‘The Incident’ in Salisbury proves to be COVID-19 gamechanger

By: Major Frank Duracher

March 31, 2020 – already dubbed “The Incident” – will likely remain etched in the minds of the Salisbury, North Carolina, Corps staff. What happened that afternoon changed the lives of one single-mother and three small children, as well as Major Janice Dahlin and her three coworkers.

An unforgettable and heartrending encounter with this overwhelmed young mother is a prime example of The Salvation Army’s unique and holistic approach to mission and ministry – best revealed in calamitous times such as this COVID-19 pandemic.

“All schools were closed about three weeks when this happened,” said Major Janice Dahlin, who commands the Salisbury Corps along with her husband, Major Karl Dahlin. “Everyone was in lockdown, including us. Our doors had to be locked for everyone’s protection, but our caseworker’s office is next to the door, and she can see out her window when someone comes to us for assistance.”

Danielle Henson, caseworker, saw the desperate mother in tears at the door, and went to help. “That was when we heard the woman yelling so loud, it sounded like she was actually inside our lobby,” the major says.

The woman was screaming unbelievable things like “You must come get my kids; I do not want them anymore; There is no one to help me; I cannot take this anymore!”

“When she left, Stella (Shorts, HR manager and bookkeeper) and I came out of our offices to ask Danielle what that was all about.” It turns out the lady was not directing her tirade at Danielle, but into Danielle’s cellphone to a 911 operator.

Was she suicidal? Was there a danger of this becoming a murder/suicide nightmare? Domestic violence and abandonment have been on the rise since this nightmare began –perhaps this was yet another such case.

Major Janice and her coworkers knew they had to do something. But what?

The address the woman gave 911 was merely two blocks away, so they piled into the corps van to go there. By the time they arrived, police were already on the scene.

“Our stomachs were in our throats as we pondered two thoughts: number one, we would feel responsible if anything happened to these children and we did nothing; and, number two, what can we do to really help her?”

The Salvationists sat in the van for a good 30 minutes while the police interviewed her. When the chance came, Major Janice approached one of the officers, explaining that the woman had come to the Army building to use our phone. Was there anything she and her crew could do to help?

Anything.

“The police office seemed genuinely relieved at our offer,” the major recalled. “She turned her back to the woman to say softly to me, ‘Thank you,’ and that we could go talk to her.”

As the woman talked to Major Janice, a “perfect storm” of reasons that drove this young mother to the brink became apparent: she had no car, no phone, no help – she had even lost her identification, which meant that even if she could get to the market, she couldn’t use what food stamps she had.

Normally, her aged mother would help, but with pre-existing conditions her mother had to contend, not even she could lend a hand.

The young mother truly felt alone. And by all evidence, she was.

“We promised we would make a store run for her; I went to Walmart for diapers, wipes, baby food, Pedialyte – anything we could think of that she would need,” Major Janice said.

When they returned to the woman’s apartment, her relief was obvious.

“The three times we encountered her, there seemed three different phases,” Major Janice recounted. The first, at the corps offices, she was apoplectic; the second, at the woman’s front door, she seemed apathetic; but when the delivery was made, Major Janice saw a completely different mother. “She was truly thankful and grateful! I left there thinking of that (Gowans & Larsson) song, Someone Cares,” she said.

“The Incident” also showed Major Janice just how remarkable her staff members are, compassionate and full of God’s grace. She saw how overwhelmed they had all become over the woman’s plight.

“I praise God for my staff’s response,” she said. “What would drive a mother to this point, and that we have no choice but to help her.”

It still causes her to wonder how many times over a similar scene is occurring.

“I’m also struck that of all the doors this lady passed that day, she came to the Army. She came to us!”

A lighthouse amid a storm.

Because “The Incident” happened so soon into the coronavirus response, the Army had just instituted the COVID Helpline – (844) 458-HOPE (4673). Since that inception, thousands have been able to call this nationwide hotline to receive emotional and spiritual care.

“Even though we must avoid physical contact with others during this time of social distancing, we are still God’s hands and his feet – and he can use us to ‘touch’ others in our community that desperately need him,” Major Janice said.