Grief remains, 10 years after Amish school shooting

The West Nickel Mines School is long gone. Two of the survivors are now married. Several of the couples who lost their daughters have had more children.

The shooting 10 years ago in a placid Lancaster County hamlet made headlines across the world as the Amish rushed to forgive the shooter. But the grief and pain live on.

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On Oct. 2, 2006, a heavily armed milk truck driver, Charles Carl Roberts IV, burst into the West Nickel Mines School shortly after recess. By the time Roberts had committed suicide, less than an hour later, five girls aged 6-13 were dead, and five others severely wounded.

Before the slaughter, Roberts allowed the boys, several visiting adults, and the teacher to leave: It was the teacher who raced to a neighboring home to ask a local farmer to call the police.

Though there had already been numerous school shootings that year, the invasion of a publicity-shy community committed to nonviolence, and the remarkable swiftness with which the Amish offered forgiveness to the killer’s widow and family, drew international attention.

Thousands of condolence letters poured in. So did more tangible assistance, including $4 million from funds established for medical care for the girls who survived. One of them remains at home, her injuries grave enough to confine her to a wheelchair and dependent on ongoing medical care.

Though the Amish generally do not accept charity, the medical expenses associated with treating survivors would have been unsustainable without such help.

The New Hope school has replaced the old schoolhouse, which was razed soon after the tragedy.

The children’s teacher has married and left the profession.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“All the families talk about living with the new normal, which means making a place for the grief and pain,” said Herman Bontrager, a businessman and longtime friend of the local Amish community who became their representative in the days after the massacre.

“They all think of living their way through the tragedy, not getting over it. All the families are very grateful for all their children and they see them all as gifts from God.”

Terri Roberts, mother of Charles Roberts, has written “Forgiven: The Amish School Shooting, a Mother’s Love, and a Story of Remarkable Grace,” explaining her search for healing and documenting the generous response of the Amish community. The shooter’s wife, Marie Monville, who has since remarried, has also written a book,“One Light Still Shines: My Life Beyond the Shadow of the Amish Schoolhouse Shooting.

But as Bontrager makes clear, the Amish understand forgiveness, and a determination not to seek revenge, as a natural response to faith teachings.

“The Amish aren’t all perfect,” said Bontrager. “The first thing they tell me is that they are human, just like everyone else. But they have led the way in this sense: they showed that a 500-year-old subculture has been able, for a long time, to hold on to nonviolence and nonresistance. It takes practice and discipline.”

“Simply stated, the Lord’s Prayer as it is taught is very important to us,” said a local Amish church leader who has walked alongside the families since that horrific first day.

Nicki Weisensee Egan, a senior writer for People Magazine who covered the Nickel Mines shootings, said the nation was captivated by the Amish gesture of forgiveness.

“The way that they were able to (reach out to the killer’s family) so quickly and hold on to their faith captured people’s hearts, including mine,” she said. “I think it’s extraordinary.”

As they grieved, the Amish community in Lancaster continued normal pursuits: farming, construction and crafts.

“I think the families who had children in the schoolhouse found powerful therapeutic healing for their grief in the close bonds and networks of care in the Amish community,” said Donald Kraybill, senior fellow emeritus at Elizabethtown College’s Young Center, and one of the co-authors of “Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy.”

“The best counseling was from the families who had girls pass away, when we all got together,” said one father who lost his 12-year-old daughter in the schoolhouse shootings but asked that his name not be published. “We did that a lot.”

Amish couples have traveled to towns affected by other school shootings, including Newtown, Conn., and Blacksburg, Va., the sites of two other mass shootings. “We’ve reached out and that was always a blessing,” said the father. “The best general message I could give to anyone is to actively seek God’s help because faith is very important.”

“If there is someone who is struggling from the loss of a child, spouse or parents, the most important thing is to talk to someone about it,” he added. “Find someone you trust, because bottling it up inside causes bitterness and bitterness brings hatred.”

Though he says he’s sure that the shootings weren’t part of God’s plan, “this is something he permitted as a way to get his name recognized in ways that might not have happened otherwise,” he concluded. “That’s as much as my human mind understands, and a thought I’ve become comfortable with.”

(Elizabeth Evans is a correspondent based in Chester County, Pa.)

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