Danny and Leila Abdallah ask Christians to join them as forgiveness revolution begins
More than 100 community groups agree to partner
Two years ago, Danny and Leila Abdallah stunned Australians when, just days after the heartbreaking deaths of their three children Sienna (8), Angelina (12) and Antony Abdallah (13), and their niece, Veronique Sakr (11), they told Australia they had forgiven the drunk driver who was responsible.
“Right now, I can’t hate him. I don’t want to see him, [but] I don’t hate him,” a grieving Leila told news media. “I think in my heart to forgive him, but I want the court to be fair. It’s all about fairness. I’m not going to hate him, because that’s not who we are.”
A year later, on the anniversary of the children’s deaths, the couple launched i4Give Day – a national day of forgiveness for the nation to be held every year. They were determined to allow something positive to emerge from the darkness of their loss.
“That’s the Holy Spirit. That’s God,” says Leila when asked how they found the strength. “It wasn’t me and Danny; it is the Holy Spirit. God turned the tragedy into a greater good, into i4Give week.”
Danny nods in agreement.
“The concept of Christ’s death and resurrection is so applicable to life. What we go through with trauma, we can resurrect from that. We can apply and learn from the cross,” he says.
“It is very, very hard and, always, we wake up with a broken heart,” Danny says, going on to relay how God spoke to him one day when he was driving his car.
“God spoke to my heart and said, ‘Danny, your past needs to be the size of a review mirror in a car and your future and your present moment is the front screen’. And it made me realise our kids aren’t behind me anymore. They are actually in front of me. I’m actually heading to them. It’s two years, two years since the tragedy, but it’s two years closer to seeing them,” he says.
Danny remarks how, 50 years or so ago, when people migrated from another country, they did so knowing they would not see their families again in this life.
“I could have the attitude that they [our children] are actually in another country and that I’ll see them again one day,” he says.
Danny doesn’t want to give a false impression of the family’s grief. The anniversary of Sienna, Angelina, Antony and Veronique’s death on Tuesday was a heavy-hearted one for them all, as is every day. Even knowing that, in his words, “Jesus is the best babysitter for them to have” does not exempt him from grief.
“But when we look at the big picture every day, we’re getting closer to seeing them again … but that doesn’t mean we haven’t still got a job to do here,” he says.
Danny and Leila are asking Christian denominational leaders, pastors, community leaders and school principals to mark i4Give week in their diary for next year.
That earthly “job” is beginning to take shape now, a year on from launching i4Give Day and two years on from the children’s deaths. The couple is even allowing themselves to dream and strategise about i4Give’s potential.
“This year, it’s about raising awareness. It’s a conversation. What does forgiveness look like in my household? How does it look around my family and my friends?” Danny says.
They believe the most important aspect of taking i4Give forward right now is inviting others to stand alongside them.
First, Danny and Leila are asking Christian denominational leaders, pastors, community leaders and school principals to mark i4Give week in their diary for next year.
Secondly, they ask people to go to their website and sign up to receive future i4Give updates, resources and opportunities to take action.
Already this year, more than 100 groups have committed to taking part in i4Give week, and the list is growing all the time. It’s a group that includes key Christian denominational leaders such as Catholic Archbishop Anthony Fisher. But it’s not only Christians who have embraced the i4Give movement. The United Muslim Association, various Jewish groups and other similar groups have also signed on.
This week, the couple ran a Zoom meeting with various faith leaders taking part this year, many of whom will focus on a message of forgiveness this weekend for ‘Forgiveness Sunday’.
Dr Jen George, who lives down the road from Danny and Leila and heard the sirens on the night tragedy struck the Oatlands community, has taken on a significant role in the i4Give Foundation.
“As well as being a neighbour, I’m part of a school that their children go to. And I do work in this space, so I offered my services as a volunteer. Of course, we’re all volunteers, the whole foundation,” Jen says.
In fact, the i4Give Foundation is currently run by professional volunteers, though it will likely grow and have its staff in time.
“It’s got an exciting future ahead,” says Jen.
She explains that forgiveness is a personal commitment for everyone involved in the i4Give Foundation.
“We have within our foundation a commitment that our number one value is forgiveness. We feel we’re hypocrites if we’re not doing the regular act of trying to grapple with forgiveness in our own lives,” Jen explains.
“I don’t think any of us are beyond a personal challenge to forgive. I myself had to say sorry to somebody I’m working [with] on the forgiveness team today … As I said to a group of board members last night, if we’re going to function well as a board, we need to make sure we keep forgiving each other as time goes on.”
A revolution of forgiveness seems just what this increasingly fractured world needs.
But Jen is quick to link the power of forgiveness at a personal level to its power at a societal one. She points out that Australia has a lot of groups that need to forgive one another right now.
“I think we can see that even in the last two years in Australian politics, we can see that people are less peaceful, more unsettled, maybe even angry about the different way we’ve had handled this crisis and different approaches to it and different states’ approaches to it. I think forgiveness plays even into that discussion, which is a current and relevant one for every Australian,” Jen says.
In future years, the team hopes to see i4Give become an annual time when Christian leaders take a leading role in seeing Australians focus on forgiveness.
“We are trying to engage the whole of Australian communities in a discussion of forgiveness. And we believe the power of the gospel will shine through as a Christian foundation. But we also know that the universal good of forgiveness will benefit everyone.
“We’re hoping every subgroup of every faith group and community group will spend this week talking about forgiveness to the community. We hoping it will build bridges in communities that have rifts in Australia – that are feeling hurt by other communities – and that over time, this will be a really good healing process for our country.”
Leila comments: “Forgiveness – it’s for all of us. And with forgiveness, with love, all Christians can be united. And when we are all united, we can take that love and forgiveness to other faiths and the world.”
While neither Danny, Leila nor Jen use grandiose buzz-words like “movement” when talking about i4Give, it is evident that they know something significant is beginning in their work. And a revolution of forgiveness seems just what this increasingly fractured world needs.
“We want to get this right. Honestly, in my heart of all hearts, I think we can get it right in this nation. We’ve got beautiful people standing with us. We can get this right here. We can take it around the world,” Danny says.
It’s hard to imagine better ambassadors for a forgiveness message. Even Christians who have heard countless sermons on forgiveness can’t help finding the couple’s example refreshing.
“Sometimes action speaks more than words,” Leila says humbly when their example is mentioned. “It is the message of Easter. We are all called to love and forgive and in the resurrection is our hope.”
“At the courts, I saw the driver’s father and I just went straight to him … We’re both broken fathers, you know?” – Danny Abdallah
Jen doesn’t hold back when sharing how the couple’s witness has affected her personally.
“Honestly, there is a deep authenticity of faith [in them] that continually challenges me – a deep, genuine faith that challenges my faith. I’ve had a faith background in my life – these guys are Catholic Maronite and I come from an Anglican background, but that means nothing in the face of a faith connection. And there’s lots of other people from different Christian and other backgrounds now joining us in this work. It’s very genuine,” Jen says.
Jen has been particularly struck by how the couple has demonstrated their faith and forgiveness to their children.
“Of course, they’re not recovered,” Jen says, noting that “recovered” would be the wrong word to describe the kids. “But I think response is the right word – they’ve had such a positive response in the face of such a tragedy, if there can be such a thing. It’s beautiful to watch their children still flourishing. It’s been a great delight. And I think it’s such a lesson for us all in our parenting.”
Danny and Leila cannot say much about Samuel Davidson, the driver responsible for Sienna, Angelina, Antony and Veronique’s deaths, because some aspects of his legal case are ongoing. Yet they continue to voice their forgiveness for him and express an astonishing level of compassion towards him and his family.
“At the courts, I saw his father and I just went straight to him, shook his hand,” Danny says. “He apologised to me and I said, ‘Look, you’ve lost your family as well’. He goes, ‘My family’s [loss] is nothing compared to what your loss is’ and I go, ‘Grief is grief’.’
“He was an absolute gentleman. We’re both broken fathers, you know? Samuel Davidson could have been anyone’s son. It could have been Antony, my son, who made that silly mistake.”
It is an outrageously generous perspective from a man who has lost three children, but Danny won’t accept an ounce of personal credit for it.
“That’s the Holy Spirit in us. That’s us knowing our kids are in heaven. I look at in that light,” he says simply.