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Features

Ripples of forgiveness

Terri Roberts

When Terri Roberts heard the news that her son had carried out a suicide shooting in an Amish school, her world was shattered. But the extraordinary forgiveness of those who had lost children was soon to change everything.

 

It was a bright, sunny afternoon as I ate lunch with a dear friend on the patio at Sight & Sound Theatres, where I worked. Like the lush, calm countryside in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, my life was fully thriving. But that day, on October 2, 2006, we could hear sirens and helicopters, not far away.

What could be happening in this quiet community? As always when I hear sirens, I offered a short prayer for whoever was in need and then continued the conversation with my friend. As lunchtime ended and I returned to the office, the telephone was ringing. I answered. It was my husband, asking me to come to our son Charlie's home right away.

As I descended the stairway in the theatre, I felt an ominous sense of urgency, wondering what information awaited me. In the short ten-minute drive, I turned on the radio, tuning into the breaking news. There had been a shooting at the Nickel Mines Amish School, they reported, and the man's name was Roy (incorrect, as it turned out).

 

OMINOUS FEARS

My heart began to race. 'My Charlie parks his milk truck right near the school,' I thought. 'Could Charlie have been involved in a rescue and been shot? What if he was killed?' Soon I pulled into his driveway, where a State Trooper and my husband were standing.

I walked up to the trooper and asked if my son was alive. 'No, ma'am,' he replied.

I looked into my husband's pained eyes as he said, 'It was Charlie!' Our son was not only dead - he was the perpetrator of this heinous crime. Five Amish girls had died, while five others were injured.

My thoughts lurched. No, this could not be - not our wonderful son. He had never committed a crime. We were proud of him. He was a loving young man, and he had a wonderful wife as well as three beautiful children.

 

HOLLOW WITH PAIN

What do I recall from this surreal event? I remember falling to the ground in a foetal position, feeling like everything within me would be expelled. Pain seared through my body and mind as I struggled to absorb the news that had just been presented to me. I felt so very hollow inside and desperately thirsty. The trooper repeatedly gave me glasses of water, while I wished that something could satisfy my unquenchable craving for relief.

Suddenly propelled into the public spotlight and reeling with shock and grief, could I really go on living after this? I had already endured a grueling battle with cancer, but this tragedy seemed unbearable.

The media seemed to be present from the very start. Friends and family came to our house that very same day to comfort us, a constant stream of prayers and food and love. They answered the phone for us. All was spinning while my world had stopped.

 

ANGEL IN BLACK

Meanwhile, my husband, Chuck, could not contain the tears that kept flowing down his face. A retired police officer, he had begun driving a van for Amish people who traveled out of the local area. Over and over, shaken with sorrow, he said, 'I can never face these people again.'

As the day progressed, Chuck's tears were absorbed in a dishtowel. He wiped them away so frequently that he rubbed a raw spot in his skin in the middle of his forehead. He was at the breakfast bar in the kitchen when Henry, our Amish neighbor, entered and stood beside him. I now call Henry 'my angel in black.'

He encouraged and comforted Chuck, placing his hand on my husband's shoulder. Repeatedly, he said, 'Roberts, we love you. We want you as our friend.' After 45 minutes, Chuck lifted his head, looked into Henry's eyes, and said 'Thank you, Henry!' In that moment, within my spirit, I knew that my husband would heal.

 

AN AMAZING NARRATIVE

And this was the beginning of an amazing narrative. For Henry's initiative was just the start, as the Amish people - the very ones who had suffered at the hands ofmy son - responded with many more words and gestures of forgiveness.

What is this that we hear? The Amish are saying they forgive. This message became a story bigger than the event itself, a story that went around the world in less than 24 hours of the tragedy.

Rattled with grief, I longed to recoil from everything that was swirling around me, but this outpouring of forgiveness was not something I could ignore. I thought I needed solitude. Soon, though, I saw that I needed to accept this new reality. My life was now interwoven with the Amish community, a people who were offering me compassion in the midst of their own grief. And so I embraced this gift of acceptance, still crumpled within myself, yet immensely grateful for the whisper of hope.

 

OLD FOUNDATIONS

I already knew about, and believed in, the forgiveness extended to us in Jesus. I had trusted this for years. Here, I was learning afresh this truth, displayed by the people whose lives had been devastated along with mine. I experienced personally that the Amish do not merely forgive from a distance. No, they develop the relationship much further.

The Amish realize that when two lives collide under injurious circumstances, they become forever intertwined. And the act of forgiveness ushers in an ongoing interaction, just as God grants to us a relationship of peace through Jesus. The offence is dismissed, the divide is overcome. Because of this mercy, the two sides are no longer separate. They are joined together. And, surprisingly, the wrongdoer is even welcomed!

On the day of Charlie's funeral, the extent of their noble forgiveness was more evident than anyone could have predicted. As our small family grouping approached the burial site, I was bewildered to see a massive array of media clustered behind a police barricade. Could we not have privacy in our grief? The telescopic lenses peered across the fields toward the cemetery as we followed the casket.

 

WORDLESS SHIELD

And then, from behind a white shed on the edge of the property, I saw something remarkable. More than thirty Amish men and women emerged with their backs toward the cameras, spreading across the grass to shield us from the press. Their religious norms prevent them from posing for photographs, yet here they honored their custom while honoring us as well.

Among them were parents of the victims, their eyes overflowing beneath wide-brimmed hats and crisp bonnets. Even while weeping, their immense sympathy stood strong. This quiet community, known as plain people, exhibited on that day an extravagance of tenderness.

We didn't linger long at the burial site, but before we left, the Amish people approached us to express their condolences. No fictional account would have even thought to fabricate their sincere words as they said, 'We are so sorry for your loss.' I was nearly speechless as their genuineness penetrated my heart.

 

EXPANDING PERSPECTIVE

Their gracious action gradually expanded my perspective. After that first day, there came one tomorrow after another. My healing was not sudden, but I have more than survived. No one could have predicted the relationships and growth, sprinkled with blessings, over the days and months and years.

It is unfathomable that I can smile so authentically, expressing the joys that have come into my life. Loss has not left us. I still see the stain of missing pieces, the awareness of encounters that I could have enjoyed with people, with my son. However, life has been made new, with opportunities unanticipated.

We each must stretch beyond our hurt, making the effort toward healing. By stuffing our hurts, we are only hurting ourselves. We were made to be relational.

 

UNEXPECTED LAUGHTER

Of course, life still isn't perfect, but it has taken on a new normal. I began visiting Rosanna, the Amish schoolgirl who was most acutely injured, assisting the family with her care. It is a home where there is laughter, along with chores to be done, a cow to be milked, butter to be made.

Watching Rosanna's father roast a pig was quite an event to behold on a steamy summer evening. Nearby neighbors also noticed the huge, blazing fire pit, which calmed as the wrapped pig was placed on the flames and covered with soil for an eight-hour roast. And yet, despite the activity, there is nothing easy about Rosanna's context, given the condition of her health. I feel privileged to participate in the life of her family.

The other families, too, have welcomed me into their lives. Less than a year after The Happening, as the Amish call it, all of them came to our home for a picnic. It was a wonderful time together, and the following month I hosted a tea for the girls attending the Nickel Mines school, which was renamed New Hope.

In the fall of 2007, the mothers of the schoolchildren gathered in my dining room for a lovely tea. We nibbled on homemade goodies while talking openly of the highlights and deepest struggles of the previous year. It was exhilarating and sobering, all at once.

 

UNENDING QUESTIONS

In my private reflections there was no exhilaration, of course. I grasped for answers within myself and wherever else there might be clues. What could have caused Charlie to do this? It had never occurred to me that he was unstable or troubled. As a boy, he romped with his friends, riding bicycles, camping as a Boy Scout, playing sports.

I conversed with his childhood chums after the tragedy, and my observations were confirmed: there had been no hint that his life would go askew. That boy had grown into a young man who was a solid worker, driving a tanker to collect milk from dairy farms, even among the Amish. He was a man who had also fallen in love and married, who enjoyed family camaraderie, who seemed content.

I cried out to God, wanting to understand, wanting to resolve the tortuous question, 'Why? Why did he do this, and was any of it my own fault?' As a mother, certainly I should have noticed something - something that I could have identified and influenced for good. But there had been no indications.

My thoughts veered toward another question. 'Why, on another day long ago, had God spared Charlie's life when his truck flipped over on a harrowing, icy road?' God had been merciful. But this time, for reasons I do not know, God allowed Charlie's truckto arrive at that schoolhouse, to carry out an act that defied life itself.

I have come to no definitive conclusion, yet I have settled my incomprehension with the awareness that God has all knowledge. And that has to be enough for me. In the meantime, I am comforted in hearing others tell me that they saw nothing but good in Charlie over the years. So I live in the uncertainty while not dwelling on my lack of understanding.

 

MINGLED JOY & SORROW

And that is the reality of life on this earth - joys and sorrows, intermingled. We all suffer in different ways and at various levels. Our choice is to be ready to receive the joy when it chooses to meet us. We choose to forgive, and we choose to discover joy.

I can allow myself to feel cheated and beaten in this life, or I can choose to see each tomorrow as an opportunity. My circumstances do not have to completely define my future. Hard as it is at times, I face each day as a walk of faith, even when it seems that my path plunges into a dark tunnel. There is always hope. As I put one foot in front of the other, I find a breakthrough where God produces the long-awaited joy!

My ponderings do not pour forth from a professional background. I speak from my experience, encouraging anyone who feels as if life is closing in on them. When the struggles bombard me, I do not retreat - I run to the Scriptures.

I turn to Philippians 4:8-9, focusing my thoughts on what is true and good and right. I consider what is wonderful and worthy of praise, surrendering to God. And, in that surrender, I find the peace for which I yearn. God takes me from my pit of despair to a spacious place of freedom, just as in Psalm 18:19. I am freed from my inward thoughts, looking forward to each tomorrow, trusting that there will be happiness.

 

INITIATIVE TO FORGIVE

It starts with the initiative, like Henry's on day one - the initiative to forgive and to embrace the rough realities of each experience. And then, as day two turns into day three and onward, the sorrows are softened through interaction with others on a similar journey.

When the misery in our hearts is inky black, darker than the darkest night, does life hold impending doom and gloom or an opportunity to make something new? Gut-wrenching pain and the most excruciating circumstances under the sun catapult us into the unknown, the apparent abyss. Yet, along with the pains are joys waiting to be expressed and lived to the fullest. With God, all things are possible - a phrase we recite, a phrase we turn trite.

However, the reality of God's grace truly did penetrate my crushing context, infusing into the lives of our community a spirit of compassion and companionship. We confronted distress collectively, moving forward together. No one would have predicted this on day one.

And God has not left us to face this alone. Gracious as he is, he reaches out to the brokenhearted, bringing beauty out of the ashes of devastation. He turns the mournful cries into hymns of worship. In the darkest of days, he sends good news to the distressed (see Isaiah 61:1-3). That has been my experience, and as I share it with those around me, I see God doing the same in the lives of others.

The ripple effect of forgiveness is endless .

 

Terri Roberts lives near Strasburg, Pennsylvania, USA. She is married and the mother of four sons and grandmother of 12. Forgiven: The Amish School Shooting, a Mother's Love, and a Story of Remarkable Grace is published by Bethany House. She blogs on her experiences at www.joythroughadversity.com