When Brigadier Luther Smith, 92, walks down the street, people stop him to say "thank you." It's impossible to have an uninterrupted conversation with him because everyone wants to hug him. His devotion and compassion make him the heartbeat of the Salvation Army's ministry in Birmingham, Ala.
"I see it as my job to represent The Salvation Army," says Smith. "We try to be alert to the community and tailor our programs to meet its changing needs."
Smith has been doing that now for 70 years.
During the Great Depression, Smith saw The Salvation Army rent three- and four-story buildings to provide many a place to sleep for the large numbers of homeless people. In the worst crisis since then, Hurricane Katrina, thousands of people fled to Birmingham, and the Army's strategy changed. Through its many contacts, the Army helped Katrina victims find jobs so that they could move out of hotels and back to a normal setting as soon as possible.
"We look for things, sometimes very small incremental steps, to try to help a person with what they're facing," Smith says. After all these years, he still speaks with an excitement about helping others that is contagious.
That purpose was what first attracted young Luther Smith to The Salvation Army. Fresh out of high school, he was working at the Addie Weaver Mission in Anniston, Ala., when he met a group of young men from the Army's Southern Training College in Atlanta.
"I was captivated by their sense of direction and joy," Smith says. "They knew what they were doing, and I wanted to be involved."
Soon he enrolled as a member (soldier) and was on his way to officer training. After graduating in 1936, he became a lieutenant in Gadsden, Ala.
After 35 years in the Salvation Army, he received a promotion to brigadier. Although he officially retired in 1979, he still works for the Army and the people of Birmingham three days a week.
On his office walls, plaques of commendation and many photographs speak of Smith's years of dedicated service. But the brigadier isn't content with what has been done so far.
For his next project, Smith wants to see a new, modern adult Services facility built. "The building we have now was erected in 1968," he says. A larger, more modern facility would upgrade the homeless shelter and transitional housing program. Smith says the Army's goal is to give each person a step up and thereby lift the whole community.
What makes Smith want to keep working, at 92?
"The Salvation Army is growing so much," he says, with a gleam in his eye that reflects his continuing passion and enthusiasm. "I don't plan to ever not come to work. When you have smart people with good hearts, it's amazing what they can accomplish."