When Tom and Sue Overton began their Christmas shopping way back in August, they didn't pay with cash, check or credit card.

"we buy strictly on faith," said Lt. Tom Overton, commander of the Salvation Army Arlington Corp. "we obviously during the month of December when we select Christmas toys at the warehouse in August.

"but we have faith in the Almighty and in the general public. Because the toy distributors have faith in our faith, they sell to us.

And somehow," Overton said softly. "the money always comes in."

With shopping list of nearly 4,000 persons ,the Overtons must match their faith with a nonstop marathon of hard work equalled only by Santa and Mrs. Claus themselves.

From the time the familiar red collection kettles hit the streets on the day after Thanksgiving, until they can collapse in their living room on Christmas day, the Overtons work a week, running their holiday progaram in addition to handling their regular welfare work. Even Sunday, their day of "rest," is packed with Sabbath teaching and preaching.

The Overtons, who are both ministers and both Salvation Army lieutenants, held meeting with volunteers before the Christmas crunch began. "This is a time of stress," Tom Overton acknowleged. "we ask everyone to exhibit an overwhelming amount of patience with each other."

There are gift boxes to wrap, 2,000 to be exact, filled with toiletries for prison inmates and hospital patients.Nearly 600 shoppings bags of canned goods are packed and distributed; 1,000 stockings are stuffed with presents and 300 dolls are dressed. Workers also visit hundreds of sick, elderly and institutionalized people.

One of the biggest projects is setting up the annual Toy Shop where approximately 3,000 toys are selected and tagged by age and sex. Needy parents stop by during the two-day event to select two toys, plus a stocking and a box of candy, to give to each of their children on christmas.

"That's lots of fun," said Sue Overton, who gets professional recommendations on toy selection from her 3-year-old daughter Jessica and 9-month-old son Christopher.

Although Tom Overton is a fourth generation Salvation Army officer, he said he had no intention of joining the organization when he was a tee-ager because he didn't feel he had the patience or disposition for welfare work.

A talented rock singer, Overton had shoulder-length hair and a well-used guitar when he "left home at 18 to seek my fortune in the bars of Colorado, Wyoming and Texas." He was exposed to a drug culture that he said helps him understand the problems of young people he meets in his ministry.

Modest success followed by a "couple years of eating peanut butter and jelly" led him back to his parents, who were stationed in Chalottesville, Va. "They were very supportive and never said I told you so," Overton recalled. He said he became a Christian and began driving to play cornet in the Salvation Army National Capital Area Band.

There he met Sue, who was playing alto horn. She had not come from a Salvation Army family, but the Army had played a major role in he upbringing. Life wasn't easy as the eldest girl in a family of six children with an alcoholic father, she recalled. Although her parents were caring, it was at the nearby Salvation Army headquarters that she received "a type of love I didn't get at home,"she said.

"The Salvation Army always helped us-one year they gave all of us kids shoes, and they did it with dignity for us," she said. "I worked for the Salation Army at Christmas and earned money ringing bells. The salvation Army became my life and I never wanted to do anything else."

Married almost six years, the Overtons are content with Army life. Tom Overton now plays gospel music, instead of rock, on his guitar. Sue has grown up to realize her girlhood dreams.

The couple's home, car and modest living allowance are provided by the Salvation Army. "The only thing we own personally are an easy chair an TV," Tom Overton said. "The Salvation Army is the best vehicle I've found to perform my ministry.We live it, eat it and breathe it everyday.

"We so appreciate what God has done for us we want to do for our fellow man," he added. "Christmas is not opening presents or putting up tinsel. It's collecting money, serving food, distributing gifts. This is Christmas for us."