February 3, 2019

Learning Forgiveness From the Amish

Twelve years ago a terrible tragedy taught a nation about forgiveness.

David Zackrison

I was browsing through Facebook when a posting caught my attention. It read, “My Son Shot 10 Amish Girls in a Pennsylvania Schoolhouse” by Terri Roberts.

I remembered hearing about this back in 2006. Charlie Roberts, a milk truck driver from Nickel Mines in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, had barricaded himself inside an Amish schoolhouse, shot 10 girls, killing five of them, then killed himself.

As I continued to read I was captivated by the theme of the article. The families of the victims had gone to the family of the shooter to express their condolences for their loss and to extend forgiveness. An Amish neighbor of the Robertses had come over that same day to see Terri’s husband. “Roberts, we love you.” He said. “This was not your doing; you must not blame yourself. I think the devil used your boy.” The man stayed for more than an hour consoling them and affirming his love, forgiveness, and support. There were several other encounters like this as well, in which Amish neighbors and friends extended their sympathy toward the Roberts family for their loss.

I felt like an ant in the presence of a giant.

At Charlie Roberts’ funeral the media were there in force. But also in attendance was a group of about 30 Amish who emerged from behind a nearby shed. They fanned out in a crescent between the grave site and the media crowd, their backs offering a solid wall of black to the cameras. They did this as a show of compassion for the family of the man who had taken so much from them.

A New Level of Forgiveness

This was a level of forgiveness I had never seen nor even heard of; way beyond my ability to understand. I wanted to learn more, so I purchased and read Terri Roberts’ book, Forgiven; found her online blog, Joy Through Adversity; watched the movie Amish Grace, which is based on this event; and read all the books and online articles on the topic I could find.

The story was especially touching to me because I was dealing with desires for revenge and unrelenting unforgiveness toward a church “friend” who had sexually molested my daughter when she was 5 years old, the memories of it not coming to life until she was 17. I was boiling with anger toward my church and some of its employees because of the way we had been treated while going through this ordeal. No way was I going to forgive; I wanted revenge.

Despite my feelings at the time, I can see in hindsight that God was gently leading me through a process of healing. It took 10 years, but when the time was right and I was finally receptive, God brought the appropriate people into my life, and I was willing to listen.

Meeting With Terri

In September 2016 I began corresponding with Terri* through her blog. In late October I took a road trip to Pennsylvania and visited Terri at her home in Strasburg.

On October 27, 2016, I arrived at Terri’s house. We spent about an hour together in her sunroom talking about what the Amish refer to as “The Event” at the Nickel Mines schoolhouse, the effect it had on her and her family and the families of the victims (whom she still keeps in contact with), the unforgiveness I was dealing with, and the grace of God. It was sad to watch this mother express her grief and incomprehension of how her son could have done such a terrible thing to those girls.

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As a reminder of God's grace and forgiveness, David Zackrison asked his oldest daughter, Alanna to draw this picture of Terri Roberts and her Amish friend on the Amish family's front porch. It's titled, "I'm happy to see you."

Terri showed me the shed where the Amish had come from and where they stood to create the barrier between the family and the media at Charlie’s funeral.

We drove by the site where the schoolhouse once stood. It had been torn down within days of the shooting. The only remaining memorial are five trees planted on the site where the schoolhouse once stood.

A Lesson in Forgiveness

Terri and I also visited an Amish dairy farm. When we arrived at the house, a petite middle-aged woman answered Terri’s knock and exclaimed, “Oh Terri! I’m so happy to see you!” Then they embraced.

After touring the farm Terri said, “I was concerned about one of their daughters, who is having surgery on her shoulder.”

Curious, I asked, “Is this the family of one of the shooting victims?”

“Yes it is,” she said. “They had one daughter killed, one injured, and one who escaped from the schoolhouse before the shooting took place.”

A wave of realization spread over me. I had just witnessed the forgiveness and reconciliation that God’s grace brings. The mother of the shooter and the mother of one of the victims embracing each other and saying, “I’m so happy to see you.” The spirit of anger and desire for revenge that had possessed me for so long began to fall apart. How could I hang on to such feelings in the presence of such a miracle?

The Way to Forgiveness

When I got home I started looking for books dealing with forgiveness that were not tied to the Amish shootings. God led me to Forgive Instantly and Live Free by Terry Stueck. It was in the pages of this book, and in God’s Word, that I found the way to forgiveness. In Scripture we read: And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt. 6:12).

For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (verses 14, 15).

Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many” (Heb. 12:14, 15).

There was no doubt: I was being called to forgive the man who had molested my daughter, to let go of the anger and bitterness I had toward my church, and to relinquish the desire for a different past. I was being called to place my faith in God: “Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Rom. 12:19). I was being called to stretch my faith in an arena where I had never before ventured, “forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead”(Phil. 3:13).

I was being called to forgive everybody for everything, to forgive others the way Christ had forgiven me. I was being called to say the words “I forgive you. You don’t owe me anything anymore. Your debt to me is canceled and forgiven.”

Easier said than done. On my first try I gritted my teeth and in a forced growl said: “Dear Jesus, be with that guy who molested my daughter. Amen.” I felt a tiny bit of the load lift from me.

The next day I said the same thing, but it was a little easier.

After several weeks of forcing myself to do this, I was finally able to let go of the desire for revenge and begin to trust that God would do justice for me. Eventually I was able to pray that God would extend His grace and mercy to the perpetrator and save him for His kingdom. God is in the business of saving people. This guy might be my neighbor in heaven someday, and I have to be in a frame of mind to rejoice with the angels that he got there.

I let go of my anger and bitterness toward th
e church and gave it to God to deal with. I have forgiven and released everyone from all debts—real or perceived. Some people I forgave in person; others I communicated with via e-mail or set up an empty chair in a room and spoke to it as if the person were there.

Sweet Freedom

Life has become sweet again. A great sense of freedom came over me when I canceled every debt I held against others. I continue to carry scars from what my family and I went through, and certain things still trigger the past anger and desire for revenge. But the never-ending mercy and grace of God and His promises, the ability to pray and to ask for forgiveness and cleansing—they keep me on the narrow road that leads to life.

* Sadly, following a battle with cancer, Terri Roberts passed away in August 2017.

David Zackrison writes from Knoxville, Tennessee, where he works in property management for a commercial real estate company. He also has served as a missionary in Central and South America.