left: Mark Makela/Reuters; top: TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images
Amish buggies line up for a funeral following the 2006 shootings at the Nickel Mines School, Lancaster County, Pa.
She remembers her husband’s eyes, dark and sunken. “This could not be,” Terri Roberts recalls thinking. “I had a wonderful son.… But it was very true.” Later that day, as family and friends streamed through the Roberts’ home, Chuck Roberts, a retired police officer who drove for the Amish, buried his head in sorrow. “The tears just kept coming,” Terri Roberts says. Her husband wiped his face so often with a dishrag that it wore a patch of skin raw on his forehead. Then Henry, the Roberts’ Amish neighbor, stopped by. He went over to Chuck Roberts, still unable to lift his head, and began massaging his shoulders. “Roberts, we love you,” Henry said. “We don’t hold anything against you, the family, in any way, not against your son.” After 20 minutes, Chuck Roberts lifted his face. “Thank you, Henry,” he said. “In that moment,” says Terri Roberts, “God stirred in me.” She calls Henry “our angel in black,” referring to his black Amish garb. “He gave my husband what he needed to lift his head that day, just that first piece of hope for healing.”
The Amish attended Charlie Roberts’ funeral, forming a supportive circle around the Roberts family that was a “healing balm,” she says. At first, Zachary Roberts — her third son who lived in Manhattan at the time — refused to return home for his brother’s funeral. “I will not honor him by being there,” he told his mother. Terri Roberts was heartbroken and asked visitors to pray for a change of mind. One Amish guest offered to call Zach — and the message he left made a difference. Her son came to the funeral. Now living in Sweden, Zachary Roberts is making a documentary called Hope about his mother’s battle with cancer and her relationship with the Amish. In the months that followed the tragedy, the Roberts family grew close to the families of the victims. Terri Roberts was even invited into the home of Rosanna King, a 6-year-old who suffered such serious injuries in the shooting that she was sent home to die — but lived. She is 13 years old now, “a beautiful young girl,” says Terri Roberts, but still in need of a feeding tube and unable to talk or walk. Since the one-year anniversary of the tragedy, Terri Roberts has gone most Thursday evenings to visit with Rosanna, “to sing to her, to read to her, to bathe her,” she says. “She needs care 24/7. It’s just a little respite for them.” This, says Neely, is the perfect example of “what spiritual maturity looks like. That’s exactly what Jesus had in mind when He said love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. The Amish have so loved their enemies that they have ceased being their enemies. They became friends.” “Forgiveness can open the door to reconciliation,” Kraybill the “Amish Grace” author says, though there is no guarantee. “I think that’s what happened in Nickel Mines. Forgiveness is a survival skill for a communal group like the Amish. It’s in their vocabulary. They teach it to their children. For them, forgiveness is a very high religious and moral tradition, and if they are not willing to forgive, they jeopardize their own salvation.” It is a message central to the Alvernia experience — and one that Terri Roberts and the Amish who have become her friends attest to daily. “We can have a hole in our hearts, like my son had a hole in his heart, where the suffering inside is worse than any cancer,” she says, “or we can release it and let it go. Forgiveness is not the natural thing to do, but it is the necessary thing to do.” Lini S. Kadaba is a journalist based in Newtown Square, Pa., who frequently writes for Alvernia Magazine. Alvernia University Magazine
Published on Jun 2, 2014