The Salvation Army’s Godfather

Posted: Jul 07, 2007 12:01 AM
The Salvation Army’s Godfather

I came on the board of my alma mater, a small, distinguished liberal arts college, just before Andy Miller retired as a trustee; that overlap marked one of life’s blessings for me. In that context, I came to know one of the most outstanding of the U.S. national Salvation Army (S.A.) Commissioners and an American candidate who came close to making General, the highest possible position of the world-wide Salvation Army.

Andy aptly fits his biographer’s description of him as a “walking exclamation point,” but he is so much more than a colorful personality. As I sat beside him in meetings, he would whisper hilariously witty commentary on the proceedings, then shortly afterward he would be a dynamic force in initiating productive solutions for problems or offering insightful assessments of critical issues. He sees the humor in life, but it does not distract him from his central purpose or the vital tasks of the moment. In fact, when people talk about Andrew Miller, it is his spiritual depth rather than his wit or personality that gets top billing.

Andy Miller makes friends with powerful men as easily as with the common man. He was an usher at Robert Kennedy’s funeral because he met and formed a friendship with the former U.S. Attorney General while jogging on the streets of New York City. He can be very disarming in his friendliness and his compassion, but he can also be hard-nosed when it is necessary. The story is told that a local banker was trying to wiggle out of being the honorary chairman of a fundraising campaign for the Salvation Army. The banker suggested a lower-ranking bank dignitary for the job, but Miller pushed, “We always have our lead banker be the chairman.” “How much money do you have in our bank?” inquired the bank president. Learning it was multiple millions invested from previous fund drives, the banker agreed to be chairman, but then declared, “Miller, you are the original godfather!” The nickname stuck, but as he observed the work of the Salvation Army that banker became an enthusiastic supporter and a member of the S.A. National Advisory Board.

No one who meets him can forget Andy Miller; he has friends all over the world –– most of them have a favorite anecdote about the “godfather” of the Salvation Army. One of the Salvation Army’s leaders once said that it would be impossible to “overembellish” an Andy Miller story.

Andy is a compelling speaker, primarily because of the wealth of powerful stories that he shares with his audiences. The Salvation Army does not celebrate Holy Communion, but that sacrament is central to one of my favorite Andy Miller stories. Andy described visiting a retreat where the leaders recognized him and publicly asked him to come forward to assist with serving communion. He related his chagrin at being put in an awkward situation where the only polite thing was to participate as requested. He was doubly embarrassed when he discovered that communion would be served in paper “Dixie” cups. How déclassé! As he turned to walk down the aisle he was tempted to just walk out the back door and not return, but he locked eyes with a couple who seemed to be compelling him to approach them. He stopped, held out the cup and said, “I offer the forgiveness of God.” The couple hissed, “Who told you about us?” As Andy ministered to the couple, through God’s grace, the wife was able to forgive her husband’s infidelity and Andy learned that God can use any circumstance –– and the sacraments –– to work His miracles.

While a major in the New York City Salvation Army Corps, Andy arranged for the ABC television network to air an hour-long program, “A Concert for Christmas,” featuring the New York Staff Band and Male Chorus. Leonard Bernstein, who happened to view the program, wrote a two-page letter to the network praising the program’s music as well as its “deep spiritual impact.” ABC repeated the program each Christmas for several years. During the same time, CBS aired an Advent service from the local corps that received the highest ratings for that year’s Advent programming.

Andy Miller is, indeed, a man of steel and velvet, as described by Colonel John Busby who used the phrase from Carl Sandburg’s remarks about Abraham Lincoln. Sandburg said, “Not often in the story of mankind does a man arrive on earth who is both steel and velvet. Firm as a rock and soft as drifting fog.” Busby accurately described Andy Miller as a leader who is firm as a rock on principle, but soft as fog when it comes to compassion for the needy and vulnerable. Those qualities make Andy Miller a legend in the Salvation Army and are a legacy for all Christian leaders. Now retired, Andy Miller continues to be an active “godfather” to the Salvation Army by promoting its interests, praising its people and furthering its mission.

The Talmud recommends that only a fraction of a man’s virtues be enumerated in his presence. This recitation of some of Andy’s virtues is, indeed, merely a fraction of his influence and powerful personality. We’ll save the rest for that sad time when the exclamation point becomes a period.