11 – Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania
After such trauma hits a community, it can come to define that place and its people. For many towns, there is no coming back when something traumatic strikes their small communities. Rarely, however, it shows the best aspects of rural living and traditional values. In terms of resilience in the face of terror and the overwhelming power of faith and belief after a tragedy, there is little that can come close to the Amish community of Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania.
The events of October 2, 2006, are well known: Charles Carl Roberts, a local milk tank driver and father of three, walked into the West Nickel Mines School, a one-room Amish schoolhouse, and took the students hostage. He released the boys but killed five young girls between the ages of 7 and 13, while injuring another 5 female pupils. By the time the police arrived, Roberts had killed himself.
The reaction was one of total horror. The Amish as a community are intensely pacifistic and the victims were all defenceless young girls, while the perpetrator had no history of violence. He was married with three kids and had seen his wife that morning, taking their children to the bus stop to go to school. In his suicide note to her, Roberts spoke of a child that they had lost together almost a decade before and of his anger at God for the pain inflicted upon him.
If it was God that fuelled Roberts’ rage, it was faith in the Almighty that distinguished the Amish after his actions. The strength of their convictions allowed them to pray for forgiveness for Roberts, with one community member telling the media that “I don’t think there’s anybody here that wants to do anything but forgive and not only reach out to those who have suffered a loss in that way but to reach out to the family of the man who committed these acts.” “He had a mother and a wife and a soul and now he’s standing before a just God,” said a father of one of the victims.
The Nickel Mines Amish comforted the family of the perpetrator and attended his funeral, while his widow was present at the funerals of a victim. She later wrote “Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need. Gifts you’ve given have 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.” Some scholars of the Amish religion cited their strong belief in forgiveness as part of a wider trend towards celebrating those who turned the other cheek, while others also explained that there is a tradition of not holding grudges that is deep rooted in the Amish mindset. When tragedy strikes, the Amish reaction is to strive for something positive that moves forward rather than retribution that lingers over the trauma. The reaction of the community to each other was also impressive. They demolished the school and rebuilt another at a different location within just 6 months.