Amish Forgive School Shooter, Struggle with Grief A tragic school shooting left an Amish community devastated, but not resentful. But the ability to forgive doesn't mean that the families have been able to quickly get over their grief.

Amish Forgive School Shooter, Struggle with Grief

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

It has been a week for quiet reflection in the Amish communities around Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania. That's where, one year ago, a man stormed into a one-room schoolhouse and shot 10 young girls, killing five. He then killed himself. That old school has since been demolished. The new school was closed today and families met privately in prayer.

NPR's Joseph Shapiro visited Pennsylvania's Amish community one year after.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO: The killer, Charles Roberts, wasn't Amish, but Amish families knew him as the milk truck driver who made deliveries. Last month, it was announced that the Amish community had donated money to the killer's widow and her three young children. It was one more gesture of forgiveness, gestures that began soon after the shooting.

Mr. DONALD KRAYBILL (Sociologist, Elizabethtown College, Author, "Amish Grace"): I think the most powerful demonstration of the depth of Amish forgiveness was when members of the Amish community went to the killer's burial service at the cemetery.

SHAPIRO: Donald Kraybill is a sociologist at nearby Elizabethtown College. He's the co-author of "Amish Grace," a book about how, for the Amish, forgiveness is a community-wide response.

Mr. KRAYBILL: Several families, Amish families, who had buried their own daughters just the day before were in attendance. And they hugged the widow, hugged the other members of the killer's family.

SHAPIRO: Those acts of forgiveness inspired people around the world. But they also caused a misperception - that the Amish have quickly gotten over the tragedy.

Mr. JONAS BEILER (Founder, Family Resource and Counseling Center): You can forgive. That doesn't change the fact that there's an empty place at the table where these families lost children.

SHAPIRO: That's Jonas Beiler. He's the founder of the Family Resource and Counseling Center. It's in a converted barn with a red roof in the middle of Amish country. Beiler says there's another myth about the Amish, that these people, who don't use electricity or drive cars, that they don't use mental health therapy either.

Beiler and his therapist have counseled many in the wake of the school shooting - the families, who, a year later, are still startled by the sound of a helicopter overhead, the firefighters who first arrived that day at the blood-soaked schoolhouse, the survivors including some of the older boys who were let go by the killer - now left to wonder if somehow they could've stopped the massacre.

Mr. BEILER: We've talked to these people. And they're all dealing with this one day at a time the best they can. There are still nightmares. Some of the schoolchildren are dealing with what we would call emotional instabilities and this will go on for several years, yet.

SHAPIRO: Beiler says that over the last generation, Amish have become more open to getting therapy. He and his wife, Anne, are examples.

Mr. BEILER: You know, Anne and I went through a very difficult time when we lost a child ourselves. We had a 19-month-old baby girl that got ran over by a farm tractor.

SHAPIRO: That tractor accident was 30 years ago. The Beilers, like many people in the Amish community at the time, kept their grief hidden even from each other. Only when they did start counseling several years later was their marriage saved. Jonas Beiler became such a believer in therapy that he set out to be a marriage and family counselor himself.

Mr. BEILER: Obviously, that didn't put a lot of groceries on the table because I was busy studying and also counseling at the same time.

SHAPIRO: So his wife, Anne, started an Amish food stand at the farmers' market. The hand-rolled soft pretzel she made were very popular, so popular that it led to a nationwide business. If you've been in an airport, you probably know Auntie Anne's pretzels. That business success allowed Jonas Beiler to help popularize counseling among the Amish, and over the last year, to counsel victims of the schoolhouse shooting.

Mr. BEILER: Tragedy changes you. You can't stay the same. Where that lands, you don't always know. But what I found out in my own experience is that, you know, if you bring a lot, little pieces you have left to God, he somehow will help you make good out of it. And I see that happening in this school shooting, as well. One just simple thing that the world got to see is this simple message of forgiveness.

SHAPIRO: And because the Amish can express that forgiveness, because they hold no grudges. Beiler says they're better able to concentrate on the work of their own healing.

Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

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