Body, Mind, and Spirit

Reaching out from the city’s heart, the Salvation Army Kroc Center touches the whole person.

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Members enjoy the multipurpose gym for everything from Zumba classes to pickup basketball games on the NBA-quality court.

“They all wanted people to get together and get along.”

Stephen Carpenter joined the Kroc staff in 2006 when the Salvation Army was still raising money and trying to get the center up and running. A decade earlier, the graduate of Memphis University School had returned to Memphis from Princeton Theological Seminary to start New Hope Christian Academy for inner-city students near Downtown. “I was privileged to receive a great education in Memphis,” says Carpenter, “and I wanted to offer that to kids whose families didn’t have the same income.

“I was perfectly happy in my ministry,” he continues, but when a friend approached him about the Kroc Center, he agreed to listen. “Some people are good at continuing programs, others jump in and start things. I’m probably more in that category.” So, with his school well-established, he accepted the job as director of operations for the fledgling facility at the fairgrounds.

“I was intrigued by the possibilities,” he recalls. “And I liked Joan Kroc’s vision of drawing people from every demographic level.” With others from the center, Carpenter met with people from the various neighborhoods and community groups. “Regardless of race or economics, people said the same thing. They all wanted people to get together and get along.” He asked them what they’d like to see and “that was fun to hear,” he smiles. “Everything from bowling alleys to skating rinks. And a lot of people mentioned a pool. We’re glad we can offer that as well as swimming lessons.”

He also likes seeing the relationships that are built. “Barriers break down. People are fearful of things they don’t know. But then that changes and they start going out shopping or to eat and get to know each other.”

He’d been familiar with the Salvation Army’s commitment to those in desperate need. From his experience with the school he founded, he knows the domino effect that can land families in dire situations. “You’re a single parent, you have a flat tire, can’t get your kids to school, lose your job, have nobody in your circle to help,” says Carpenter. “But if you can bring people together and build friendships, you don’t have to wind up in a downward spiral that ends in a shelter. You come to know people you can ask for help or lean on in times of trouble. That’s what we try to do at the Kroc Center.”


“Joan Kroc’s vision ministers to the whole person.”

Unlike Carpenter, Captain Jonathan Rich was more than just familiar with the Salvation Army. He and his wife, Barbara Rich, area commanders of the local branch since 2012, come from a long line of Salvation Army officers and were members of the organization’s church. For a while the couple pursued other careers — Jonathan as an accountant with Price Waterhouse, Barbara in education and fundraising. “Then we sensed a leading we believe came from God to serve people full-time through the Salvation Army.” They both became ordained ministers — a requirement for married couples — and served in several cities before following a call to Memphis.

Though the Riches oversee all aspects of the local organization, they were “most excited about Joan Kroc’s vision. It was very much the Salvation Army vision,” he says, “because it ministers to the whole person.” He speaks of founder William Booth, a British Methodist minister who in the 1870s “visited the most destitute part of London and realized that until we met people’s physical needs — food, shelter, safety — they would never be open to any spiritual message,” says Rich. “So I think this whole idea of recreation, education, art, and worship all coming together touches the whole person in a caring way.”

On Sunday mornings at 11 a.m. worshipers gather in the theater for a church service, and throughout the week they’ll meet for activities that include Bible study for various age groups and men's and women’s ministries. “Right now we have about 100 in attendance on Sunday morning,” says Captain Anita Howell, who leads the church with her husband and a youth development officer. “We provide larger outreach programs throughout the year where the entire community can come together and enjoy.” These include an Easter egg hunt on April 9th, “Movie with Mom” on May 10th, and “Backyard Barbecue with Dad” on June 14th.

One section of the Kroc Center’s website describes it as a place “to learn, grow, and explore potential and to experience God’s love in the process.” Ellis gives an example of how he perceives that experience. “We have a Zumba teacher who was teaching about 100 classes. Her back went out one day, and the women in the class not only went to her aid, got her ice packs, and drove her home, they cooked meals, cared for her kids, and cleaned her house.”

Howell says she could tell “tons of stories” about employees who help members overcome life’s fears and obstacles by encouraging them and caring for them “because each is a child of God,” she says. “[We may] have a life conversation with a member while lifting weights, pray with a teen on the basketball court, share a meal at the Kroc Cafe. Showing God’s love is what we’ve been called to do.”

Or as Ellis concludes: “Call us a community center, call us a church. We’re here to serve.” 


Marilyn Sadler is a senior editor of Memphis.  

For information on the Kroc Center’s membership fees, programs, summer camps, and more, visit


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