Amazing Amish Grace

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You can’t forgive without loving. And I don’t mean sentimentality. I don’t mean mush. I mean having enough courage to stand up and say, ‘I forgive. I’m finished with it.’Maya Angelou

 Recently, I was driving through Amish country in Pennsylvania, geographically,  the area around the cities of Allentown, Hershey, Lancaster, Reading, and York. This is the area with such delightfully-named towns as Blue Ball, Bird-in-Hand, Intercourse, and, of course, Paradise. As I drove, I was reminded of that 1985 movie involving the Amish entitled Witness, starring Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis (I loved that film). But I was also reminded of a dark and horrific incident that occurred in this area in 2006.

What follows is that story. . .

Charles Carl Roberts IV backed his pickup truck up to the front of the West Nickel Mines School, an Amish one-room schoolhouse along White Oak Road in Bart Township of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania and entered the school at approximately 10:25 a.m. shortly after the children had returned from recess. He allegedly asked the teacher, Emma Mae Zook and the students if they had seen a clevis pin along the road.(A clevis pin is a fastener with a head at one end and a hole at the other used to join a yoke with a hole formed or attached at one end of a rod.) After the occupants of the classroom denied seeing any such object, Roberts walked out to his truck and reappeared in the classroom holding a 9mm handgun. He ordered the male students to help him carry items into the classroom from the back of his pickup. Emma Mae Zook and her mother, who was visiting the schoolhouse that day, took this opportunity to escape the school and ran towards a nearby farm to get help. Roberts saw the women leave and ordered one of the boys to stop them, threatening to shoot everyone if the women did not return. Still, Zook and her mother managed to reach the farm, where they asked Amos Smoker to call 911.

Roberts and the young boys carried lumber, a shotgun, a stun-gun, wires, chains, nails, tools, and a small bag. Also brought into the classroom was a length of wooden board with multiple sets of metal eyehooks, presumably to be used for securing the victims. The contents of the small bag included a change of clothes, toilet paper, candles, sexual lubricant, and flexible plastic ties. Using wooden boards, Roberts barricaded the front door of the schoolhouse.

He ordered the female children to line up against the chalkboard and allowed a pregnant woman, three parents with infants, and all remaining male students to leave the building. One female student also escaped: nine-year-old Emma Fisher (whose two older sisters remained inside).

The 911 call from the Smoker farm where Zook and her mother sought help was recorded at 10:36 a.m. The first trooper arrived at approximately 10:42 a.m. Additional troopers continued to arrive within minutes afterwards.

Roberts bound the arms and legs of his hostages with plastic ties. A group of troopers approached the schoolhouse. Aware of this, Roberts warned the troopers to leave immediately, threatening to shoot the girls. The troopers backed away and formed a nearby perimeter, but did not leave the premises as ordered.

The troopers, while waiting for reinforcements, attempted to speak with Roberts via the PA system in their cruisers. They ordered Roberts to throw out his weapons and to leave the schoolhouse. Roberts refused, and again ordered the officers to leave.

By 11:00 a.m. a large crowd, including police officers, Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs), and residents of the neighboring village had assembled both outside the schoolhouse and at a nearby ambulance staging area. County and state police dispatchers briefly established telephone contact  with Roberts as he continued to threaten violence against the children.

A child’s loud screaming was heard from within the school. A team of officers was positioned just behind a shed attached to the rear corner of the schoolhouse and they requested permission over the radio to approach the windows. However, permission was denied.

At approximately 11:07 a.m. Roberts began shooting his victims. The troopers immediately approached. As the first trooper reached the window, the shooting suddenly stopped. Roberts had committed suicide.

It took the troopers about two and a half minutes to break through the barricaded door to assist those children who were not killed instantly. At 11: 10 a.m. a message was broadcast on the police radio – “A mass casualty on White Oak Road, Bart Township, with multiple children shot” and at 11:11 a.m. police radioed dispatchers again, estimating ten to twelve children with head injuries. The first medical helicopter was dispatched.

Troopers assisted the surviving children, administering first aid as they carried them outside. The troopers continued to tend to the girls, helping the EMTs provide first aid on the school playground. Ambulances arrived just as the wounded girls were being carried out of the schoolhouse. Helicopters landed shortly thereafter and those children still living were taken away for medical treatment.

Three girls died at the scene and two more died early the next morning, with five more left in critical condition.

Reports state that most of the girls were shot “execution-style” in the back of the head. The ages of the victims ranged from six to thirteen.

On the day of the shooting, a grandfather of one of the Amish girls was heard warning some young relatives not to hate the killer. Jack Meyer, a member of the Brethren community living near the Amish in Lancaster County, explained: “I don’t think there’s anybody here that wants to do anything but forgive and not only reach out to those who have suffered a loss in that way but to reach out to the family of the man who committed these acts.”

A Roberts’ family spokesperson said an Amish neighbor comforted the Roberts family hours after the shooting and extended forgiveness to them. Amish community members visited and comforted Roberts’ widow, parents, and parents-in-law. One Amish man held Roberts’ sobbing father in his arms for an hour to comfort him. The Amish also set up a charitable fund for the family of the shooter. About thirty members of the Amish community attended Roberts’ funeral, and Marie Roberts, the widow of the killer, was one of the few outsiders invited to the funeral of one of the victims. Marie Roberts wrote an open letter to her Amish neighbors thanking them for their forgiveness, grace and mercy. She wrote: “Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need. Gifts you’ve given have touched our hearts in a way no words can describe. Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world, and for this we sincerely thank you.”

Amish scholars note that “letting go of grudges” is a deeply-rooted value in Amish culture, an ethos that remembers forgiving martyrs, including the Anabaptist Dirk Willems, who after his escape from prison turned around to rescue his pursuer who had fallen through thin ice while chasing him. The scholars explain that the Amish willingness to forego vengeance neither negates the tragedy nor pardons the wrong, but rather constitutes the first step toward a future that is more hopeful.

After this terrible tragedy, the West Nickel Mines School was demolished. The site was left as a quiet pasture. A new schoolhouse was erected in another location near the original site. The new schoolhouse was intentionally built to be as different as possible from the original, including the style of the flooring.

A few old trees remain standing in the pasture that once was the schoolyard. In addition, five young evergreens now grow along a nearby fence row. They stand unnoticed to visitors driving along White Oak Road. They rise heavenward, quietly pointing to a Grace that somehow enabled the community to forgive within hours of the violence. They remain green even in winter – fitting memorials that recall not the violence but the grace of that awful day.

The terror and the heartbreak will take a long time to heal. Most of us cannot even imagine acting as that Amish community in West Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania did. Yet, it is strikingly obvious that the Amish community’s response powerfully launched the process of healing.

How did the people of West Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania do what they did in the face of such a horrific tragedy?

Like many people, I too was moved by the Amish ability to extend words of grace to the killer’s family. Yet if I am honest with myself, I must admit that the forgiveness the Amish offered was hardly representative of the larger society in which I live. In fact, the graciousness extended by the Amish was more radical than what most people would be willing to tolerate and more selfless than many of us could ever be.

There is a reason for what we call “grace.” Most of us have not spent our lives in communities that demand obedience to Jesus’ command to “turn the other cheek.” Because they take such words seriously and because they participate in many other practices that stress selflessness and personal sacrifice, the Amish are inclined toward forgiveness. To think that the West Nickel Mines Amish conjured up their forgiveness out of thin air or from a reservoir of generic Christian piety, simply underestimates the power of culture to shape one’s responses to tragedy and injustice.

If we truly think that forgiveness is a good thing (I do, and, hopefully, most of us do), then we need to create cultures that value and nurture forgiveness. We need to work more imaginatively to build communities in which enemies are treated as members of the human family. We need to see offenders, as well as victims, as persons with authentic needs. Forgiveness requires at least that. As theologian Reinhold Niebuhr once wrote: “Forgiveness is the final form of love.”

There are no simple answers to this issue, but perhaps the beginning of the answer is found in an incident that involved Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross. Barton was reminded one day of a vicious deed that someone had done to her years before. But she acted as if she had never even heard of the incident. “Don’t you remember it?” her friend asked. “No,” was Barton’s reply, “I distinctly remember forgetting it.”  As someone much wiser than I once said: “Go, and do likewise.”

Funeral procession for the slain children at  West Nickel Mines School

The funeral procession for the slain children at West Nickel Mines School

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