Army band and a determined mission worker, Sarah Brown.
Many regard the Salvation Army as a no-nonsense charity that serves the poor and families in disasters and emergencies and runs Angel Tree gift programs for children during the holidays. It is also known for its thrift stores, Thanksgiving Day feasts for the poor and, maybe most of all, for its bell ringers and red kettles outside of retail stores and malls the weeks before Christmas.
In November, the NonProfit Times listed the Salvation Army as the nation’s seventh largest charity behind three other religious organizations, Lutheran Services in America (first), Catholic Charities USA (fourth) and United Jewish Communities (fifth). Salvation Army in recent decades has often held the top ranking. Its 2001 income was $1.91 billion.
"Soup, soap and salvation" is a simple phrase, coined by founder William Booth, often associated with the Salvation Army, said Cobb, 52, whose family has been involved in the organization since 1979. It is another way of saying the organization’s mission statement, "to present the gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human need in his name without discrimination."
"God loves us all," Cobb said. "It doesn’t matter who you are. It doesn’t matter what denomination you belong to or if you are not with any."
People in need are first helped out of their immediate crisis.
"When we start with our rehabilitation programs and some of our shelter programs, the idea is that if somebody hasn’t had a bath in a week and hasn’t had a meal in three days, he doesn’t want to hear about God," Cobb said.
Each month, the Mesa Corps’ Family Services unit helps 1,800 to 2,000 people with food boxes, clothing, furniture, household items, "comfort kits," prescriptions, transportation, utility bills and eyeglasses. Last Christmas, help went to 9,250 people, including 5,275 children, said John Choate, a longtime leader on the advisory board.
For decades, the Mesa Corps operated from offices in Tri-City Community Services in downtown Mesa, but it had to relocate because of city renovation plans for the building. After taking up quarters at the Mesa Community Action Network, the Mesa Corps has moved offices to the campus of the Salvation Army’s Silvercrest Apartments, 255 E. Sixth St., one of many low-income, senior facilities managed by Salvation Army around the country.
On the drawing board is a plan for a 4,000-square-foot family services building and an 8,200-square-foot warehouse, which will provide ample storage for food, toys and other resources. It is expected to cost $1.35 million. The corps is $200,000 short of raising the funds, and the territorial office has tabled the project until the remainder can be raised.
"We need storage all year long," Will Cobb said. "We have two Sunday school classrooms stacked to the ceiling with stuff." For years, the Army has scrambled during the holidays for find space for its toys drive.
"At Christmas, we have always had to borrow, beg and sweat about space to use," Will Cobb said. "It is interesting that this past Christmas, the city of Mesa came through literally at the 11 th hour and allowed us to use the same site we had moved out of. We need about 6,000 square feet to process those toys."
Will Cobb spent 15 years working at the dice tables in Las Vegas casinos before taking interest in the Salvation Army in 1979. "My wife and the kids started attending the Army before I did, and then it happened one Sunday when my wife talked me into going to one of the services."
They joined and became "soldiers," as laity are known.
In 1986, the Cobbs took officers’ training courses and were commissioned and ordained two years later. They quickly took up the itinerant lives of Salvation Army officers — appointments to El Paso, Texas, then two consecutive assignments of setting up new corps — first nine years in Bullhead City and five years in Kingman.
Will Cobb’s casino knowledge came into play at Bullhead City where unemployed people could not get jobs at the Laughlin casinos until they bought work, health or liquor servers cards.
"We discovered a significant number of people who wanted to work but didn’t have the money they needed to get a work card," he said.
Will Cobb developed a program to purchase the cards for would-be casino workers.
"We were putting people to work so they could take care of themselves," he said. "There were a couple of years where we spent $20,000 on the project, and we had a couple of the managers of the casinos on our advisory board."
The Mesa Corps, which operates on a $600,000 annual budget and is guided by a 20-member advisory board, employs five, including a part-time person, in its social service programs.
The programs, in January, provided 651 food boxes, clothing to 120 people, personal comfort kits to 362 and furniture, and prescriptions or energy vouchers to 43 other people,
"The things that impress me the most about Mesa is how compassionate and generous the people are in this community," Will Cobb said, pointing to the community’s massive response for toys last Christmas. "The generosity of the community is overwhelming."