It’s 3:45 am when my pager wakes me. I speak to a man who is quite upset: his sister has just died—at the end of a long illness, but unexpectedly soon—and his sister’s son is on active duty in the military, stationed overseas. The caller needs to get a message to his nephew through the Red Cross so the young man can get leave for his mother’s funeral. I walk the caller through giving me all the information I need—his sister’s information, the hospice information, his nephew’s name, social security number, and military address—and promise him I’ll get back to him just as soon as I can. I call the hospice agency and page the hospice nurse, who confirms the date, time, and cause of death. I send the message through the Red Cross system and call the man back to tell him the message has been sent and that we requested that his nephew call him as soon as he receives it. I explain that because his nephew is in Iraq and the activity level there is very high right now, it may take longer for the message to go through and he may not hear from his nephew for several days.
I’m driving home from work when my pager goes off. I pull over and talk to a woman whose son was just in a motor vehicle accident and is near death. She is very calm. She wants her daughter to come home so the family can all decide together about taking him off life support. I talk to the charge nurse in the ICU and gather all the information that command will need to decide whether or not to grant leave, including the medical team’s recommendation for the service member’s presence. I send the message, then let the family know that it’s on its way, and that I requested that a chaplain be present when the sister is notified.
I’m eating dinner when the pager beeps. I speak to a woman who’s in active labor at a local hospital and is about to give birth. She gives me her husband’s information between contractions and then passes the phone to her father-in-law when she can no longer speak. I apologetically explain I can’t send the message until the baby’s born. Her father-in-law chuckles. "Don’t worry, they’re wheeling her into delivery now!" By the time I talk to someone on staff for the verification, the baby’s been born and I can send the notification. The delighted new grandpa answers the cell phone when I call back to say the message has been sent.
I volunteer with the American Red Cross, an organization which provides humanitarian relief and assistance under a variety of circumstances. I’m active in two areas: Disaster Relief, and Armed Forces Emergency Services (AFES). As an AFES volunteer, I mostly work with military families to get emergency messages to active-duty service members: an illness or accident, death, other emergency situation, and birth.
As a Friend, I first got involved with the Red Cross through Disaster Services just after September 11, 2001. Like so many of us, I had a deep need to do something—something to help, and something that expressed the Peace Testimony. What I did was answer phones, all day, every day. It wasn’t glamorous, but it was needed, and it freed up experienced, trained volunteers to go out in the field.
After Hurricane Katrina, I again found myself raging at the news, and again felt that need to do something. So I thought I’d go answer phones again. But because I have experience as a pastoral counselor and case manager and the need was so great, the local chapter asked me to go to the Gulf Coast instead.
Five weeks after the disaster, at just one service center, in just one town, my fellow volunteers and I saw and spoke with thousands of people every day. None of us could "fix" anything for them. True, we could help them apply for financial assistance. True, we could try to connect them with services. But we couldn’t repair their lives.
Mostly, what we could do was just be there with them.
It turned out our simple presence meant much more than financial assistance to many people. "You came from where? To be here with us?" "But you’re not getting paid!" "What about your family?" "Thank you for coming down here." "I haven’t told anybody what happened, and it’s been more than a month." "We thought nobody cared about us."
I already knew what a difference it made for me to have someone simply be with me when I was going through hard times. In Mississippi, I learned yet again that bearing witness is sacred work.
When I returned from my deployment, I stayed involved with my local Red Cross Chapter, mostly responding to local disasters. I learned it also makes a big difference to people when they know they’re not alone just after a house fire, tornado, or flood. One elderly resident of an apartment house that had been completely evacuated in the middle of the night said, "Because you all were there, we weren’t afraid."
But then my supervisor asked me to get involved with Armed Forces Emergency Services. Our department was short- staffed, and she said I had a good background for the work. I was a little dubious about this. As a Friend, as someone who doesn’t support this war, how would I feel talking to military families in crisis? And could I do so without offering them short shrift? (Integrity. Peace.) But as a volunteer, I was there to do whatever needed to be done, so I said I’d try.
I kept thinking of a F/friend whose brother is a Marine. I kept thinking of my own surrogate brother, who’s a Marine, too.
Over time, doing AFES casework became as much an expression of the Peace Testimony for me as Disaster Relief work. I don’t know that I have good words to explain how being part of providing this service, providing this ministry of presence, is, for me, a way of walking the Peace Testimony in the world; but I will try.
Let me start with the seven Fundamental Principles of the International Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement: Humanity. Impartiality. Neutrality. Independence. Voluntary Service. Unity. Universality.
I know. They sound like a bunch of very dry words. And yet each one of those Principles is quite real. Each one provides concrete guidance to Red Crossers. Each one helps me put my Quaker beliefs and convictions into action as part of a larger, completely secular, organization, side-by-side with non-Friends. Each one lets me work closely with other people who have very strong convictions, and who in ordinary life might not think we have anything at all in common.
The Fundamental Principles help us do sacred work together.
I find one key, one link, to the Peace Testimony in the Fundamental Principles. Take, for example, Humanity. With each AFES case I work, I have several opportunities to recognize and honor the humanity in another human being; to recognize and honor That-Which-Is-Sacred in each person I speak with—the spouse or parent or sibling or cousin or friend who’s initiating the case; the medical administrator, nurse, doctor, police officer, funeral director, or hospice nurse with whom I verify the case; the AFES Center worker who takes the case or gives one to me.
These are opportunities to bear witness.
I find additional keys in Red Cross history. The first-ever Nobel Peace Prize, awarded in 1901, was shared by Frédéric Passy, who founded the first French peace society, and Henri Dunant, who founded the International Red Cross and initiated the Geneva Convention. The International and the American Red Cross organizations were founded in the midst of two of the bloodiest wars Europe and the U.S. had known—the Battle of Solferino in the Second War of Italian Independence, and the American Civil War—springing from a desire to help the wounded on the battlefield, without consideration for which side of a conflict any of those wounded were part.
Humanity. Neutrality. Impartiality. Independence.
Several months ago, a local Friend asked me, "Don’t you feel conflicted when you do AFES casework? Because you’re making soldiers’ lives easier?"
That thought hadn’t occurred to me. So, I thought about it.
And I realized, I haven’t talked to one family or one soldier whose life is anything approaching "easy" right now.
The service I offer as an AFES caseworker is one where I work with people in a time of great stress, and touch them as embodiments of That-Which-Is-Sacred. As real people. Many of the families and professionals I speak with in the course of a case are struggling to make a difference in the world. Many of the them are struggling simply to get through each day.
For the families, having a loved one in the service right now is not easy. There’s not one family I’ve worked with that hasn’t been under enormous stress because they have someone in the service right now. When someone they love is ill or dying or giving birth or being born, it doesn’t matter whether or not they support this war, or any war, or their relative’s military service; they are the same people as you and I.
I guess that’s the real key, what it really comes down to. Working with military families has helped me see that women and men in uniform, and the families of those women and men in uniform, are not part of a monolith or even a monoculture. Working AFES cases has helped me recognize military members and families as people who are a lot like me.
And they are people who are suffering because of this war. Some of them believe in it, some of them don’t. It actually doesn’t matter: they are all suffering for it, in ways those of us back home who don’t have a direct connection can’t understand.
The Red Cross, born of a desire to bring assistance without discrimination to the wounded on the battlefield, endeavors . . . to relieve the suffering of individuals, being guided solely by their needs, and to give priority to the most urgent cases of distress.
Humanity. The Peace Testimony. Each of us is sacred.
The opinions and beliefs stated in this article are those of the author only. They do not reflect the opinions, beliefs, or positions of the American Red Cross. This article is not endorsed by the American Red Cross. To protect confidentiality, none of the information about individuals comes from actual cases; these situations are compiled from typical kinds of cases.