RNS Article of the Week

October 5, 2006

Amish Search for Healing, Forgiveness After 'The Amish 9/11'


A group of local Amish men gather near the scene of fatal shootings at a one-room Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pa. Religion News Service photo by Tony Kurdzuk/The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J.

c. 2006 Religion News Service. This article may not be reprinted or transmitted in any form without express permission of Religion News Service.

WHITE HORSE, Pa. -- The boys walked home Monday afternoon from their one-room schoolhouse just across the fields and groaned to their mother that a substitute teacher would be leading the next day's lessons.

"Well, boys, I'm in no position to hear complaining about schools," Mary R. said to her four young sons.

Then the 42-year-old Amish woman told her boys that students at a nearby school "needed their prayers." There had been a hostage-taking earlier that day at an Amish school 15 miles down the road in Nickel Mines, Mary said, and several children had been hurt.

In an attack some in this tight-knit Christian community are calling "the Amish 9/11," an armed man burst into an Amish schoolhouse in Lancaster County on Monday (Oct. 2) morning and shot 10 young students before killing himself. As of Tuesday, five students were dead and five lay critically wounded at area hospitals. The gunman, identified as Charles Carl Roberts IV, shot and killed himself at the scene.

"That's exactly what this is -- the Amish 9/11," said Sam S., an Amish carpenter from Gordonville, a town about five miles from Nickel Mines. "We've never experienced anything like this before here." Like many Amish men and women, Sam and Mary asked that their full names not be printed because they didn't want to stand out from other members of their community.

Among the Amish, who honor a humble lifestyle modeled on the Gospels, such provocative statements are rare. But as Lancaster County's estimated 25,000-member Amish community struggles to make sense of Monday's shooting -- the shocking violence, the chaotic search for loved ones, the conflicting and confusing news reports -- many say it carries unmistakable echoes of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Though friendly with outsiders, whom they call "English," the Amish keep counsel among themselves. Forgoing modern conveniences, such as electricity, cars and computers, they live in close settlements, where family and friends are seldom more than a buggy ride away.

The lessons of the shooting, always grounded in the understanding that earthly events are driven by a divine hand, will be imparted in the living rooms and kitchens of the large, inseparable Amish families.

After the evening's chores were done -- the horses fed and the barn swept -- Mary R.'s family gathered for dinner Monday around a large kitchen table at their farm in White Horse.

The conversation quickly turned to the shooting.

"This is our 9/11," said Mary's husband, Ben, 41, as his wife and their young sons picked at their hamburgers and soup. "Out here this is just so uncommon."

Mary's pregnant cousin -- the mother of the Nickel Mines teacher -- was visiting the school and was taken hostage, though she was let go before the shooting began.

As Mary and Ben explained the day's violence to their sons, they emphasized the importance of forgiveness and trusting in God.

"I just feel bad for the gunman," Ben said. "He had a mother and a wife and a soul and now he's standing before a just God."

While outsiders might be surprised at the forgiveness immediately extended to Roberts, Donald Kraybill, an authority on Amish culture, said that reaction is typical of the nonviolent Christian community.

"That theme of forgiveness really comes from the example of Jesus, who carried that spirit even to the cross," said Kraybill, a professor of Anabaptist studies at Elizabethtown College in Lancaster County.

In Gospel lessons, hymns and prayer books written in German dialect, those teachings are passed down through generations in Amish settlements.

"I think the Amish are much better prepared to cope with something like this than most Americans," Kraybill said. "They see things as having a higher purpose, there's a higher good, so they are more able to absorb and accept things in a spirit of humility."

But as their family gathered beneath a gas lamp in their living room after dinner, Ben and Mary struggled to explain why a gunman would want to hurt Amish children. They told their sons that he had a "little problem in his head that made him do mean things."

One of the boys stared at his plain black pants, fingered his suspenders and again asked, in a respectful tone: Why?

Settling her hands on her lap, Mary said: "Sometimes we don't understand. I understand that the Lord does let this happen, but I do not know why."

"Really the only way to answer this is to toss it in the Lord's lap and say, `You take care of it, I can't,'" Ben said after turning to the boy.

"But you may ask him to please carry us through," Mary said.

As the night grew long and the boys began to yawn, Ben pulled a little black prayer book from the shelf.

He pointed to a prayer often read at Amish funerals and provided an English translation.

"Glory Father, we thank Thee for all the blessings which Thou has bestowed upon the departed one, especially now that Thou has redeemed him from this wicked world and brought his sorrows to an end, and as we trust, has taken his soul home to Thee."


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