From Horror to Healing


When evil hits home, it hurts. The nat­ural reac­tion is hor­ror and anger. Yet recently we have seen a sur­pris­ingly dif­fer­ent reac­tion to evil. On Octo­ber 2 an armed intruder entered an Amish school house in Nickel Mines, Penn­syl­va­nia, shot ten girls –five fatally-​​ and then turned the gun on himself.

But the sim­ple, close-​​knit com­mu­nity imme­di­ately for­gave the killer and reached out with love to his widow and chil­dren. This amaz­ing reac­tion star­tled the entire read­er­ship of the national and inter­na­tional press. One Lan­caster County Amish man made the point, “In for­give­ness there is healing.”

The hor­ror begins

On Octo­ber 2 a lit­tle after ten a.m. Charles C. Roberts IV, a 32-year–old mar­ried milk­man and father of three, entered the one-​​room school hold­ing a 9mm hand­gun, and dis­missed the boys and some adults with small chil­dren. One of the adults raced to a nearby farm and called 911. Roberts bound the girls by the ankles and lined them up before the black­board before bar­ri­cad­ing the doors. 

When the state troop­ers arrived on the lane out­side, Roberts called 911 on his cell phone and told the dis­patcher, “If you don’t get these police out of here, I’m going to start shoot­ing.” Police traced the phone and called Roberts, who didn’t answer. Before police could take any fur­ther action, Roberts fired one shot after another in rapid succession.

Death of the innocents 

The motive, accord­ing to ram­bling sui­cide notes left to his wife and chil­dren, appears to be grief over the 1997 death of an infant daugh­ter and guilt over imag­i­nary events of twenty years ago. Five young girls, ages 7-​​13, died in his fatal ram­page. Five oth­ers remain in seri­ous condition.

The shock­ing story, of course, received global news cov­er­age. Yet to the world’s amaze­ment, Amish lead­ers issued a state­ment that they for­gave the killer and offered con­do­lences to his fam­ily even before they made the funeral arrangements.

No greater love than this

Still another story of grace under fire was yet to emerge from Lan­caster County. Accord­ing to a report from Bar­bara Fisher, a wounded vic­tim, her sis­ter, 13-​​ year-​​old Mar­ian Fisher, asked the gun­man to shoot her first. Another of the older girls said, “You can shoot me second.”

A Men­non­ite house­wife explained they were prob­a­bly hop­ing the younger girls would be spared, or res­cued in time, adding, “It really showed a tremen­dous amount of courage. It’s really amaz­ing that girls of that age would offer them­selves up. I know a lot of adults who wouldn’t do that.”


Days of mourning 

The Amish are descen­dants of Ger­man immi­grants of the Anabap­tist faith. They reject all mod­ern con­ve­niences, even auto­mo­biles, in their effort to live out the Gospel in simplicity.

Late in the same week as the shoot­ings, a horse-​​and-​​buggy Amish funeral pro­ces­sion headed down Mine Road toward Bart Ceme­tery near George­town, Lan­caster County. In the bright Octo­ber sun­shine, pre­ceded by two mounted police offi­cers, a cortege of dozens of dark horse-​​drawn car­riages made their way in somber dig­nity through the tran­quil coun­try­side to a hill­top graveyard.

The ceme­tery route required that the funeral parade pass directly by the gunman’s house. The Roberts’ fam­ily mem­bers did not retreat within, but sat out­side in silent trib­ute to their neigh­bors who had so quickly offered them words of forgiveness.

But the char­ity of the Amish com­mu­nity went far beyond words.


For­give­ness in action

Back­ing up words with action, the Amish com­mu­nity man­i­fested the depth of their char­ity. 
In an ini­tial neigh­borly ges­ture, the griev­ing Amish fam­i­lies offered food to Roberts’ sur­vivors “because they too had suf­fered a loss.”

Addi­tion­ally, the par­ents of Mar­ian Fisher invited rel­a­tives of Roberts to their home. On the night of Octo­ber 3, Marie Roberts and her fam­ily accepted, and were met with embraces. Not only that, but dozens of Amish neigh­bors came to the funeral of the quiet milk­man who killed five young girls and wounded five more. When Roberts was buried behind a small Methodist Church, over half of the 75 mourn­ers were Amish.

And there’s more. Amish do not carry com­mer­cial insur­ance, but self-​​insure for major med­ical expenses with a fund called Church Aid. Report­edly, two-​​thirds of the com­mu­nity take advan­tage of this ser­vice. Because of pri­vacy issues, hos­pi­tal offi­cials would not make pub­lic if the fam­i­lies involved were insured. How­ever, despite Amish reluc­tance to accept finan­cial aid, a world-​​wide col­lec­tion has been estab­lished to aid with med­ical expenses, and has attracted a wide diver­gence of con­trib­u­tors: large cor­po­rate donors such as Wal-​​Mart, and a $1 dona­tion from 20 churches in an impov­er­ished African dio­cese. Amaz­ingly, Amish lead­ers requested such a fund also be set up for the gunman’s wife and family.

Is it any won­der the world sat up and took notice of this sim­ple com­mu­nity of believers?

Express­ing gratitude 

“It’s the love, the for­give­ness, the heart­felt for­give­ness they have toward the fam­ily. I broke down and cried see­ing it dis­played,” com­mented Bruce Porter, a fire depart­ment chap­lain from Mor­ri­son, Col­orado, who had come to Penn­syl­va­nia to offer help and attend the burial. 

In a let­ter released Octo­ber 6, Marie Roberts summed up the impact of this pro­found wit­ness of Chris­t­ian char­ity. “Your love for our fam­ily has helped to pro­vide the heal­ing we so des­per­ately need. The for­give­ness you’ve given has touched our hearts in a way no words can describe…. Your com­pas­sion has reached beyond our fam­ily, beyond our com­mu­nity, and is chang­ing our world, and for this we sin­cerely thank you.”


What the Amish did was not easy. We can be sure of that. Their acts required that they draw deeply from their human­ity and from the strength that only God can give. What they did was not just nat­ural. It was super­nat­ural. They found the strength in Jesus Christ, in his love. We can ask our­selves if we are capa­ble of this kind of love. Do we believe in Christ’s love enough to do this too? Do we show mercy and love in our daily lives? Or do we hold onto resent­ments and grudges when we are offended by our sib­lings, class­mates, or others?

Chris­tians live a dif­fer­ent kind of val­ues from just what comes nat­u­rally. Yet their action makes this world a bet­ter place. They bring peace and heal­ing to a world that needs this so much. They help those who have been wounded by evil to believe they are still deeply loved by God.

One fate­ful Octo­ber morn­ing, evil shat­tered the out­ward peace of an Amish com­mu­nity, but it could not destroy the inter­nal peace of a devout peo­ple will­ing to accept the Chris­t­ian chal­lenge to love their neigh­bor. They have shown us what for­give­ness is - a pow­er­ful way to show char­ity, to affirm the divine spark in every per­son, to imi­tate Christ, and to remind us how for­give­ness over­comes evil by heal­ing its effects and bring­ing peace of heart to both giver and receiver. Their exam­ple chal­lenges us to live Chris­t­ian char­ity in a heroic way as well.

Bible Blurbs


Do not be con­quered by evil but con­quer evil with good. (Romans 12: 21)

Then Jesus said, “Father, for­give them, they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)

The vic­tor will thus be dressed in white, and I will never erase his name from the book of life but will acknowl­edge his name in the pres­ence of my Father and of his angels. (Rev­e­la­tion 3:5)

Pope Quotes


“Being a Chris­t­ian means hav­ing love. That is unbe­liev­ably diffi cult and at the same time incred­i­bly sim­ple.” (Joseph Car­di­nal Ratzinger, What It Means to Be a Chris­t­ian, p. 72)

“For­give­ness… is first of all the wholly per­sonal cen­ter of all renewal. But because for­give­ness touches the very core of the per­son, it gath­ers men together and is also the cen­ter of the renewal of the com­mu­nity.” (Joseph Car­di­nal Ratzinger, Called to Com­mu­nion, p.153)

Cat­e­chism Clips


2262 In the Ser­mon on the Mount, the Lord recalls the com­mand­ment, “You shall not kill,” and adds to it the pro­scrip­tion of anger, hatred, and vengeance. Going fur­ther, Christ asks his dis­ci­ples to turn the other cheek, to love their ene­mies. He did not defend him­self and told Peter to leave his sword in its sheath.

1829 The fruits of char­ity are joy, peace, and mercy; Char­ity … is benev­o­lence; it fos­ters reci­procity and remains dis­in­ter­ested and gen­er­ous; it is friend­ship and communion…

2447 The works of mercy are char­i­ta­ble actions by which we come to the aid of our neigh­bor in his spir­i­tual and bod­ily neces­si­ties. Instruct­ing, advis­ing, con­sol­ing, com­fort­ing are spir­i­tual works of mercy, as are for­giv­ing and bear­ing wrongs patiently. The cor­po­ral works of mercy con­sist espe­cially in feed­ing the hun­gry, shel­ter­ing the home­less, cloth­ing the naked, vis­it­ing the sick and impris­oned, and bury­ing the dead.

819 Fur­ther­more, many ele­ments of sanc­ti­fi­ca­tion and of truth” are found out­side the vis­i­ble confi nes of the Catholic Church: “the writ­ten Word of God; the life of grace; faith, hope, and char­ity, with the other inte­rior gifts of the Holy Spirit, … Christ’s Spirit uses these Churches and eccle­sial com­mu­ni­ties as means of sal­va­tion, whose power derives from the full­ness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church. All these bless­ings come from Christ and lead to him, and are in them­selves calls to “Catholic unity.”


First Chris­t­ian Mar­tyr


When the first Chris­t­ian com­mu­nity grew rapidly, the need was seen to have a group of men help the apos­tles in some aspects of their ser­vice. These men were ordained the fi rst dea­cons. Among them was Stephen. His abil­ity to pub­licly explain and defend the Chris­t­ian faith caused the anger of some of the Jews who dragged him out­side the city of Jerusalem and stoned him.

As he was dying he cried out, imi­tat­ing the words of Christ, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” He was the first Chris­t­ian mar­tyr. His feast day is Decem­ber 26.

Wit­ness of Chris­t­ian Char­ity

ST. CLAUDINE THEVENET – (1774-​​1837)

Foundress of the Con­gre­ga­tion of the Reli­gious of Jesus and Mary. Clau­dine saw her two broth­ers exe­cuted dur­ing the chaos of the French Rev­o­lu­tion, and as they were car­ried off, they told her, “For­give, Glady, as we for­give.” The words impressed her heart deeply and shielded her from vengeance, bit­ter­ness, shame, and dis­cour­age­ment. She felt a spe­cial bur­den to help peo­ple dis­cover the real­ity of God and his love and for­give­ness. With the encour­age­ment of a holy priest she launched into what would become her life­long project: form­ing shel­ters and schools and houses of “prov­i­dence” that could give young girls the skills and faith they needed to live decent lives in soci­ety and have a good Chris­t­ian infl uence on those around them. She faced tremen­dous diffi cul­ties and set­backs, but at the end of her life the reli­gious con­gre­ga­tion she had founded really started to grow. At the time of her can­on­iza­tion in 1993, 1800 sis­ters lived and worked in 180 com­mu­ni­ties on all five continents.


Bar­ri­cad­ing – shut­ting in or keep­ing out with a bar­rier or obstruc­tion
Char­ity – the love of God for human­ity, or a love of one’s fel­low human beings
Com­pas­sion – sor­row for the suf­fer­ings or trou­ble of oth­ers, accom­pa­nied by an urge to help
Cortege – one or more per­sons (or cars, ships, etc.) accom­pa­ny­ing another or oth­ers to give pro­tec­tion or show honor.
Descen­dants< – per­sons who are off­spring, how­ever remote, of a cer­tain ances­tor, fam­ily, group, etc.
Dio­cese – the dis­trict under a bishop’s juris­dic­tion
Diver­gence – a becom­ing dif­fer­ent in form or kind
Fate­ful – hav­ing impor­tant con­se­quences; sig­nifi cant; deci­sive
Somber – earnest and solemn; grave<
Super­nat­ural – beyond the nat­ural; of, involv­ing, or attrib­uted to God
Trib­ute – some­thing given, done, or said, as a gift, tes­ti­mo­nial, etc., that shows grat­i­tude, respect, honor, or praise


1. Dis­cuss what Jesus said about luke­warm faith (Because you are luke­warm, nei­ther hot nor cold, I will vomit you out of my mouth. (Rev.3:16)

  • a. Elicit some exam­ples of half-​​hearted faith and vibrant faith.
  • b. Since so many peo­ple pro­fess to be Chris­tians, why is the Amish response to evil so star­tling to most people?
  • c. In her let­ter quoted in the arti­cle, Marie Roberts said the for­give­ness of the Amish com­mu­nity “changed the world.” What does this state­ment mean? Remind stu­dents of the world­wide cov­er­age of the ini­tial tragedy.

2. One pos­si­ble expla­na­tion for the strong faith of the Amish is the value of a like­minded community.

  • a. How does one’s cir­cle of fam­ily and friends affect behavior?
  • b. Draw out from stu­dents sug­ges­tions for ways to find friends who sup­port them in faith.
  • c. What are some of the qual­i­ties one should seek out in a friend?

3. The arti­cle illus­trates that God brings good even from great evil.

  • a. What are some exam­ples from their own expe­ri­ence or news reports that sup­port this conclusion?
  • b. What prac­ti­cal steps might we take in our own lives to over­come evil? Point out that small instances of injus­tice can cause evil to triumph.
  • c. What small thing might a young per­son do in his own home to bring about a more Chris­t­ian atmos­phere? In the class­room? In the community?

4. Some observers sug­gest that the answer to class­room vio­lence is to arm all teachers.

  • a. Why would this not be the Chris­t­ian response?
  • b. What are some more sen­si­ble means to cre­at­ing a safe school environment?

5. In order not to unduly alarm stu­dents, it could be pointed out they are much more likely to be injured from unsafe dri­ving habits than from a school shooting.

  • a. The instruc­tor might also encour­age dis­cus­sion of sen­si­ble ways to deal with a rude dri­ver. How could a Chris­t­ian atti­tude dis­cour­age “road rage?”
  • b. Most of us would not like to give up mod­ern con­ve­niences, but how should we use tech­nol­ogy as prac­tic­ing Chris­tians? How is an every­day activ­ity like dri­ving related to our Chris­t­ian faith. How about our com­puter and cell phone use?

6. Mar­ian Fisher was will­ing to sac­ri­fice her own life in the hope the younger ones might be spared. What do you think prompted her to such heroic action?

  • a. How would it be pos­si­ble for some­one so young to have so strong a faith?
  • b. How do you think she reacted in small, every­day mat­ters requir­ing sac­rifi ce?
  • b. Have stu­dents known of any sim­i­lar exam­ples of heroism?
  • c. What are some exam­ples of much smaller acts of kind­ness that help us over­come selfishness?


1. Describe a sit­u­a­tion in your life when you decided to for­give some­one who had offended you. How did extend­ing for­give­ness make you feel? How did it affect the one for­given? Remind stu­dents we can make a con­scious deci­sion to for­give even if our emo­tions and will are at odds.

2. Describe the “rip­ple effect” of acts of kind­ness and acts of cru­elty. Offer at least three con­crete exam­ples of each.


Cole­man, Bill, The Gift to be Sim­ple, Chron­i­cle Books, 2001

Rensen­berger, Susan, The Com­plete Idiot’s Guide to Under­stand­ing the Amish, Alpha Books, 2003 

Trager, Wolf, From Dawn to Dusk, Llu­mina Press, 2003

About the Author:

Leave a Reply