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Banners and Balloons : Salvation Army Salutes Right to Fight for Right

Times Staff Writer

To Salvation Army Capt. John Purdell, the Independence Day holiday meant the freedom to let 21 giant balloons pull a banner reading “HALLELUJAH” to the top of the Van Nuys federal building at noon Monday.

It meant being able to play an off-key version of the traditional hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers” on the building’s plaza, off Van Nuys Boulevard, followed by an equally dissonant “Star Spangled Banner.”

Struggling to hang on to the bottom of the banner while sweating freely in his black wool military-style suit and cap, Purdell said, “I thank God for the right to put on these uniforms and make absolute idiots of ourselves for the Lord Jesus Christ.”

Inspiration for the event and for an equally flashy one he staged last Friday were recent U. S. Supreme Court decisions, Purdell said, as well as increased interest in the corps from local Christian churches and the ever-growing problems of gangs and drugs.

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Corps members worship every Monday and Wednesday outside the federal building, he said, as part of a daily quest for exposure and recruits.

Monday’s unfurling began a few minutes early, when a smaller banner bearing an Old Testament citation broke loose. Purdell took it as a sign that the Lord wanted to get started.

“The Lord has superseded,” he said. “I think we’ll just go with that.”

Purdell seemed disappointed that only one photographer and one reporter showed up to document the event. Then, only a handful of passers-by stopped to listen to his sermon and watch the blue, yellow and red balloons waft skyward for a few minutes before being reeled back to earth.

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But even the outspoken commander of the San Fernando Valley corps of the Salvation Army could not have hoped to upstage himself: it was he who on Friday draped an anti-Satan banner over a Hollywood Freeway overpass, prompting a rush-hour traffic jam and a warning from police.

Countering popular impressions of the Salvation Army as straight-laced, Purdell took a markedly liberal stance on recent U. S. Supreme Court decisions.

He said the Valley chapter agrees with the court’s finding that flag-burning should be legal yet has mixed feelings about Monday’s abortion ruling.

“I love flags and would personally find the burning of the flag despicable,” he said. “But I rejoice that someone has the right to be despicable, with their own flag.”

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On abortion, Purdell said he worries that in states where abortion rights become limited as a result of the ruling, young pregnant women may turn to illegal abortions.

“We’ve seen what the results of that can be,” he said.

He said those positions follow the corps’ somewhat simple tradition, which centers on the Bible as absolute truth, sin as the enemy and the need to help the down and out.

“We are traditional and we are not at all political,” Purdell said. “But we have always dealt with people whose lives have been destroyed by lies, the lies of Satan.”

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