Friday, September 30, 2016

Amish Grace

October 2, 2006. You doubtlessly remember the terrible tragedy that occurred ten years ago on that date in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. You may not have remembered the name of that small town, but that is where ten Amish girls were brutally shot in their one-room schoolhouse.
Such a horrendous event is unforgettable.
The Shooting
Charles Roberts, a local 32-year-old man who was not Amish, entered the school just before 10 o’clock on that Monday morning. He released all the boys but kept the ten girls hostage. The teacher escaped and ran for help—but to no avail.
Even though the police soon arrived, they were unable to do anything to stop Roberts from shooting all ten of the girls. Three died at the scene and two more died the next morning. One survived with severe brain injury. The other four recovered and were able to go back to school.
Donald Kraybill and two colleagues wrote a powerful book about that school shooting and its aftermath. They titled their book Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy (2007). Kraybill arrived at Nickel Mines on the morning following the shooting. The first part of the book is based largely on his observations and interviews with many Amish and “English” people who lived in the community.
Kraybill (b. 1946), the world’s leading expert on the Amish, is also the co-author of a 500-page book titled simply The Amish (2013).
I first became acquainted with Kraybill’s name when I read his 1978 book The Upside-Down Kingdom not long after it was published. I have been an admirer of him ever since, and reading Amish Grace for the first time this month increased my admiration of him.
The Movie
Perhaps many of you have seen the 2010 made-for-television movie “Amish Grace” that was in part based on the book—although the movie’s central character, and her family, was fictional. A couple of weeks ago, June and I watched the movie for the second time and were deeply moved by it again.
Thankfully, the shootings were not shown, but the grief of the parents was made very evident. What was of particular interest, and amazement for many, was the forgiving attitude of the Amish community.
To make it a more interesting movie, though, the fictional mother Ida, whose oldest daughter was one of the five who were killed, at first resented the forgiving attitude of Gideon, her husband, and the larger Amish community.
In reality, as well as in the movie, beginning on the very day of the shooting some of the local Amish people began reaching out to killer’s wife as well as to his father, expressing loving concern and forgiveness. The fictional part of the movie portrayed well the positive change in Ida’s life when her attitude changed from anger to forgiveness. 
Gideon & Ida (from the movie)
My Visit
More or less on a whim, the next day after watching the movie I drove 70-plus miles to just south of Jamesport, Mo. By chance, or providence, I met and had about an hour of delightful conversation with Melvin Yutzy, an Amish farmer with eight children, including a daughter who looked much like the schoolgirls in the movie.
He said an “English” friend drove to his place on the afternoon of October 2, 2006, and told him about the shootings. When I asked him what he thought about the forgiving attitude of the Amish in Nickel Mines, he was in complete agreement.
Just like the Amish people Kraybill interviewed soon after the shootings, my new friend Melvin emphasized that forgiveness is the only option for followers of Jesus. 
My daughter Kathy was with me and took
this picture of me by the Yutzy's buggy.
What do you make of the Chiefs sticker?


  1. Thinking Friend Eric Dollard in Chicago writes,

    "Thanks, Leroy, for bringing this remarkable story to our attention.

    "I greatly admire the Amish capacity for forgiveness. I think they realize that Roberts was seriously mentally ill and someone in great need of help. They also reached out to Roberts' wife and father, who also suffered as a result of this tragedy. Nonetheless, the thought of those young schoolgirls tugs at the heart.

    "I also admire the Amish for their simple lifestyle, gentleness, and commitment to nonviolence. They embrace the teachings of Jesus, as we know those teachings from the Gospels, as much as an Christian group. I disagree with their practice of shunning those who leave the Amish faith, their rejection of education beyond the eighth grade, and their rejection of most modern technology. Nonetheless, they cheer for the Chiefs, or at least some of them do. I must admit I am a bit puzzled by that one."

  2. Leroy,

    NPR's Friday feature "Storycorps" had Roberts's mother on this morning who also spoke of forgiveness. Here is a link to the story for those who may care to listen. If it doesn't become a link, at least it can be pasted into one's browser.

    1. Thanks, David, for sharing this. Yes, the story of Roberts's mother is also a touching part of the larger story.

      Back in July, Religion and Ethics Newsweekly had an segment about the shooting. That link is

  3. Bro. Leroy,
    Thanks so much for remembering this anniversary. I remember being impacted by the terrible tragedy in the loss of those innocent lives while also getting all teary-eyed that there were still people who could forgive like Jesus, "Father, forgive him for he did not know what he was doing!"

    1. Thanks, Tom, for reading and responding to this article. I hope you will be able to see the movie, if you haven't already seen it. (We checked it out from our local library.) It will make you teary-eyed again.

  4. Esteemed Thinking Friend Glenn Hinson shares these comments:

    "Very heartrending, Leroy. I got to know Don Kraybill through a dialogue we had with the peace churches when I edited Baptist Peacemaker. I thought he represented the Anabaptist tradition better than John Yoder did. He is an outstanding scholar but also a person deeply imbued with the Peace tradition of Mennonites."

  5. Leroy, count me in the group that appreciates the Amish in Missouri and Kansas for their virtues and witness to certain special values--locality, peace, forgiveness and more. They have some analogues with early monastic communities, albeit in a Reformation context. Thanks for the reporting on the movie and your visit. I have placed Amish Grace on our Netflix queue.

    1. Thanks, Larry. Let me know what you think of the movie after you see it. I would like to watch it with my new Amish friend and hear what he thinks of it, but of course he cannot watch it.

  6. Except for a couple of cousins, Judy Trullinger and her husband Tom are the only Thinking Friends who live in Worth County, Missouri, where I was born and reared.

    In response to this article, Judy wrote, "I have been touched by the forgiveness in the Pennsylvania story—but seeing the shunning up close and nearly personal, I don’t see how they can come from the same group."

    1. Thanks for raising this question, Judy. The matter of shunning is a difficult one, and for good reason many have the same question you have.

      Belief in shunning has a long history in the Anabaptist tradition. It was one of the six main points of the Schleitheim Confession of 1527. "The ban," as it is often translated, was based on Matthew 18.

      In the book "Amish Grace," Donald Kraybill and his co-authors have a whole chapter called "What About Shunning?" One important point they make is about the difference between forgiving and pardoning. They forgive those who deviate from their beliefs, but they do not pardon them until they repent and come back.

      I asked Melvin about this matter, and that is basically what he said. Shunning is not for punishing deviants; it is for preserving the purity of the church.

      As hard as it may be for us to understand, and to accept, the concept of shunning, perhaps we have to admit that that is one of the reasons the Amish have been able to continue--and to continue to grow in numbers. Without the practice of shunning, they could easily have compromised their beliefs and just blended in with society at large.

  7. I admire the Amish, too, but I think I would have behaved more like Ida in the movie had someone shot one of my precious daughters. ( I noticed it was only Amish men who visited the killer's home that night to express their forgiveness.)

  8. Let me start with the easy part, the Chiefs sticker. I recently have read several articles about the hundred-plus tribes gathered in North Dakota to protest yet another dangerous pipeline. One had a picture of a man front-and-center of the marching protesters who was wearing a Green Bay Packers hat. In an era where it is fashionable in some quarters to lament the fall of western civilization, it is worth noting that in fact its pull is nearly irresistible. Just as ancient Judah could protest a statue of Zeus in the temple, but could do little about elites voluntarily adopting Hellenist ways, so both Amish and native Americans feel the pull of football! Given half a chance, societies have borrowed incessantly from each other from the beginning of time. Personally, I have a painting of an Indian chief hanging in my office. I was given it as a boy by the father of one of my parents' friends. He did the painting as part of an art therapy class. There used to be a second painting with it, of a young woman carrying a baby on her back. My daughter took it off Oregon with her.

    More seriously, the amazing grace shown by the Amish to the children's killer reminds me of the stunning forgiveness last year of Dylan Roof by the people of the Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. Despite this, Roof still faces the possibility of the death penalty. Indeed, the very act of forgiveness itself has become controversial. Of course, lots of things have become controversial in these United States. Perhaps we are too far gone for restorative justice. Perhaps punitive justice is all we can comprehend. Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Craig.

      My puzzlement about the Chiefs sticker relates to how or what the Amish would know about the Chiefs since they do not have radio or television.

      I also have been impressed this week reading about the forgiving attitude of the people in the AME church in Charleston, wondering, among other things, if their forgiving attitude was partly because of the precedent of the Amish at Nickel Mines showing forgiveness.

  9. An important lesson to learn (or re-learn), and practice. It is difficult.

    The practice of shunning probably needs to be better explored. I have seen it 3 times among the Amish/Mennonites, and 4 times by other Christian groups... I am not impressed. Of course there is also the issue of schism which is a big issue - a house divided. Sometimes necessary, many times it is questionable. Either way, it is hard to restore, for one or both sides must yield.

  10. Thinking Friend Charles Kiker just made the following comment about the article on Facebook:

    "Leroy I was aware of that at that time and amazed by the Amish spirit of forgiveness manifest there. Oh that all who name the Name could follow like they (these Amish) did!"

  11. Late last night a Thinking Friend sent a thoughtful email that ended with the following words.

    "The book 'Amish Grace' is a challenge to allow forgiveness to blossom when hate would rule the day.

    I am one pilgrim that is thankful for the example of how grace changes the world and transforms violence into constructive behavior and allows love to replace hate."

  12. ‘forgiveness is the only option for Christians’.. I think the love and grace those families showed to the shooters family.. is different than forgiveness to the shooter... did I miss something in the story?? Thanks LeRoy.. i appreciate the post... -Gar