A remarkable week has turned to a remarkable year. One year ago, while cooking a BBQ for friends outside, my husband heard sirens, lots of sirens, and very close. As is often my practice, I said a private prayer for whatever incident was the cause of those sirens. Never for a moment could I have imagined the extent of the tragedy that was about to unfold and how it would affect my faith and my community so deeply.
Thirty minutes later, after much laughter and a lovely lamb cutlet, my husband’s phone rang. As it often does in our line of community service, a 24/7 role. He left the table and then my heart sank as he left the room – another prompt to pray. Our guests, in the same line of service, also noticed. We all went quiet.
Tragic news was delivered: “four children dead” – our children in our school, in our community, in our safe place. Antony, Angelina and Sienna Abdallah, and their cousin Veronique Sakr, had been struck and killed by a ute that mounted the footpath as they walked to the shops to buy ice cream. Three other children were injured – one seriously and permanently. The news came to us from a fellow staff member and former teacher of one of the children. She lives locally and called from the scene, describing it as “indescribable carnage”.
Onsite that night were many emergency services. The first responders included neighbours, family members and friends. Many of these people are in our community of care – nearly all are part of our local community. Details were confused. We prayed, still unable to grasp the scale of the event, hoping somehow for fresh hope. Then the media report came out. The scale, the shock, unbelievable. Our friends quietly went home.
After a rough night’s sleep, morning media reports told us there was no mistake. The same inexplicable facts. On Sunday mornings we attend a local church, and on this Sunday we both had a small role to play in the service. Neither of us could focus on preparing, so we just turned up. When we arrived we were greeted by three new families from our community. Waiting, desperately sad and, I think, hopeful to find something… perhaps love, care, community connection, and even GOD. Where was God in the face of such tragic news?
I thank God that in the midst of the many prayers of the Australian community to help this family, this family has helped us so profoundly.
Perhaps grieving alone is harder than grieving in community and grieving with a belief in God. This I know now, not just from my own experience but from watching hundreds of people and having since heard the personal story of many. That Sunday, with only two hours’ notice, 400 people gathered to pray for the family in the school chapel. Many people of all ages and nationalities stood together in formal prayer, open shared prayer and private personal prayer to God. At the hospital and on the site of the accident many more gathered to pray.
I watched over the days that followed as the Lebanese community, rooted in the Maronite faith, galvanised around each other, to hug, gather, cry openly and – most powerfully – some like Leila Abdallah prayed openly. I watched as the rest of us started to follow suit, moved deeply now by the power of community connection, humility before God and forgiveness in action. I watched as the parents of three of the children, Danny and Leila, stood before the media in faithfulness and forgiveness, prompted by no one but God’s supernatural strength rooted in their own deep faith: “I am not angry at the driver, that is not who we are”.
Leila’s incredible public statement of forgiveness for the driver in the face of extreme loss and obvious personal pain prompted me and many in our community to search our hearts for forgiveness and the ability to forgive. Danny and Leila had revealed something profound to us all. I moved my workplace to the school community chapel. Several of us hung out there, in case people needed some kind of community care, comfort in grief or divine dialogue. We got so much more. Many people came in voluntarily, arms wide, hearts open.
It’s a strange thing to say amid such sadness, but it was a privilege to be part of this community that week. Leila and Danny had given our community permission to take our grief to God, to pray, to call out to God for understanding, for faithfulness and forgiveness. In our desperately sad and affected humanity, many of our people sought comfort – sometimes alone, sometimes with a counsellor, but mostly in community and with God.
This past year I have had many moments of very real, deep and authentic connection to people in my local community. There were moments of deep grief, of meaningful touch and of inspired words. There were even remarkable moments of eternal significance.
Yesterday we gathered with the community on the street of the tragedy… to remember and to pray.
These moments occurred in various places: at the church, at the hospital, at the local cafe and even in the local greengrocer… as people searched for hope. I thank God that in the midst of the many prayers of the Australian community to help this family, this family has helped us so profoundly. Normal Australians from many backgrounds in western Sydney have been reminded what the true meaning of faith in community looks like.
A year on, we have attended several services of prayer and remembrance – one at The King’s School with a special tree planting ceremony. On Monday we gathered with the community on the street of the tragedy, closed off to cars for one hour, to remember and to pray.
While we continued to pray for the family, now we also prayed for our country as Leila and Danny launched “i4give Day”. They hope it will be a deep and thoughtful day prompting each one of us to commit to forgive. To practice forgiving by handing the burden to God.
There is no good that can come from carrying anger, bitterness and resentment, because it affects our ability to move on and limits our ability to share the hope found in Jesus. Wonderfully, both governments (Federal and State) and Christian churches have indicated support for i4give Day. The Prime Minister wrote a lovely statement.
Now friends, it is up to us to open our arms – in families, in our churches and in our local communities – to dig deep, practice forgiveness and share God’s light and love and hope.
Dr Jen George is a thought leader and practitioner in community and place partnerships, and shares in the ministry and life of The King’s School, Parramatta where her husband Tony is headmaster (the school attended by Antony Abdallah and his younger brothers Alex and Michael).