Mar 18, 2020 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
These last couple weeks have been a whirlwind. It’s like a full-time job keeping up with the latest headlines and it’s exhausting! In times like these it’s easy to feel anxious. But as a lover of history I find comfort in knowing that this is by far not the first global crisis we’ve faced. As Mister Rogers would remind us, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” So as we do our individual parts to remain calm and healthy, I invite you to take a journey through years gone by. Finding hope in troubled times is only ever one great story away. We’ve already introduced you to the extraordinary Emily Bissell who valiantly fought for childhood education and the support of immigrant communities and today I’d like to introduce you to another woman who rose to the occasion: Clara Barton. Clara was born in the 1800s and made waves in the early days of her career. At a time when the halls of government were populated by men, she obtained a good-paying job at the patent office. Life as a recording clerk was comfortable, predictable and safe. Three amazing attributes for a time of unprecedented chaos in our young nation. You see, by the late 1800s the nascent United States was thrust into a bloody civil war. No one was prepared for the scale of chaos and confusion that followed. Clara, watching troops pouring into the capital city, had to do something.
Clara started small, by simply talking to the soldiers to understand their needs. She was surprised to find that she knew some of the young men, having taught them during her first career in education. That personal connection fueled her work. Like many other women during this time she began bringing supplies to the men – simple things like clothes or food. She also would take the time to pray with them and counsel them. Clara soon realized that her calling was to be there with “her boys” at the battlefields, providing support in real-time. This was no place for a woman of her class during this era. Clara was determined and, after some passionate debates, she received clearance to bring supplies to the front lines. Her consistent bravery earned her the nickname “Angel of the Battlefield.” Her compassion toward the soldiers gave her valuable insights and after the war she worked hard to help families of missing soldiers. In time the war ended, but these experiences planted a seed in her heart.
A trip to the continent was meant to be a well-deserved break for Clara, but the seed planted by the civil war bloomed when she was introduced to the Red Cross organization in Switzerland. The founder, Henry Dunant, called for international treaties that would protect all of the sick and injured during times of conflict. The message was clear: we must never lose sight of our humanity during troubled times. This goal resonated with Clara and she came home inspired. But she didn’t stay put for long. By 1870 the Franco-Prussian war started and she was there, doing what she did best – helping. She fashioned her own red cross insignia and got to work. Clara’s devotion impressed her European colleagues and they nurtured her natural leadership skills. Upon her return to the States, she returned to her roots: the halls of government. This time she wasn’t a clerk, but a lobbyist. Her convincing tone paid off in 1882 as the treaty authored by Dunant was ratified by the United States and again, in 1900 when the Red Cross received its first congressional charter. The flag of the red cross has flown high during many domestic and international crises. What started as one woman eager to help & understand, turned into a movement that’s helped millions.
It’s natural to fear the unknown, but we can take heart in remembering that difficult times can bring out the best in us. During the Great Depression neighbor helped neighbor, lending food and funds even if their own pockets were bare. During WWII our entire society came together to support the war effort. People adjusted nearly every aspect of their daily life to ensure that the light outshone the darkness. As Eleanor Roosevelt would remind us, “with the new day comes new strength and new thoughts.” Tell me, dear reader, how are you finding hope during this challenging time?