New York City, US
Religion Unplugged

The Salvation Army in New York City has a secret weapon: Lieutenant Chaka Watch.

Watch, 53, of Harlem, deploys to bell ringer stations around the city that need some help, but he can most often be found in front of the Macy’s entrance on Broadway in midtown Manhattan.

The location is fitting. Watch high-kicks and shuffles his way through Christmas classics and their jazzy remakes that play from a speaker next to the red donation kettle. He sings along into his bell, holding it like a microphone in between on-beat rings.

“That’s the best thing I’ve seen all holiday season,” exclaimed a woman who paused to watch him on a rainy Saturday in mid-December.

“People want to be entertained,” Watch said. “They want something exciting, you know? And we try to give them that.”



Many people don’t know that the Salvation Army is a church, said Watch, an ordained minister who preaches at the Salvation Army Harlem Temple. He is one of 1,500 bell ringers in the greater New York region, which encompasses New York City, Long Island and the lower Hudson Valley.

“Not everyone is as musically inclined as he is, and he has a great personality,” said Jorge Diaz, the bell ringer coordinator for the region. “Very charismatic personality.”

Watch was a well-known musician in Zimbabwe before he moved to the US. He got involved with the Salvation Army in New York when he began broadcasting an African radio station from its Harlem community center for the local community. Watch lives in Harlem with his wife and child.

Watch received an Alexander Hamilton Immigrant Achievement Award from the Lower Manhattan Historical Association in 2017.

“We find that our bell ringers really have to stand apart from all of the noise that is New York City,” said Stephen Ditmer, a marketing director for the Salvation Army of Greater New York.

The organisation grew out of a movement started by a Methodist minister in England in 1865. William Booth started preaching in 1852 but soon decided to take his ministry to London’s poor and destitute in the city’s streets.

Booth and his wife Catherine began training evangelists in 1865. Twenty years later their movement claimed more than a quarter-million adherents. The Salvation Army today claims more than 1.5 million members serving in 131 countries. It provides an array of charitable services including soup kitchens, food pantries, drug and alcohol counseling, senior programs, homeless shelters and anti-human trafficking programs. It serves an estimated 23 million people each year in the US alone.

It is in that tradition that Watch does his thing under the Macy’s awning near 34th St. He works for the church full-time and is in charge of Harlem’s bell ringers, but when he’s dancing next to a bucket, it’s on his own time. Most bell ringers are volunteers.

Watch supervises 20 kettle stations in Manhattan. His team raises about $50,000 each Christmas season. The kettle at Macy’s reaps the most donations, especially when Watch is drawing a crowd of tourists and holiday shoppers who stop and whip out their phones to record his antics or mix it up with him.

The fundraising goal for greater New York is $US2 million, or two per cent of the regional organisation’s $US100 million operating budget.

“God has blessed me to make so much money,” Watch said. “We encourage people to give as much as they can, whether they go online, wherever. All the money you give goes to a good cause.”

To donate to the Salvation Army in the US, go here.