One year ago today, a Nickel Mines, Pa., man walked into an Amish schoolhouse, took several young girls hostage and then shot them, killing five and seriously wounding five.
Immediately after that event, three men who have studied various aspects of Amish life were receiving calls from the media.
In the following days, questions turned from the usual lifestyle of the Amish to questions about faith and forgiveness.
And now the three men — Goshen College professor of history Steve Nolt, David Weaver-Zercher, associate professor of American religious history at Messiah College, and Donald Kraybill, senior fellow at Young Center of Elizabethtown College — have written a book that explores why forgiveness is a necessary part of faith for the Amish.
“Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy” is focused not on the Amish themselves but on how their faith in God requires forgiveness — a central belief of the Amish.
“The Amish folk, whomever we interviewed, didn’t want the focus placed on them,” Nolt explained. “There was a message they wanted communicated.”
And the message is that to be forgiven, God’s people must first forgive.
“From the Amish standpoint, the centrality of forgiveness is their whole way of life,” Nolt said. “Theologically, they believe their forgiveness by God is dependent on forgiving others.”
Kraybill said, “I was surprised that the Amish were surprised by the forgiveness (element of the) story. They didn’t understand how distinctive their style of forgiveness is.”
The Amish community forgave the gunman, Charles Roberts IV, and embraced his family. Amish families attended Roberts’ funeral, offered help to his family and even channeled money to them.
And according to the authors, not forgiving was never a question for the Amish.
Zercher-Weaver, a 1979 NorthWood High School graduate, said that what makes forgiveness seem easier in the Amish community is that forgiveness is part of their communal life. “They all work together to make forgiveness a possibility,” he said.
That’s why it’s hard for people outside that community to understand. “To be forgiving people, we need to create a whole life and connection that allows us to be a forgiving person,” Weaver-Zercher said. “We need to embed ourselves in a community that values forgiveness.”
The centrality of forgiveness in the Amish faith was not surprising to the three men. What was surprising was the centrality of the Lord’s Prayer to their liturgy.
“No one really makes up a prayer and says it out loud,” Kraybill said, explaining that the Lord’s Prayer is recited and is very central to their spirituality.
“Spontaneous prayer, as in other churches, is not as valued,” Weaver-Zercher said. The line in the Lord’s Prayer involving forgiveness is often referred to by the Amish.
Another revelation was the importance of the council meeting prior to communion. There is a focused theme of forgiveness.
“It really struck me as something that was significant,” Weaver-Zercher said.
Because of their fields of study, the three men were contacted by different publishers to write a book about the Nickel Mines tragedy.
Since the trio knew each other, they decided that they could cooperate and write one book. Each thought that this could be a “teachable moment” about Amish life and about forgiveness.
“I felt this story was a very powerful story,” Kraybill said. “It touched thousands of people around the world.”
Nolt said, “I think it really made it a better book than if just one of us had written it.”
The authors debated among themselves whether writing the book was an exploitation of the situation or whether it was what scholars do.
Each of the men also felt that they should not profit from the tragedy and decided they were going to donate their share of proceeds to the Nickel Mines Accountability Committee, which was formed shortly after the shooting.
But when approached by the authors about making the donation, the Amish had a negative response, Weaver-Zercher said. They suggested there were other people and children in the world who needed help.
Weaver-Zercher said that a lot of Amish are committed to working with Mennonite Central Committee, and donating to that organization was a suggestion made by some of the Amish.
So the authors agreed that their royalties would go to MCC.
Kraybill did most of the interviews. He said about three dozen face-to-face interviews were done, with the writing taking about 10 weeks to complete.
Nolt said that the authors did not approach the families of the victims and had no intention of doing so. However, the authors were given a message that the families wanted to communicate with them.
The parents of a girl who was killed contacted the authors and said they would like to talk to the men and tell them their story.
Nolt said they received direct information from three of the families.
The authors received a contract just before Christmas and the first draft was due April 1.
Authors conferred with e-mails and a conference call once a week.
“It was a very rapid process,” Kraybill said. “We really tried to work hard on having one voice.”
The authors also had the draft sent out to 10 colleagues and six Amish people, who made suggestions and changes. “They uniformly liked the book,” Nolt said of the Amish readers. “But they didn’t like the title.”
Nolt explained that as authors, they had not thought of that problem. They were using a different definition of “grace” than what the Amish were, he said.
But the book was too far along in the process to change the title, the authors said. “That’s the main thing I feel bad about,” Kraybill said.
All of the authors hope that those who read the book will come away with what the power of forgiveness can do, including opening the doors for reconciliation.
Nolt said he hopes that people will reconsider forgiveness, but realize that “what the Amish do is rooted in 500 years. … It is a complicated thing.”
“Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy” can be purchased at the Goshen College Bookstore or through Amazon.com.
There is a Web site for the book: www.amishgrace.com
Author and Goshen College Professor Steve Nolt will have a book-signing event at 2 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 6 at Goshen College Bookstore.