NORTH RICHLAND HILLS, Texas (RNS) — To hear Bruce Bachman tell it, he's just a guy with a bell, a red apron and a heart to serve who gives a little of his time during the holiday season.
He's just one of the thousands of volunteer bell ringers who keep alive a 127-year tradition that the Salvation Army traces to Capt. Joseph McFee, who set out a large, iron kettle in 1891 to collect funds for a Christmas dinner in San Francisco.
From Thanksgiving to Christmas, the change, bills and occasional large checks and gold coins that Americans drop into about 25,000 kettles from coast to coast amount to roughly $150 million, said Lt. Col. Ron Busroe, the Salvation Army’s national community relations and development secretary.
Some bell ringers wish passers-by a heartfelt "Merry Christmas" and hope the kettle fills. But many others, like Bachman, have honed strategies and routines to make the most of the uncompensated work — for the Salvation Army and for all who come within earshot.
Just before 10 a.m. on a busy shopping day, the 61-year-old consulting engineer arrives at a Hobby Lobby arts and crafts store with a mailbox-sized stereo, a box of Christmas CDs and a plastic baggie full of hard candy.
“I bring the candy to suck on so I don’t have to drink as much water,” Bachman explains. He knows he won’t have time for meals or bathroom breaks, so he tries to be prepared (eating a hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon and hash browns ahead of time).
He’ll stand outside for eight hours and — as a mix of Bing Crosby, Mannheim Steamroller and “A Charlie Brown Christmas” tunes plays — invite customers to donate to the Salvation Army’s red kettle campaign.
“God bless you!” he tells a woman who pulls money out of her purse. “You have a very merry Christmas!”
“Hello, cutie!” he says in his best Donald Duck voice as 3-year-old Jubilee Longoria approaches the kettle with a handful of coins.
For the preschooler, the kettle and the bell are likely to become visual and auditory markers of the Christmas season, just as they have for generations before her.
Busroe heard one of those bells as he exited a subway station in New York recently, outside Macy’s department store. Some, he noted, believe that sidewalk Santa Clauses and Salvation Army solicitors in New York were the inspiration for the popular Christmas song “Silver Bells,” first recorded in 1950. (One of the song's co-writers has disputed that.)
“Christmas bells and Christmas kettles are synonymous with the Salvation Army,” said Busroe, an ordained minister for the group, a Christian denomination that claims about 2 million members around the world and belongs to the National Association of Evangelicals.
The Salvation Army’s mission statement calls for it “to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and to meet human needs in His name without discrimination.” (Though at times gay activists have called for boycotts of the kettle campaigns because the group believes gay sex to be a sin. Busroe blames the controversy on "misinformation and misconception.")
“It’s all variety of walks of life and professions,” Busroe said of the volunteer bell ringers, most of whom do not belong to the Salvation Army church. “You have service clubs — Rotary, Kiwanis, Lions, Optimist — and many of them in a local community will have competitions” to see which can raise the most money.
“Church groups will take a kettle for a day, a week or an entire season,” he added. “It’s all different groups of people, and we’re constantly needing volunteers.”
The annual funds raised enable the Salvation Army USA to provide more than 56 million meals and 10 million nights of shelter as well as youth programs, summer camps and adult rehabilitation services, according to the Alexandria, Va.-based organization.
“I believe that God talks about love. Love is the greatest commandment, and we have to take care of our brothers and sisters,” said Mark Colebrook, a high school math teacher who sings “Jingle Bells” and other Christmas carols with his 16-year-old daughter, Makaila, when they ring the bell outside a Sam’s Club store in Goldsboro, N.C.
“The Salvation Army — they not only talk the talk, but they walk the walk,” added Colebrook, a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) member.
Debbie Newton, a 47-year-old real estate agent, organizes bell ringers at a Bel Air Foods store in Roseville, Calif., near Sacramento. Her father, Joe Newton, and 17-year-old son, Kaz, join the volunteers, many of whom don Santa hats and elf costumes.
“I raised my son down there at the Salvation Army, sorting toys and cooking breakfast and ringing the bells,” said Debbie Newton, who attends an Evangelical Covenant Church congregation.
“It’s important that we are able to help the people in our community who don’t have the means, or maybe the good fortune, to live the life that they want,” added Newton, noting that red kettle money stays in the area in which it’s raised, a fact confirmed by Busroe.
CharityWatch, a Chicago-based watchdog group, gives the Salvation Army’s four regional headquarters financial efficiency ratings ranging from B-plus to A-minus.
“It’s great that they run their kettle campaign … with staff or volunteers rather than professional fund-raising companies that may give the charity only a small percentage of the donations collected,” CharityWatch President Daniel Borochoff said in an email.
“The kettle campaign is also a lot less risky than giving cash to a street solicitor who may use the money for drugs, alcohol or other such purposes that don’t aid with his recovery.”
In the shadow of the downtown Fort Worth skyline about 10 miles away, most shoppers make eye contact and return Bachman's friendly greeting.
“If they don’t want to talk to me, they’ll go in the other door,” he said with a chuckle, pointing down the sidewalk to the other end of the store.
Often, people thank him for the help that the Salvation Army provided to them or a loved one.
“I had this woman yesterday who still has a brother living at the Salvation Army,” Bachman said. “I got the impression he was either an alcoholic or a drug addict, and they were trying to help him out.
“I’ve had one kid tell me about how the Salvation Army got his uncle off heroin and back onto a normal life,” he added. “Another woman told me that when she was a little girl, without the Salvation Army, they would have starved because her father died and her mother was all alone raising four kids.”
Stacy Reddicks stuffed a $10 bill in Bachman’s kettle as a Hobby Lobby employee rolled her cart full of Christmas crafts out of the store.
Reddicks, 39, said she and her husband, John, were temporarily homeless and helped by a faith-based ministry when she was pregnant with their 5-year-old daughter, Gracee.
“I look in my wallet, and if there’s cash, I always feel led to give what I have,” Reddicks said. “We’ve been in that situation … so we just want to give back because we know that God has put us in a position now where we’re able to give.”
Bachman’s engineering work keeps him on the road much of the year. But during the Christmas season, he arranges his schedule so that he can ring the bell at least once a week. He started volunteering for the Salvation Army about eight or nine years ago after going on an around-the-world trip on his motorcycle.
“I’m helping — how do I put it? — because I believe that’s what God wants me to do is to help my fellow man,” Bachman said.
His faith background is Roman Catholic, but he’s no fan of Pope Francis, whom he describes as “anti-American” and “very socialistic.” Rather than attend Mass, Bachman said he stays home and reads his Bible on Sundays.
In a typical shift, his red kettle generates between $400 and $600.
Blue-sky, 70-degree days — not uncommon in Texas this time of year — make for a more comfortable volunteer experience. But sleet and snow can drive up donations: “If it’s miserable and they see me standing there, they have sympathy and throw more money in the bucket,” Bachman said with a grin.
Regardless of the weather conditions, no gift — as he sees it — is too small.
“I just thank everybody,” said Bachman, the Christmas music blending with the roar of tractor-trailers speeding along nearby Interstate 820. “If somebody says, ‘Oh, I’ve just got a little bit of change,’ I’ll say, ‘Hey, every little bit counts. Give whatever you can.’
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s a little kid putting a dime or a quarter in or somebody putting in a $20 bill — it all adds up.”