The Salvation Army is poised to install a black leader for its U.S. operations Friday, the first time a black church official has led the predominantly white, evangelical denomination in this country.
Few blacks have served as the top officials of majority white U.S. religious bodies. Other examples include Archbishop Wilton Gregory, former president of the Roman Catholic bishops' conference, and the Rev. William Sinkford, current president of the Unitarian Universalist Association.
Gaither downplays any racial aspect in his choice by General Shaw Clifton, the new world leader of the Army, a denomination famed for its social services. Clifton will preside at New York's Centennial Memorial Temple at the installations of Gaither and of his wife, Eva, as president of Women's Ministries.
"I'm not here because of my color, and I wouldn't be here if I thought I was," Gaither said in an Associated Press interview. "I want to serve all men and women. I am aware I can serve as a model to African-Americans, as well as to whites and Hispanics."
Eva is white and their 1967 interracial marriage was the first between American Army officers.
"I grew up at the edge of the civil rights era" and "there was a lot of Jim Crow-ism around, behind your back. You didn't see it, but you could feel it," Gaither recalled. He said the Army "disallowed" certain appointments early in his career "but we understood the times. We hope we were able personally to influence change."
Racial statistics aren't recorded but Gaither said blacks are a very small percentage of U.S. members and "officers" (equivalent to clergy). Does the Army need more black officers? "Yes. We could use more officers, period, and more African-Americans," Gaither said. "But this is not employment. It's a calling."
That's a major problem facing Gaither, 61, who reaches retirement age in five years. There are only 3,661 officers, down nearly one-third in the past five years. Gaither attributes this to the Army's "high standards" and to secularization and materialism affecting all churches in the West.
The small, disciplined officer corps leads 422,543 church members (112,513 of them oath-bound "soldiers") and an extraordinary charity empire with 60,642 employees and 3.5 million volunteers that annually spends $2.6 billion to aid Americans.
Another challenge is the Army's insistence that staffers uphold its beliefs, which includes limiting sex to man-woman marriage. A New York lawsuit is in process and some cities have ended Army contracts under pressure from gay activists.
Gaither says this hasn't hurt fundraising, which has hit record levels. "People trust the Salvation Army," he said.
"We're going to obey the laws of the land. However, we will not give up our standards. We are rooted in biblical concepts," he said. "We want employees to understand our values and abide by them ... we're not going to compromise."
He emphasized that in dispensing social services, the Army helps those in need without discrimination.
Though many officers are raised within the Army, Gaither was a black Baptist preacher's son in New Castle, Pa. He had contemplated a clergy career before attending Army youth programs — a summer working at an Army camp "was the hook God used to attract me" to an Army career.
Gaither underwent officer training in New York, took added coursework at Gordon College and Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and led congregations in Pennsylvania and New York.
He became America's first black divisional commander, in southern New England and western Pennsylvania, and first territorial commander, supervising Eastern states. He also commanded the Southern Africa territory, the first U.S. black in such a post overseas.
Since 2002, Gaither has been Chief of the Staff, the second-ranking officer at world headquarters in London.