LACONIA — With his warm smile and easy demeanor, and uncanny ability to recall the names of people he’s met, Major Mike Davis is a natural bridge builder.
He's the new co-leader of the Laconia Salvation Army, and his motto sums up his sense of mission.
“I don’t have to do this. I get to do this,” Davis said.
At a time when COVID-19 has increased joblessness, homelessness and fearful feelings nationwide, and society is divided into bitter factions, Davis is also a wound healer, someone whose job means caring about those he serves, and responding to the needs he sees. That includes bringing others to faith in Christ, while serving their requirements in daily life.
This year his mission is larger and more pressing than in recent years, when Davis served as second-in-command at the Salvation Army in Manchester, New Hampshire’s largest city. In Laconia, his responsibilities are broader, he said. And the challenge is steeper, despite being in a city of 16,000, a place more rural in character than urban.
“The need is greater here” than it seemed in the Queen City, Davis said, perhaps because the Salvation Army runs more outreaches in Laconia, including a soup kitchen and food pantry, thrift store, and Carey House, its homeless shelter, which serves families and individuals in transition.
“There’s a lot of homelessness, people who struggle with drug addiction and mental health challenges. I was surprised by the size of the population,” said Davis, who arrived at the beginning of August, joined by co-leader Lieut. Brian Perks. “A lot of them are trying to make a better life for themselves. We’re here to provide a temporary safe haven while they get back on their feet” whether from substance abuse or domestic violence, or other issues that upend lives.
It's a mission poised to expand, with a growing need for financial backing.
Since March, the Salvation Army’s Northern New England division has provided over 600,000 meals, 39,000 drinks and 44,000 snacks to residents of New Hampshire, Maine and Vermont, according to organization records. Now, because of retail store closures, a decline in foot traffic, and consumers carrying less cash and coins, the organization, including the Laconia Corps, is bracing for a 50-percent decline in funds raised, according to a release from Patricia James, the organization’s public relations manager.
Based on increased calls for help during the pandemic, the Salvation Army expects to serve up to 155% more people nationwide with Christmas assistance in the form of food, money to pay bills, shelter and helping to put gifts under the Christmas tree. Last year, its nationwide battalion of bellringers raised roughly $126 million through about 30,000 red kettles across the country.
The Salvation Army is currently ranked by The Chronicle of Philanthropy as America’s largest, privately-funded nonprofit, serving more 23 million Americans annually with social services that include relief for disaster survivors and rehabilitation for people suffering from drug and alcohol abuse.
In the aftermath of a pandemic that spiked the size and scope of human needs around the globe, the Salvation Army is launching “Rescue Christmas,” a broader, social media-enhanced fundraising campaign that is starting earlier, with hopes of increasing the population helped.
It’s an extension of its original mission begun in 1865 by William and Catherine Booth, Methodist ministers in England, who saw that marginalized people were not treated well by churches, and founded a Christian mission “to reach out to the downtrodden, to those who were less than,” Davis said.
The Laconia Corps has been active in Laconia and Gilford since 1893. “Today we serve all people without discrimination. We’re part of the evangelical church. We’re a Christian organization.”
“Everything we do with the Salvation Army is to introduce and lead people to Jesus Christ – whether they come to Carey House or for a bag of food. All of our employees come and worship here” on Sunday mornings, Davis said. “Our mission is to preach the gospel of Jesus and to meet human needs in his name, without discrimination.”
Davis was introduced to the Salvation Army at age 5, after his family lost their home in a fire and lived in a Salvation Army shelter in Bridgeport, Conn. for a year. An ordained minister, he served in the Salvation Army for 38 years, after studying child psychology at Liberty University, and concentrating on autism and behavior modification. Lieut. Perks, a third-generation Salvation Army officer and minister, studied theology at Asbury College in Kentucky, and managed Salvation Army thrift stores in Western Massachusetts before accepting his first official post here.
Both Perks and Davis hope to increase the organization’s outreach to children and teens through Club 3:16, a Bible-based program that offers badge-earners in first- through 12th grade activities and lessons in photography, nature study and arts and crafts, as well as Salvation Army history, in a troop format similar to the Boy and Girl Scouts.
"The main objective is to provide children a safe place to grow and learn in ways that may not be covered directly in school," Perks said.
Serving the homeless and spiritually uprooted continues to be a core thrust locally.
“I do see quite a bit of homelessness and drug abuse in the community,” said Perks. “But I do see quite an effort being made to address these as well.”
As a culture, “We tend to see people who are homeless as lazy. That’s not the case,” Davis said. “There’s a reason why people become homeless. We need to learn people’s stories and know their hearts. Then we can gain a good perspective on how we can better their lives.”
What often strikes Davis is their appreciation. – “Just when you give them that bag of food. Seeing their joy that they’re going to be able to provide Christmas for their families. We at the Salvation Army give them hope. We’re thrilled to be appointed to the Laconia Corps and are eager to build upon the amazing work our predecessors have done in this community,” he said.
Davis and Perks replace Captains Scott and Nora McNeil, prior co-captains of the Laconia Salvation Army for six years, who essentially traded places with Davis when they were reassigned to lead the Salvation Army in Manchester early last month.