In the midst of much preparation for Gathering, I received a phone call from the local Red Cross, where I used to work and where I still volunteer. Could I go to Camp Grayling and fill in for 96 hours for a Red Cross AFES caseworker who's having unexpected surgery?
What's AFES, you ask? The American Red Cross has three primary lines of service: Blood and Biomedical, Health and Safety, and Emergency Services. I volunteer in the Emergency Services department, where I work both in Disaster Services and Armed Forces Emergency Services (AFES). (The American Red Cross thinks it has the corner on alphabet soup, but I still think Quakerism's got that one...)
AFES (pronounded "AY-feez") casework for me usually involves being on call after-hours once a month, nights and weekends, for anywhere from two to four days. I like to joke that it's the only Red Cross job you can do in your pajamas with no one the wiser, because when I get a call in the middle of the night, I really do roll out of bed to the phone and computer, and then, when all's done, roll (sometimes stagger) back into bed. I mostly work with families of active-duty service members, and help them get emergency messages to their service member: an illness or accident, death, other emergency situation, even the occasional birth. The Red Cross does independent verifications with medical personnel, which helps give command the information they need to decide to grant leave if it's been requested.
When the schedule first went around for us to staff Camp Grayling, my supervisor really wanted me to go. It didn't work out schedule-wise -- someone else had already signed up for the only time I could go -- and that was okay with me: I knew doing AFES casework on a military base would stretch me, and I wasn't sure I wanted to be stretched.
So, you are wondering, what's a nice pacifist like me doing working military cases, and now planning to spend four nights on a military installation?
It's about the peace testimony.
I don't have good words to explain how, for me, being part of providing this service is part of walking the peace testimony in the world. But I will try. :)
Let me start, I guess, with the Fundamental Principles of the International Red Cross/Red Crescent Movement: humanity, impartiality, neutrality, independence, voluntary service, unity, and universality.
I know, it sounds like a bunch of words. But each Principle provides very real guidance for behavior. Each one helps me put my beliefs and convictions into action as part of a larger organization, side-by-side with people who, in ordinary life, might not give me the time of day, people who wouldn't otherwise think they have a lot in common with me, and vice versa. To me, Friends, this is a blessing and a privilege.
(And, I admit, kind of fun sometimes -- I get a kick out of it when I connect with, and do what someone else would call God's work with, someone I know believes I am evil and going to hell, and they go home and have to think about it. Connecting on a real level with people is the key to changing the world. And I find it vastly entertaining when a real life lesbian Quaker Witch compares to the one in people's heads, and makes their brains itch.)
Humanity is one key, and one link for me to the peace testimony. With each AFES case I work, I have several opportunities to recognize and honor the humanity in another human being, and to honor That-Which-Is-Sacred, in each person I speak to -- 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.
Another key is found in the Principles, and in Red Cross history. The first-ever Nobel Prizes were awarded in 1901. Henri Dunant, the founder of the International Red Cross, was co-awarded the first Nobel Peace Prize. Both the international and American organizations were founded in the midst of war, out of a desire to help the wounded on the battlefield, with no consideration for which side of a conflict anyone was one. Humanity. Neutrality. Impartiality. Independence.
A local Friend asked me a few months ago if I felt conflicted when I do AFES casework because I'm making the lives of soldiers easier. That thought hadn't occurred to me.
And I realized, I haven't talked to one family or one soldier whose life is easy.
Other thoughts had occurred to me, though: when I first started doing AFES casework in 2005, I wondered if I'd feel weird talking to military families or service members when I don't personally support this war.
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 work with are struggling to make a difference in the world; many of the families and professionals I work with 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 added stress because they have someone on active duty 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 the war: they are the same people as you and me.
I guess that's really the key, what it really comes down to. Working AFES has helped me see that the military is not a monolith or even a monoculture. It has helped me recognize military members and families as people just like me. Families 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] endeavours... to relieve the suffering of individuals, being guided solely by their needs, and to give priority to the most urgent cases of distress."
The peace testimony.
Each of us is sacred.