Beyond the Bells: The Salvation Army Bell Ringers of Brownsville, Brooklyn

Chaz Williams and Lt. Travis Barton at Rockefeller Center (NYU/MMSBP).
By Maggie Maloney and Sarah Bracy Penn

At the corner of Rockefeller Plaza and 49th Street, there are two men who give “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” a whole new meaning.

They are Lieutenant Travis J. Barton, a Salvation Army Corps Commanding Officer and Pastor for the Brooklyn Brownsville Corps, and Chaz Williams, a Salvation Army volunteer. They have been bell ringing partners for six years.

The Red Kettle Bells are a familiar sight to see, but this dynamic duo have added their own twist to the holiday classic.

The intersection at Rockefeller Center where Williams and Barton set up shop (NYU/MMSBP).
Williams, left, and Barton, right, mid-performance (NYU/MMSBP).

Barton, 31, is a Brooklyn native who grew up in Glenwood Public Housing in Canarsie and first visited the Salvation Army center in nearby Bedford-Stuyvesant. Williams, 37, has been involved with the Salvation Army since he moved to Arlington Heights in Pittsburgh when he was seven years old.

“Thinking about all the places I’ve stood over a lifetime, it’s nice to have the diversity between communities. Sometimes you can be in a nice middle class setting where you stand there, you ring the bell and you talk a little bit with people. The next day, you could be somewhere where you’re surrounded the homeless or those who are, that you’re actually doing the fundraising for so that you can be able to give them the resources they need,” Williams said.
The essential props: Williams and Barton have a speaker, karaoke microphone and iPad for their performance along with the signature red bucket to collect donations. Another necessity not pictured is Luden’s Cough Drops, which Williams and Barton have on standby (NYU/MMSBP).
Williams and Barton sing a mix of Christmas classics like “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” to some throwbacks like “My Girl,” “Lean On Me” and the crowd favorites: “Cupid Shuffle” (NYU/MMSBP).

At this location, Barton and Williams have made up to $600 to $700 a day in donations and their fundraising season spans from early November through Christmas Eve. In 2014, The Salvation Army Greater New York Division raised over $2,182,324 in its Red Kettle Campaign.

Over the many years the two have volunteered to ring bells, they’ve stood at some of New York’s busiest holiday locales including Penn Station, Wall Street, Grand Central Station, Time Square and a number of department stores along Fifth Avenue.

Inside Brownsville

The Brownsville Corps Center is located at 280 Riverdale Avenue in Brooklyn.

Barton is the Corps Commanding Officer and Pastor at the Brownsville, Brooklyn Salvation Army Center. The center offers a number of services and activities, from early childhood education, music classes, physical education programs to Sunday worship. The Salvation Army is guided by principles rooted in the Christian faith and religion is a central part of the organization’s mission and daily practices.

The traditions of the Salvation Army run deep for Barton, who met his wife in Officer Training. They have a son, Elijah, and Williams is the proud godfather.

Barton and his son Elijah at the Brownsville Salvation Army Center. (NYU/MMSBP).

One of the most pressing issues of the center’s catchment area is poverty. They have a successful food pantry program that serves hundreds of families from the community each week. In addition, over 175 children attend either early childhood education or after school care on a daily basis.

As a community leader, Barton ensures that the Brownsville center is an open and welcoming place for all people, aiming to meet the neighborhood’s needs in as many ways as possible.

“I’ve often said to people, ‘If you don’t feel safe here, it’s a problem and we need to fix that. So let’s talk about that’ People come from different walks of life, different scenarios, different lifestyles. Good experiences, bad experiences,” Barton said.
Inside the Brownsville Salvation Army Center: Snaps from the early childhood learning center and the Chapel (NYU/MMSBP).
Some of the children who participate in the Brownsville Salvation Army Center programs (NYU/MMSBP).

Barton believes there is no limit to what the Brownsville center can do for those in need in the surrounding area.

“My hope would then be that people will utilize the opportunity that this facility gives them. Whether it be providing a two year old with childcare, or a 20 year old with OSHA training so they can get certified to go out and get a construction job, or whatever it might be,” Barton said.
Barton and Williams share a laugh and a smile mid-performance (NYU/MMSBP).