Henri Dunant was a Swiss businessman and social activist. His life is most interesting; a story of contrasts, of great achievements mixed with the lowest valleys of despair. He dined with kings and slept on the streets with the homeless. This is the story of a prodigal son, a story of a proud self- seeking man who finally, after much loss and pain, made peace with God.
He was born in Geneva, Switzerland into a wealthy Christian home. He surrendered his life to Christ at the age eighteen. Immediately he started preaching the Gospel. He went regularly to the prison to share his faith with the inmates. He also went to preach to young people like himself. At the beginning, they gathered in the woods, later, with the approval of his parents he invited these young people to his house to have home fellowship there. This meeting grew to become the first YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) in Switzerland. The Holy Spirit blessed his efforts and with time, it spread all over the world.
(Today, more than 125 countries have branches of YMCA. The vision for YMCA is primarily a place for homeless young people; however, it offers a broad range of programs such as Bible studies, sports, personal fitness, child care, overnight camping, employment readiness, advice services, immigrant services etc.)
Dunant became a bank manager in Geneva. He was known for his extraordinary skill of diplomacy and organization. His Bank sent him to Algeria in Africa to start a branch there. This is a new place for him. Algeria was a rich country, a colony of France. Most of the population was uneducated. His job on behalf of his bank was to buy land, to organize the development of mines, to build factories, homes and farms. Under his leadership, his bank owned over 50,000 acres of land.
But sadly, from this time on he starts to backslide from his faith. Against his Bank’s chief rules, he used his money to buy land for himself. He used his connections with the government and invested all his money into land in Algeria. He now owned over 1000 acres of land for himself. In Geneva, most people were Christians and they did not like to be extravagant with their wealth and social status. But in Algeria, no one could restrain him. This personal business in Algeria cost him his job. He was now on his own, free and ready to become one of the richest men at the time. He used all his money to build luxurious estates and factories on his land. The only thing that was missing was the government approval to the access of water.
Then trouble started for him. With all his connections, the government refused to grant him that. Without water, the whole investment was useless. He decided to go to Europe and meet with Napoleon, the king of France to ask him for the approval of water supply in Algeria. Napoleon’s chief of staff was his good friend. He was told that Napoleon is on the battle field, in war with Austria. The battle was fought at Solferino (in today Italy). Dunant, seeking an audience with Napoleon, had to witness the three days of battle. The French won but thousands of people died. For Dunant, this experience was a nightmare. He forgot about his business problems and thought of a method to help the 40,000 wounded men, from both sides, lying all over the place in the mud. He called the villagers and improvised first aid methods to help. Out of this tragedy, he later wrote a book that became the inspiration for the organization called the Red Cross. He went all over Europe to ask the heads of state to approve and sponsor his vision and newly founded organization. It will be a politically neutral organization, helping the victims of war all over the world. All the men he talked to gave their approval and this is how Red Cross started.
But then, his financial problems hunted him. Napoleon promised to help but he forgot about it. At last, he lost all his money and his good reputation. He had to declare bankruptcy. His assistant advised him to resign his leadership from the Red Cross and the YMCA, saying that his personal failure will be a liability to these organizations. Grudgingly, he did so.
He now lost everything. He went to Paris for a time and slept under the bridges, a homeless broken man. His family and most of his friends abandoned him. Some far relatives contributed money and paid it into an account where his creditors could not have access. He went back to his home country, to a little Swiss village called Heiden. That is where he lived, in an old people’s home to the end of his life (the house is now a museum).
In 1863, a reporter ‘discovered’ him and wrote an article that the original founder of the Red Cross is still alive. At that time, his successor at the Red Cross, who betrayed him, was on the list to receive the Nobel Price for peace. They made investigations and discovered that Dunant was alive indeed. In an extraordinary turn of events, he was called to receive the first ever Nobel Price for peace. The money he received for this honor was paid in his account but he never used it until his death.
In that old people’s home rejected by the world and abandoned by his friends, Dunant slowly remembers his Best Friend Jesus who said: ‘I will never leave you, never forsake you!’ Far away from the scenes of worldly success and disgraceful failures, he goes back to his Lord pleading for mercy once more. He lays his sins of ambition and worldly fame at the foot of the Cross. He founds again the joy of walking with God. The prodigal son has returned back to his father.
He died as an old man having made peace with God. His last prayer was the same with David’s own:
‘Remember not the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions: According to Thy loving -kindness remember Thou me, For Thy goodness’ sake, O Jehovah’ (Ps 25:7)