#914 Phoenix rises from ashes of a schoolhouse massacre

Amish buggy

Photo of an Amish buggy in Pennsylvania Dutch Country by Kyle Taylor; via Flickr Creative Commons

The murder of school children and the suicide of their killer may seem odd reasons for hope, but what happened in the aftermath transforms this story.

The 2006 shooting at West Nickel Mines School, a one-room schoolhouse for Old Order Amish in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, shocked the world. Charles Carl Roberts IV carried a shotgun, a semiautomatic pistol and a rifle into the school. He sent everyone out of the school except for 11 girls. He lined them up execution style, bound them, and shot 10 of them before killing himself. Five of the girls died. The details are horrifying and do not need to be repeated here.

Roberts was a seemingly ordinary father of three. The 32-year-old drove a milk truck. He was a good husband and attentive dad. He kept his private torment to himself and only revealed his tortured soul when he phoned his wife before the killing spree.

The response of the Amish community was a testament to their deep belief in forgiveness and reconciliation. In the midst of their grief, they reached out to the family of the killer, offering condolences and help. In Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy, Donald Kraybill writes:

I think the most powerful demonstration of the depth of Amish forgiveness was when members of the Amish community went to the killer’s burial service at the cemetery. Several families, Amish families who had buried their own daughters just the day before, were in attendance and they hugged the widow, and hugged other members of the killer’s family.

One of the people embraced by the Amish was Terri Roberts, mother of Charles Carl Roberts. I can only imagine her suffering, knowing the son she loved had been responsible for such monstrous acts. Forgiving him was crucial to her healing. She told philly.com recently:

I realized if I didn’t forgive him, I would have the same hole in my heart that he had. And a root of bitterness never brings peace to anyone. We are called to forgive.

Once a week she visits Rosanna King, a shooting victim who survived but requires constant care. The family’s willingness to forgive, in spite of their trauma and grief, have helped to ease her heart.

In the years since the shootings, Terri Roberts has also become an inspirational speaker. That journey is being documented by her son Zachary in a film he calls Hope.

No one should have to endure the hell the Amish community and the Roberts family have gone through, but we can learn from their example of forgiveness and reconciliation. Jonas Beiler, founder of the Family Resource and Counseling Center and himself Amish told Joseph Shapiro of National Public Radio:

Tragedy changes you. You can’t stay the same. Where that lands you don’t always know. But what i found out in my own experience [when his infant daughter was killed] if you bring what little pieces you have left to God, he somehow helps you make good out of it. And I see that happening in this school shooting as well. One just simple thing that the whole world got to see was this simple message of forgiveness.

All of us are scarred by life. When we can forgive, we can heal. And when we heal, we can help others transform their grief. The Amish are our teachers in this tragedy. They give me hope.

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