Mother of Amish school shooter: I've found joy in the midst of tragedy

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In 2006, a gunman entered a small Amish school in Nickel Mine, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, shot 10 girls and then took his own life. His mother, Terri Roberts, talks to Christian Today about the moment she realised the gunman was her own son, and the incredible response of forgiveness and grace that her Amish neighbours have shown her family.

Could you describe the moment you heard the news of the shooting – and what happened when you realised your son was the perpetrator?

My husband, Chuck, called me at work, and ten minutes later I pulled into my son's driveway after hearing the radio account of a shooting where children's lives had been taken. The radio incorrectly identified a man named Roy as the perpetrator. I was already imagining that, surely, my son had been involved in a rescue attempt.

Exiting my car to face Chuck and a state trooper, I asked, "Is my son alive?" The trooper stated, "No, Ma'am". I then looked to Chuck's sunken eyes and he said, "It was Charlie, he shot those girls." This was too impossible to absorb. Wailing, I fell to the ground in a fetal position. Someone came from the house and asked me to be quiet, as my youngest grandson was napping. I was incredibly thirsty, even after drinking countless glasses of water. I felt as though everything inside of me would be expelled. Yet within that first day, God also provided two opportunities for healing at our home...

The local Amish community was incredible in the way they showed such love and forgiveness towards your family – could you describe what happened?

Henry's visit [their Amish neighbour] that first afternoon was the beginning of many acts of grace from the Amish community. He ministered to my husband that day, massaging his shoulders and listening to Chuck repeat, "those poor parents, those poor children, we will need to move far away from our Amish neighbors..." Henry gently insisted that the community wanted us to stay, that what our son had done would not alter our friendship. Witnessing this, something in my spirit spoke to me that some day, eventually, we would heal. I refer to Henry as my "angel in black" because the Amish dress in black pants [trousers] and jackets.

How did you and your family navigate those first few difficult years?

Gradually, the buckets of tears turned into a bucket less full, although there are still moments that bring tears. Also, the Lord has touched us through the gestures and prayers of others, bringing us to a current place of healing that feels whole. We've even reached out to others suffering their own kinds of grief, people who can relate to our pain. It amazes me how much each member of the family has absorbed the tragedy and been able to release the sorrow over time.

How did you and your husband learn to accept what had happened and forgive yourselves?

It seems so natural to second-guess ourselves, questioning where we went wrong, but there were no clear answers. We weren't perfect parents, but blaming ourselves for something we couldn't control was a fruitless effort. There were nights of self-incrimination and doubt, and I would write out my thoughts, giving them some substance. Other than wishing that I'd encouraged Charlie to be more expressive, there were no particular areas that felt lacking. Once, a friend said insightfully, "If you have a child that has done everything right and turned out perfect in every way, you cannot take all the credit because that child has made choices on their own. Likewise, if you have a child that has made some very wrong choices, you cannot take all the blame because they have made choices on their own." That really helped.

Following the shooting, the Amish community of Nickel Mines, near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, showed more forgiveness than anger.Reuters

You have ongoing relationships with your Amish neighbours – could you describe how those have developed?

The Amish community from Nickel Mines displayed true Christ-like love and compassion, setting a precedent for others to emulate. The press even diverted attention from the horror of the situation to their completely unexpected response of forgiveness. The Amish have continued to live out this choice in our relationship.

They attended our son's burial by surrounding us and protecting us from the media cameras out on the road. The first parents to greet us that day had lost two daughters at the hand of our son. They asked how we were doing, putting their own need behind them to reach out to us.

Chuck and I started visiting all of the families in January after the "Happening", a name the Amish chose for the event. The following July every one of them attended a picnic at our home, and our friendships blossomed. The loving atmosphere was incredible, demonstrating how, even through the hardest of situations, we can surrender our angst and discover peace and joy.

All of them attended a forgiveness seminar at Elizabethtown College for the fifth anniversary to show their support, and they have travelled with me to speaking events and to visit others who are suffering.

We have teas for the mothers, and earlier on we had teas for the girls at my home, creating an extraordinary bond. Knowing that I am battling stage four cancer, this past Christmas a school bus pulled into my driveway with 35 Amish friends singing carols to me.

Rosanna, the most injured of the children at age six, is now 15 and still tube-fed, in a wheelchair. She recently came to visit me in my sunroom instead of me visiting her as I have done weekly for the past eight years.

Our bond of friendship shows how healing can and should work. "Forgive and you will be forgiven" – they live out the command in the Lord's Prayer.

How did you come to start speaking about the shooting, and when did you decide to write the story down?

A friend asked me to speak to a group of Japanese exchange students, and I hesitantly agreed. So in July of 2007, ten months after the happening, I talked publicly about how God was bringing me through this. 

Early on, writing the story came naturally with journalling, so a lot was already documented. Within two years I was being encouraged to write a book but was very hesitant, not wanting to bring more attention to the Amish families or my grandchildren. The Amish mothers and girls also encouraged me to write my book, and when my daughter-in-law wrote her story, I knew it was time. And now with my health challenges, I'm so thrilled that the story is in written form in case I'm not here to keep sharing a message of hope, forgiveness and a future.

How do you keep hold of your belief that God is good all the time?

God's goodness is in the eye of the beholder. Bitterness and anger are worse than any cancer, eating away at our souls. Even in hardship, praising God for His provision changes our perspective, granting grace for the "next step". Surrender and submission have become words of great strength to me. By submitting to a higher plan I've found joy in the midst of the trials of tragedy and health. I've been in the lowest pit, in the deepest depths, but God's grace provides a way out through daily surrender – and I see His goodness.

You recognise that forgiveness is not a one-off decision but a daily one. How do you ensure that you are still walking in forgiveness today?

With each new day, in asking if there is anything inside me that I am holding onto and allowing Him to reveal anything I might be keeping inside, I experience the freedom to move forward in peace.

Terri Roberts now travels the world speaking about forgiveness and hope. The story of the shooting and what happened afterwards are covered in more detail in her book Forgiven: The Amish School Shooting, A Mother's Love and a Story of Remarkable Grace.

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