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The Amish, God’s Sovereignty, and Forgiveness

Yet, Another School Shooting

In the national news again this week was another school shooting, this time at University of North Carolina in Charlotte.  We need to become better at detecting mental health problems within our friends/family and fellow colleagues at work.  We need to find a way to help those who need mental health services before they acquire the means to kill others, and then usually themselves.

Tragedies like this have to stop.  In their wake the local communities are left bereft, having to deal with survivor’s guilt and the anguish of losing a loved one.  It is then that the questions comes up:  ‘why God?’  ‘Where were you?’

In regards to these questions, I believe the Amish community can teach us a lot about their emotional and spiritual responses after they also suffered a school shooting.

Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, October, 2006

The Amish are a quiet, pacifist community of Christian believers who live in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.  They can follow their heritage back to 80 followers who came over from Switzerland in the late 1700s.  These followers were looking for religious liberty to practice their faith the way they saw fit.

An Amish quilt

It led to the establishment of the Amish community.  They rely on each other, shun any modern developments such as a phone, car or other technology.  They work as farmers, cobblers, or do construction for instance.  The women take care of the household chores, make candies, cakes and other goodies to be sold, as well as get-together to make Amish quilts.  Their mode of transportation is horse drawn carriages.  They have community get-togethers, attend church services, and support each other in any other way they can.

That community support came into sharp focus when in October, 2006, Charles Roberts drove up to one of the local one room schoolhouses, located in Nickel Mines, PA, locked the school doors, then proceeded to tie the children up.  He eventually killed five of them before taking his own life, as police outside tried to negotiate with him.

Amish Response

What was the response of the Amish community to this?  Almost instant forgiveness, as they attended Charles’ funeral, as well as reached out to his widow giving her emotional and financial support.  This is forgiveness!  But there is more to the story than this.

Why were the Amish able to do this, when the rest of the American populace are not able?  Their ability comes from their unfailing belief in the sovereignty of God.  They firmly believe that everything happens for a reason, that God is in total control and they can trust Him who is their Creator.

Even though they were able to forgive the widow of Charles within hours of their children being killed, and they also reached out to Terri Roberts, the mother of the killer and said ‘we forgive your son’ to her, it still took years for many of them to work through the internal emotional work necessary to totally forgive.  Many of them struggled with day in, day out forgiveness, this was especially hard for Roseanna King’s father who faced the daily chore of taking care of his disabled child who was permanently injured from the school shooting.

Another affected family, the Fishers have also struggled with forgiveness.  They lost a child in the shooting and another child was injured.

“It’s not a once and done thing,” said Linda Fisher. “It is a lifelong process.”

As a principle, forgiveness is closely adhered to by the Amish. But it takes a while for each person’s emotions to catch up with such an outward decision, John Fisher said. When he saw the wounded girls fighting for their lives in the hospital, he was angry.

“That’s when it hit me,” he said. “As a father, I felt helpless.”

The Need for Forgiveness

The Amish believe that harboring anger and resentment is corrosive. “It will eat you up,” an Amish father said.  Forgiveness, he said, “is so ingrained in our heritage that it’s part of our character”.

When the school shooting happened the parents of the killer initially thought that they would have to move from the locale.  They believed they would be shunned.  Instead the Amish forgave them for what happened.

Indeed the reconciliation between Terri Roberts and the King’s family has gone so far as to her being at their house every Thursday night taking care of Roseanna’s disabled body.  She feeds her, gets her ready for bed and takes care of her epileptic seizures, if need be.

Then when Terri came down with breast cancer and was receiving her chemotherapy the Amish women kept her house clean and brought food over.  She also has an annual tea for the Amish women in her effort to build bridges with them.

The Amish Reach Out to Other Survivors

Amish farm and travel

Seven months later the Amish were one community that reached out to the Virginia Tech survivors.  Then in 2012 they went up to Sandy Hook where 20 children and six staff were killed.  When they traveled to Sandy Hook Terri Roberts rode in the bus with them.  “The families and teachers there could not believe that we would even associate with her, let alone that she would come up there with us,” one of the Amish fathers said.

Since that fateful day in October, 2006 the Amish community has become closer, they and their surrounding neighbors have formed bounds of friendship that didn’t exist prior to the school shooting.

Has it been hard for them to work through to total and complete forgiveness?  The answer to this is ‘yes.’  As one of the parents said: “The heartache is still there. I take it one day at a time.”

God’s love and grace began flowing back in October, 2006.  It still flows from the Amish today as they reach out to other school shooting survivors.  They have been able to show those survivors what forgiveness really is, in a time that these survivors needed to hear it.

The Amish’ belief that God is sovereign and they can trust Him has been put to the test, and they came through the trial, showing others how they can also survive and then eventually thrive.

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