Ten years ago, on Oct. 2, 2006, a heavily armed milk truck driver shattered the peace of a one-room Amish schoolhouse in rural Lancaster County. He entered, dismissed the boys, teacher, and visitors and tied up the girls, aged 6 to 13. By the time police gained access to the building, five girls were dead and five others wounded.
Though a decade has passed, and horrific school shootings have both preceded and followed the Nickel Mines tragedy, the slaughter of five defenseless children by a troubled neighbor became noteworthy not just for the toll it took on a community dedicated to nonviolence, but for the remarkable response of those most injured, people who generally shun both public attention and any kind of praise.
"The fact that we have survived this long without becoming emotional and physical wrecks would have been impossible without God's help," a father who had one daughter killed and another wounded recently told me. The survivor, he says, is "one of God's miracle children," a now normal, healthy 18-year-old eager to move on with her life rather than relive the trauma of the day.
The grief caused by the loss of a child can be a constant companion. Violent death can magnify the trauma. But many of those who came into contact with the Amish in the days and years that have followed drew another lasting lesson from the carnage - the healing power of forgiveness.
Nicole Weisensee Egan was relatively new to People magazine when she became one of the first journalists on the scene. While the killings themselves dominated the coverage the first week, she recalls, the remarkable spirit of forgiveness displayed by the Amish community (including the victims' family members) became the focus in the next.
"The utter horror of what happened contrasted with their incredible grace and forgiveness," adds Egan, noting that members of the Amish community had almost immediately reached out to the widow of the killer, Charles Carl Roberts IV, and to his parents - indeed, they set up a charitable fund for his family. "It's easy to hold a grudge, and to hold on to the past," Egan said. "Looking at what the Amish were able to do after the most horrific crime makes you take a second look at your own life."
"I never cease to be amazed at the impact this has had," says Egan, who was raised by parents who were lapsed Catholics. "It opened a door on a side of religion that I didn't know existed."
Donald Kraybill, then a senior fellow at Elizabethtown College's Young Center for Anabaptist and Pietist Studies and coauthor of Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy, was also struck by the reaction of the victims' family members.
"I can never forget the quick response I received from a father whose young daughter died in the schoolhouse," Kraybill said. "When I asked him how he would define forgiveness he said, 'For me, forgiveness means giving up my right to revenge.'"
An Amish church leader who prefers not to be named explained the spirituality behind the community's reaction: "The Lord's Prayer is very important to us, and we realize that to be forgiven by God, you need to forgive those who sin against you unconditionally." In the aftermath of the killings, this church leader helped with the investigation that followed and in coordinating management of the unsought financial donations that poured in after it. ("Everyone just wanted to help them," Egan recalls.)
The church leader is careful to emphasize, as do other Amish, that "forgiveness is not cut and dried. It's a process" - a point that may have sometimes been lost in the deluge of media coverage that immediately followed the event.
In the heart of Amish country, life seems, on the surface, to continue much as it once did. Soon after the shootings, the old schoolhouse was torn down, and a new one built nearby.
On the main thorofares, and quieter byways that thread their way through Amish farmland, buggies and bicycles share busy roads with automobiles. In local furniture stores, farmers' markets, and craft shops, "the plain people" continue to interact with tourists and locals.
In ways consistent with their principles and a faith that has outlasted times of intense persecution and personal tragedy, the Amish did not seek out, or particularly desire, the world's attention. But neither have they emerged unchanged from the tragedy that struck them out of the blue on that most ordinary morning 10 years ago.
While they don't thrive on worldly recognition, says the local church leader, they do invest heavily in mutual relationships. Their connection with local law enforcement, particularly those on the scene after the shootings, has grown stronger and deeper. They remain grateful, he adds, for the sympathy shown by the non-Amish community, as well as for the financial support offered (one of the girls was so profoundly wounded that she will need lifelong care).
"The Amish are very clear that they don't have an exclusive experience of forgiveness," says Herman Bontrager, a local businessman who had the trust of the community and who became a liaison between the Amish families and the media. Nonetheless, behavior that took the New Testament commands of Jesus on the topic at face value apparently provoked a response among the journalists covering the story. "It was just amazing how many reporters would start to talk to me about themselves, and I realized these guys were off task - not even asking me questions anymore. They were thinking [about forgiveness] in ways we weren't accustomed to thinking."
In the years that have followed the loss of his little girl and four others at Nickel Mines, the father who lost one daughter and saw another survive has found comfort in the thought that the witness of the Amish families may give glory to God, and bring some good out of tragedy. Amish couples have traveled to Connecticut, Virginia, and other school shooting sites to comfort grieving families, sharing their message of strength, courage - and forgiveness.
"If someone's life can be better, or in any way improved by my daughter's death, it makes that death more bearable," he said. "The forgiveness story went to places it wouldn't have gone any other way."
And then he says goodbye, and returns to supervising his construction crew on a most ordinary sunny fall morning in Lancaster County.
Elizabeth Eisenstadt Evans is a writer in Glenmoore. firstname.lastname@example.org