Major Mike Stannett is the national leader of the Salvation Army, or Armáda spásy, in the Czech Republic. He and his wife Ruth first came to the country in 1991 and, apart from a brief stint in Moscow, have been here ever since. Right now the Salvation Army is particularly busy, working to help the homeless through a freezing snap, and at its headquarters in Prague 13 Mike Stannett discussed just how the organisation has been coping with the situation. But I first asked him what had led him and his wife to move here in the early ‘90s.
“It was the following of what we believe is God’s will for our life. I met my wife when I was training to become an officer in the Salvation Army, as she was. We married, we became officers, and it was while we were working for the Salvation Army as ministers, as pastors, that we started to get involved in an aid programme for Romania, for all the orphanages and elderly people’s projects that were going through a dreadful period at that time.
“We sensed that the world was changing and that there needed to be a Christian influence in the new Europe that was beginning to emerge. So we offered to come and work for the Salvation Army in parts of the world that the Army worked in where we had been banned under the communist regime. And the Czech Republic was the first one.”
How did you find coming here in the early 1990s, and how was it working here in those initial years?
“There’s a bit of a funny story there, actually, because when we came we had no idea what we were coming to, so we packed six months of tinned food, because we’d just heard about food queues and things like that. I’d packed an axe in case I had to chop wood, and of course I found it wasn’t quite so bad here as I’d been led to believe.
“But we found a different society, a society that hadn’t been allowed to think for itself, a society that hadn’t got a particular conscience as regards looking after the underprivileged. That was the niche that we were coming to bring in, bringing a Christian ethic to social work.”
The Czechs are famously one of Europe’s most non-religious or even atheistic nations – how is the Salvation Army perceived here, do you think?
“I think the media sort of propagates that. There’s an element of that throughout the whole of Europe – Europe is certainly becoming a lot more atheistic. But in the Czech Republic I think generally people know that the Armáda spásy looks after the underprivileged, and particularly the homeless.
“Whether they realise that we’re Christians, doing it out of faith…that’s more difficult, because the media don’t particularly want to talk about that side of it. They’re happy to talk about the humanistic side of our work, but not so much about the reasons we do it. So in general, it’s a growing awareness of who we are and why we do what we do.”
What do you do? What are your main activities in the Czech Republic?
“Our main activities are a combination of social work and church work. We believe in meeting the holistic need of a person. So if they’re homeless, yes, you provide a bed and soup – and then you try and build on that by helping to motivate them and find strengths and new ways of being able to live their lives, so that they can avoid the problems of the past.”
What are the conditions under which the homeless can stay at your shelters?
“As long as they’re sober, they can stay. Then the regime within the projects is quite light. As long as somebody isn’t going to hurt somebody else, they can stay in. If somebody’s under the influence of drugs or alcohol then we have to tell them, sleep it off then come back again. Then all the services are open to you.”
Do you in any way try to convert people who stay at your shelters, or to put any religious pressure on them, so to speak, to pray or whatever?
“We’re a church, so obviously when people come into an Armáda spásy hostel it becomes quickly clear to people that we are Christians. The Christian programmes that we have within our projects are there for people to choose, if they want to belong to them.
“For example at the Prague hostel every Sunday morning there will be worship. It’s a hostel that has about 150 people sleeping in it, of which around 20 will attend the religious service. So it’s not forced. The only advantage somebody gets by attending a worship is the advantage that the grace of God gives them. There’s no other advantage given to them.”
For the last week and a half or so the Czech Republic has been covered in snow, temperatures have been below zero. I presume many of your clients or potential clients have been under serious threat. How have you been coping with the situation?
“It’s the same every year when the winter period comes and temperatures drop below freezing, we have to make emergency accommodation available for people, who may be living on the street or in severe circumstances.
“We open all of our dining rooms and we allow people to sleep on the chairs or on the floor during the night. So normally our hostel might have accommodation for about 150 people, but we will add another 100 on top of that, easily. We work together with the other agencies in the town, municipal authorities, other churches, so that we can provide as much accommodation as possible.”
What are the biggest challenges for you at a time like this?
“The biggest challenge is just making sure people are safe. People will die at this time of year. They will die in the street. I’d prefer that they die in our dining room, if they’re that ill, because then they’re not dying in isolation or loneliness… So that’s the biggest challenge – keeping people alive.”
You first came here nearly 20 years ago. Have you seen the situation with the homeless develop over that time, and how do you imagine it might develop into the future?
“I’ve seen a huge difference. When I first came…funnily enough, I opened the first hostel in the whole of eastern Europe. That was in the small town of Havířov. That was the first hostel, not just of the Armáda spásy but of any civic organisation.
“Since then we’ve seen an explosion of other churches, other charities becoming involved and providing services. So it’s a different world, in that respect. It’s a different world, in the way that people are dealt with. Under the previous regime, anybody involved in anti-social behaviour was put in prison. That’s why there wasn’t a homeless problem, because anybody who was vagrant, or anybody who was alcoholic and had lost their jobs, they were imprisoned.
“So in some ways you could say, not the Army on its own, but the united work of the social agencies has changed the way society looks at homelessness, and the way the country provides for people who are homeless.”
And from today’s perspective, how do you think the homeless problem may develop in the future?
“I think there are always areas to develop. Placing homeless people in hostels is not the answer. It’s cheaper and better for the individual if he looks after himself, if he’s capable of it, by providing better social housing and more social housing. I don’t think that’s just something for the Czech Republic, I think that’s for the whole of Europe – more social housing.
“Some people are not able to cope on their own. Therefore you’ve got to have an infrastructure and services available to help maintain people in their own environment. That’s got to be a better solution than packing people together in dormitories or in bedrooms that they have no real ownership of.”