Reporter Anne-Marie McDonald talks to Major Glenn Anderson about life in the Salvation Army.

"Before you can speak to a person about their relationship with God, you'd better feed them if they're hungry."

It's 10 days before Christmas, and Major Glenn Anderson from the Salvation Army is a hard man to pin down.

We catch up with him at the old Salvation Army building on Whanganui's Wicksteed St where he is organising about 20 volunteers to make up Christmas hampers for people in need.

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Glenn briefs the volunteers on what they need to do, then before they begin work he leads them in prayer, asking for blessings on the volunteers and the recipients of the hampers.

"It's a very busy time of year. Today we're making up the Christmas hampers - we have just short of 70 hampers to make up. Most of them are families that have contacted us requesting help over Christmas. And we have some adopt-a-family hampers, where a business is helping a family directly.

"We also do goodie bags for elderly people who are living alone. Obviously we do something special for Christmas for our volunteers. So it's a sizeable effort for our crew."

The Salvation Army has a considerable presence as a social agency in Whanganui. It employs 14 people including a social worker, a communities ministry manager and nine people at the Salvation Army's family store in Victoria Ave.

It operates a food bank, which is separate to that run by the City Mission.

"We do more emergency food bank work than the City Mission, particularly for those who don't meet the Ministry of Social Development's criteria [for the City Mission's food bank]."

The Salvation Army also provides emergency accommodation for families and single people. It has five rental properties - and is in the process of obtaining two more - where people who are struggling can stay for up to three months and are assisted by a social worker.

The Salvation Army is a church, and like any other church it holds services every Sunday.

Glenn said they attract between 50 and 60 people each week. People who attend the services are either "soldiers" (formal members of the church) or "adherents". Adherents consider the Salvation Army their spiritual home but they are not - for whatever reason - in a position to pledge themselves to the church.

"A soldier's covenant involves some undertakings such as not drinking or smoking, and some people can't commit to those things. But those people can still come to church and participate in the life of the church."

But the Salvation Army is best known for its work as a social agency. It was started in the slums of London in 1865, by William and Catherine Booth.

"The East End of London in the 19th century was a place of great deprivation, and the Salvation Army was born out of that. They believed that before you can speak to a person about their relationship with God, you'd better feed them if they're hungry and give them a bath if they need one."

Glenn said the Salvation Army still practises a down-to-earth Christianity.

"In the United States you can sometimes see a real fanaticism, but I think New Zealand Christianity is a lot more moderate, a lot more practical. In general you won't see New Zealand Christians waving placards on the street and denouncing people - because there's nothing to be gained by that."

Despite the Salvation Army's focus on practical Christianity, morality is very important to Glenn.

"We've become increasingly secular as a society. The church is out on the margins, and is trying to find its voice to speak out about the effects of post-modernism. It's a very different New Zealand to what it was 30 years ago when I started my Salvation Army officer training.

"We now have this attitude of, if it's important to me and I value it, then it's moral."

Glenn has particularly strong views on euthanasia, especially after the recent experience of his older sister dying suddenly of cancer.

"For the last five or six days of her life she found her voice, and each of her four children was able to have some very special moments with their mum. If it had been legal, she could have chosen the route of euthanasia, and her children would have missed out on those times. My sister died with dignity and didn't appear to be in pain."

He also feels strongly about genetic selection.

"We could have babies to order, which would mitigate the effects of Down syndrome, for example. But just because we can, does that mean we should? People with Down syndrome have a lot to teach us, especially about love, because they are beautiful people."

Glenn, who was born and raised in Whanganui, has been involved with the Salvation Army since birth. He is fifth-generation Salvation Army on his father's side, and second-generation on his mother's side.

It was a desire to face the injustices of the world that convinced Glenn to became an officer of the Salvation Army. An officer is what would be called a minister in another church. In the Salvation Army, a married couple must both be officers - one can't be an officer and another work a secular job. So Glenn and his wife, Claire, both went through the rigorous process of being accepted into officer training, and spent two years studying in Trentham, followed by five years' probation.

Their first posting as officers was to Gore, in Southland.

"The reputation of Gore in the 1960s was that the streets were paved with gold, there was that much money in that part of the country. It wasn't quite like that in 1989 when we arrived. But it was a strong Southland farming town, it was safe and a great place to raise the kids.

"There was a tiny wee food bank run out of the back of a garage by the Presbyterian Church. They might have done two food parcels a week - this was prior to the time of [former finance minister] Ruth Richardson's slash and burn of benefits. In our time at Gore, things began to change and we saw a lot more of people not being able to feed themselves."

Glenn and Claire have been back in Whanganui about five years, and in 2017 they are seeing people in desperate situations.

"When we started out nearly 30 years ago, no one had housing issues. People were coming to us with debt problems, but not housing problems. We're seeing people in the metropolitan areas, like Auckland, simply not being able to afford to pay rent. Auckland isn't working out for them, so they leave, and some of these people end up sleeping on Castlecliff beach."

Glenn said the gap between rich and poor has definitely increased over the past few decades.

"Credit to the Labour Party and their partners - amongst all the usual self-interest, I think they carry a stronger message of care and concern for those who are being forgotten. The gap between rich and poor is so wide that the way back will be almost impossible to achieve in one generation."

As an officer, Glenn's work can involve anything from vacuuming the church to being the first port of call for someone in need. He deals with a lot of paperwork, and is very involved with the Salvation Army's family store.

Relationships with other social agencies such as PARS and Women's Refuge are also an important part of his role.

Whatever he's doing, it's clear that Glenn is a man with mission.

"Since 1865, the Salvation Army's DNA has been 'heart to God and hand to man'. Why are we involved in social justice? Why do we find our voice and speak to issues such as housing? Because these are basic issues that impact a person's sense of humanity and dignity.

"This is what Jesus taught - you haven't helped anyone unless you've helped the least."