General Eva Burrows certainly left impressions. And rightly so, she was an impressive figure; a preacher, an educator, a welfare organiser and a global leader in a time when much of the Church was, and still is, debating whether women can even speak in services let alone be ordained. Born in Newcastle in 1929, Eva’s beginnings were humble enough as one of nine children. As a teenager who considered church services boring, she went on to study literature at university before an experience of Christian conviction drove her into Salvation Army service at the age of 21. Her youthful energy came to mark her life and she was the youngest person to take on the global role of General when elected in 1986, as well as the second woman.
After her recent passing many have recalled the particular impressions she left. I interviewed Eva in her St Kilda apartment two years ago, having first met her some time before in Canada. While her trademark energy seemed to have waned a little with the frailty of her 82 years, she made some distinct impressions on myself as we discussed her life and work. Her classic stories revealed to me that in all the instances in which Eva met the powerful, she spoke for the powerless. She courted leaders that were political, religious and irreligious and sought results. She championed the need for social services when she spoke at the Hawke Government’s Tax Summit and the announcement that charities would be exempt from consumer tax was made the next day. She was disappointed in Margaret Thatcher’s lack of feeling for the poor, even challenging the Prime Minister to join her in feeding London’s homeless one night (Thatcher did not accept the invitation). On the other hand, Eva was quite impressed with Fidel Castro’s concern for the poor and his familiarity with the disabled of Cuba. She asked to pray with the communist leader before negotiating visas for young people leaving Cuba. Whether as an educator in Africa over two decades, a facilitator of Social Services for Woman in Britain or a global leader, Eva always advocated for the poor.
Even after her time in the role of General, in her 70s and early 80s, Eva volunteered at Melbourne 614 where she befriended many of the homeless and addicted that came through the centre’s doors. This woman who had never married and had children came to be seen by many as a maternal presence. Many young people wandered off the cold streets and found themselves chatting with this kind and devout old lady, unaware that she had previously sat with presidents and paupers and led a global humanitarian movement. She was even known to sometimes instruct young people on the specific curse words she did not like to hear, listing them one by one. Some who witnessed this ritual were unsure if this was a shock tactic, sincere instruction or a mischievous combination of the two. Eva earned the titles of “aunt” and “Holy Mother” and to many young people she became something of a grandmother figure.
This dual image of Eva, advocate for the poor and a kind of folk grandmother, first struck me when I met her in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside district years earlier. In a neighbourhood where the homeless scratched lottery tickets with used needles and an infamous serial killer had hunted sex workers for years, Eva walked the streets and took a seat in a park. This elderly woman sat on a stinking bench alongside a man who was blind drunk and spoke with him for some time. It was evident to me then, as it had been for many others on countless other occasions, that her concern for the marginalised was personal, as well as political. Eva didn’t just advocate for the poor, she truly cared for them.
When we had finished our interview time in her apartment, I happened to ask her if she knew people viewed her as something of a maternal figure, a global grandmother.
“I’m not so keen on that one!” she scoffed with her trademark energy. “That makes me sound very old.”
Then as I left her apartment she gave me freshly baked cookies for the trip home.
Anthony N. Castle is a writer based in Adelaide. He writes for The Salvation Army and elsewhere on the crossroads of social justice and pop culture narratives.