Courage surprises us when we stumble on it unexpectedly. Compassion and love wash over us like a refreshing breeze in August, when we find them where we anticipated searing hate and vengeance.
On October 3, 2006, heavily-armed Charles Carl Roberts, 32, commandeered the one-room Amish schoolhouse at Nickel Mines, a farming community in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, about 60 miles west of Philadelphia.
The Amish are descendants of Swiss-German settlers from the Alsace-Lorraine region. Their Christian denomination places importance on the Gospel message of forgiveness. The Amish forbid the use of electricity in their homes, will not drive automobiles or tractors for fieldwork, and follow a strict dress code.
Roberts, who was not Amish, let the boys and adults in the school leave. Some speculate he planned to sexually molest the 10 girls he kept prisoner, but the police arrived too quickly for him to put his plan into action.
He shot all the girls, whose ages ranged from 6 to 13, killing five of them. Then he killed himself. He said he was mad at God, according to the surviving girls. He even asked them to pray for him.
But something astonishing happening before the carnage, according to Rita Rhoads, a midwife. Thirteen-year old Marian Fisher asked the killer to shoot her first, apparently hoping to let the younger girls survive.
Her 11-year old sister Barbie told the story to her grandfather who related it to Rhoads. Barbie appealed to the shooter to shoot her next. The younger sister survived.
“Barbie has been talking and she said Marian said, ‘Shoot me first,”‘ Rhoads related. “Apparently what she was trying to do was to save the younger girls.
“They were amazing,” Rhoads continued, “absolutely amazing. There was a tremendous amount of calm and courage in that schoolroom.
“The faith of their fathers really was embedded in them. … How many adults are willing to do that? Not many.”
If the courage of the little girls surprises us, the reaction of the people who lost children to the crazed man shocks us even more.
The mother of Charles Roberts, the killer, talks of the shame she and her husband Chuck felt, knowing that their son had caused so much pain. In addition, the killer had left his wife, Marie, and three small children to face the shame of his act, when they had done nothing wrong.
Robert’s mother speaks of the life-shaking aftermath of the shooting and a remarkable experience that began the healing process for her and her husband, a retired policeman.
“Chuck sat at our breakfast table, crying,” said Terri Roberts. “I had not seen my strong, protective husband shed tears since his father passed away years before. Now he could not even lift his head.”
Their mourning was interrupted by a visit from their Amish neighbor, Henry Stoltzfoos. He had friends and relatives who had lost children in the massacre. He didn’t come to scream at them, though.
“Walking over to Chuck, he put one hand on his shoulder. The first words I heard him speak took my breath away: ‘Roberts, we love you. This was not your doing. You must not blame yourself.’
“For more than an hour, Henry stood by my husband, consoling him and affirming his love and forgiveness,” Terri Roberts said. “To this day I call Henry ‘my angel in black.’”
According to an article in Wikipedia, “The Amish do not normally accept charity, but because of the extreme nature of the tragedy, donations were accepted.” Their religious convictions prohibit them from having health insurance, but they probably used the donations to help pay for the hospital costs of the wounded children.
They insisted that the killer’s wife and children also benefit from the gifts because they had lost their father and husband.
Before Charles Roberts’ funeral, a group of Amish leaders visited his wife’s parents to comfort them. Each one of them had lost a family member in the shooting but according to Terri Roberts, “… they did not raise fists in fury. They reached to pull Marie’s father into their embrace. Together, the families of the victims and the father-in-law of their killer wept and prayed.”
Marie Roberts, Charles Roberts’ widow, wrote an open letter to the Amish community expressing what she felt in her heart for their response in the ordeal:
“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.”
Forgiveness and compassion shock us when we find it in unexpected places. But, as one of the Amish told a news reporter, “”If we will not forgive, how can we be forgiven?” a spokesman for the Amish said on the news shows covering the shooting. “Forgiveness is a choice. We choose to forgive,” another spokesperson added.
It’s surprising to find forgiveness in our world, where dozens of groups seem to keep up a constant screaming match and demonize those who don’t believe exactly like them.
Forgiveness and compassion are surprising—but oh, so healing!
Sources consulted: Forgiven, by Terri Roberts with Jeanette Windle (Bethany House Publishers, © 2015, bakerpublishinggroup.com); Woman’s Day Magazine; http://www.womansday.com/; Wikipedia; Belovedcommunity.info; ABC News http://abcnews.go.com ; http://www.americanjournalofmediation.com Jonathan Kooker; CNN/Reuters;