It is officially the beginning of the Christmas season for The Salvation Army of Durham! Just this week, we kicked off our Christmas Angel Tree Program by registering families to receive assistance during the Holiday season.
Each year, we are joined by volunteers from all over Durham, Orange, and Person counties who want to get involved with the Angel Tree Program. Without volunteers, we would not be able to serve over 600 families each Christmas. This year, we were joined by a special group of students from UNC-Chapel Hill.
When the volunteer requests for Angel Tree are posted, we always share that we have a need for Spanish-speaking volunteers. A large percentage of the community we serve is Spanish-speaking, so it always helps to have bilingual volunteers serving alongside our staff. That being said, it was nothing short of a Godsend when Ivette, President of the Hispanic Dental Association at UNC’s School of Dentistry, contacted our office with hopes of bringing a group of students to help register families. She mentioned that the school does a “day of service” and that almost 90% of the students and faculty participate each year.
The group of ~15 volunteers came ready to work. They had matching “Carolina blue” shirts that signified their day of service. It wasn’t until I looked a little closer that I realized what this day was all about. The silhouettes of three individuals were on the front of the shirt, and the back of the shirt read “Deah Day.” Memories of a complete and utter tragedy came flooding back.
In February 2014, three Muslim students were brutally murdered in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. Deah Barakat, Yusor Abu-Salha, and Razan Abu-Salha were shot and killed on February 10 in what many have considered to be a hate crime against Muslims. Deah was a student at UNC School of Dentistry, and his wife, Yusor, was expected to begin her first year at the school soon. Razan, Yusor’s sister, was a student at NC State. Not only did the news of this shooting shock UNC-Chapel Hill, it shocked the country; it shocked the world.
“Deah Day” began last year in an effort to honor the three students whose lives were lost. Ivette, who is a site leader for these efforts, is in her last year at the School of Dentistry. She shared that Deah too would have been in his last year; they were classmates. Ivette shared that Deah had a passion for volunteerism; in fact, he had a dream to open a clinic overseas that would provide supplies and service to refugees from Syria. Today, they honor his memory and the memories of Yusor and Razan by cancelling classes, closing clinics, and serving in the community. Around 400 volunteers served at over 20 sites across Durham and Chapel Hill on September 22.
Tears were shed as memories were shared of Deah’s kind heart and love for service. What an honor it was to have these students serve alongside us as we register families for Christmas Angel Tree. It is hard to think about tragedies like what happened to Deah, Yusor, and Razan. Some would even say it is easier to ignore them. The UNC School of Dentistry does not agree. They have decided to turn a tragedy into something that brings hope and peace to hundreds of people across Durham and Chapel Hill.
As Ivette shared Deah’s story, and the meaning behind “Deah Day,” I could not help but think about God’s glory. I could not help but think about how thankful I was when Ivette first reached out about bringing Spanish-speaking volunteers to serve with us. I could not help but think about the Gospel message that tells us that God can (and does) turn tragedy into Good. I am sure the 20+ other organizations that were blessed by these students on September 22 could agree.
I also could not help but think about the fact that these Muslim students that were murdered practiced a different faith than the Christian faith practiced by The Salvation Army. A simple Google search would show you the animosity that exists between the Muslim and Christian communities. Each day, we are faced with stories and experiences and biases that are meant to separate and isolate us from one another. In the midst of this, in the midst of tragedies like the death of Deah, Yusor, and Razan, it might be easy to stand on one side or another. Easy, but not life-giving. Deah lived a life of self-sacrifice and dreamed of changing the lives of those around him. Biases and prejudices did not exist; if there was a need, he wanted to serve. This too is the mission of The Salvation Army: to meet human needs in His name without discrimination.
I could not thank Ivette enough for bringing her team to serve with us. We are honored to be a part of Deah’s legacy. We are honored to serve alongside UNC School of Dentistry in remembrance of our Muslim brothers and sisters. We are blessed to serve a God that is bigger than diversity. Even in their deaths, Deah, Yusor, and Razan are bridging the gap between the Muslim,Christian, and secular communities. They are redirecting the conversation about the Muslim faith. They are turning a vicious hate crime into a life-giving, sacrificial act of kindness and service. The Salvation Army of Durham stands with you, Deah. We stand with you, Yusor. We stand with you, Razan. Thank you.