Monday Q&A: Salvation Army major has 35 years of service

kvaline@modbee.comJanuary 5, 2014 

— Maj. Debi Shrum has been with the Salvation Army since her days as a sociology student at California State University, Chico, in the 1970s.

As Shrum describes it, she had gotten saved and was looking for a church when she found the army. She started volunteering and did her college internship there. Shrum, 59, received her commission in 1979 after completing the army’s two-year officer training program.

Her 35 years with the army has included time in Denver; Billings, Mont.; San Francisco; and the Pacific Northwest. She has overseen the Turlock Corps for about a dozen years.

“I felt a real need to join; we call it being called for service,” said Shrum, who grew up in Chester, a lumber and tourist town along Lake Almanor, about a three-hour drive northeast of Sacramento.

The Turlock Corps helps about 100 families a month with food and, when the money is available, utility bills. It has programs for seniors and children and operates a community gym.

Shrum also attends to her flock’s spiritual needs. She preaches Sundays in the corps chapel, as well as at Sunday night basketball and at two skilled nursing centers during the week. She recently spoke with The Modesto Bee.

Is there such a thing as the deserving and undeserving poor?

(Salvation Army founder) William Booth has a speech on YouTube. … He asks, “Do you ask for a certificate of virtue before you rescue a drowning person, or do you ask if someone has paid their rent before pulling them out of a burning house?” If we all got what we really deserve, none of us would be very happy. Deserving? I think pointing fingers creates an unnecessary divide. Many of us are one or two paychecks from being homeless, a layoff from losing a home, a health issue from losing a job, one car wreck from physical disaster, one cruelty from emotional instability. Life is fragile, and we need to help each other through it. Some help by money, some by verbalizing hope and some by walking beside people.

Do we have an obligation to help the poor?

If your religious beliefs do not tell you to help those less fortunate or you are not a humanitarian, no, there is no obligation. If your religious beliefs tell you to care or you are a humanitarian, then live it out. If you read the Old and New Testament, there is a thread that states justice for widows, fatherless and aliens (not spacemen). And I do know that the Old Testament has a lot of killing of total communities. But if you read the whole book, taking care of people is a theme. Gleaning is an Old Testament concept; read the book of Ruth. It is so widows have food. Read the New Testament, Matthew 5:42: “Give to the one who asks you, and don’t turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.”

What are some common misconceptions the public at large has about the poor or the homeless?

“It can never be me or my family.” Yes, it can; there is no way to make people believe this until they go through it. “They all are just misunderstood.” No, some are “cons.” They are manipulators. I was working with convicts in a program called 7th Step for repeat offenders. A man named Red was telling about convict life. He said, “Most of us will steal the last penny from our grandmas. Always, always keep that in the back of your mind.” “They are all bad and criminals.” I have known people who had their own business, no insurance, hit with a stroke or heart attack. Everything is lost. … It is easy to get caught in the cycle of being poor. It is when people lose dreams and goals that the problems start. Where there are dreams, the cycle can be broken.

You’ve been doing this for 35 years. How do you not get burned out?

I would love to say I’m like Mother Teresa or Francis of Assisi or the Salvation Army officers in the late 1800s. … I’m not even close. My first years I got burned out because I was foolish. I didn’t physically take care of myself. Didn’t rejuvenate by sleeping enough or eating right. I thought if God wants me to do this, he will keep me healthy. I learned that God gave us brains to do something besides fill the space between our ears. So I get eight hours of sleep a night, take vacations, do things to relax, make friends, eat sort of good and the only work I take home is prayer (my home is my sanctuary). Yes, the heart does break, but that is part of life as well as the joy of success. I talk to God a lot. It isn’t always easy. I had a hard heartbreak in the 1990s. I found a body of a child who was abused, didn’t know how to deal with that. I got “stuck” in my emotions. When we get stuck in our emotions, that is what counselors are for. So we learn how to deal with heartbreak in a healthy way.

How do people change or make permanent changes for the better?

A person can’t change because someone else wants them to. In rehab, it is called hitting the bottom. It is ugly, painful, hurts and can kill you, but it can wake you up. One thing at a time. At age 20, 30, 40 or more, we didn’t pick up our habit overnight. We can’t drop them overnight. Our minds, emotions and, in some cases, our bodies need to get used to doing things differently. Most important is God, a relationship with Jesus Christ. That will change an outlook, will help us look at the big picture, will give us a foundation. Read the New Testament like a novel; humans are imperfect, and what we live out trying to be like Christ is imperfect. Reading the New Testament you will see how God wants us to live. The true object in our lives is not to look at other people but to look at what God wants. Look for a church where when you enter, you feel like home; find a Bible study or mentor group that studies the Bible.

What is your God like?

My God is a God of love, of freedom, of balance, of friendship, of learning, of spirit, of hope, of dreams, of acceptance of me even with my failures. Because of my God, I have a dual citizenship of the country which is my home, America, and his kingdom. I have a God who knows that I may never understand the Bible completely or him, but he keeps teaching me. God never gives up on me.

Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at or (209) 578-2316.

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