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Grace Eberly

Rethinking Religion: West Nickel Mines massacre shows different path toward forgiveness after shooting

The Amish school shooter was quickly forgiven by relatives of the victims.


Last Thursday, eight college students and one professor went to class and never came home.

They were shot and killed by Chris Harper-Mercer, 26, at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. The shooting was the deadliest in Oregon’s history. Law enforcement officials are in the process of piecing together Harper-Mercer’s motive. Families, friends and an entire community are in the process of piecing together their shattered lives. And the 2016 presidential candidates are in the process of piecing together their multifarious political agendas.  

Donald Trump argued that the problem wasn’t guns themselves but mental health — the killer, like so many others, was a “loner,” Jeb Bush said. “... Stuff happens.” Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist pastor, tweeted, “Gun violence is a problem in this country, but it’s not the 2nd Amendment’s fault. It’s fault of evil people doing evil things.” And Hillary Clinton unveiled a proposal that would allow shooting victims and their families to sue gun manufacturers and distributors.

Why does this keep happening and what can we do about it? I can’t pretend to have the answers. I don’t know if guns kill people or people kill people but I do know that people are dying. Is the answer more gun regulation? Or should we refocus our efforts on mental health care? Maybe all of these things. Maybe some, or maybe none at all.

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How do we respond? And what informs our response? Our politics? Our morality? Our religious belief?

This somber endeavor is a familiar one for the Old Order Amish of Nickel Mines in Bart Township, Pennsylvania, some 2,800 miles away. The UCC shooting in Oregon took place one day before the ninth anniversary of the West Nickel Mines massacre. On October 2, 2006, Charles Carl Roberts IV, a 32-year-old milk truck driver, entered a one-room Amish schoolhouse and shot ten girls in the head at close range after lining them up against the chalkboard. He then shot himself. Five of the girls died and five survived after extensive medical treatment, although the youngest victim, Rosanna, incurred permanent, debilitating brain damage. The girls ranged in age from 6 to 13 years.

The incident occurred between 10:25 and 11:07 A.M. That very same evening, a handful of hours later, an Amish man named Henry visited the home of Roberts’ parents. He did not come to attack or to blame. He said, “We love you.”

A grandfather of one of the victims was overheard instructing young relatives, “We must not think evil of this man.”

In a spirit that inspired the nation, the Amish of Nickel Mines reached out to the shooter’s widow and three young children. Some of them attended Mr. Roberts’ funeral. As a community, they offered their forgiveness.

The shooting was widely reported on by the media, and in the days, weeks and months after the horrific shooting, strangers from around the globe sent $4.3 million to the families of the victims, who had no health insurance. The Amish put their money where their mouth was and gave a share to Roberts’ family.

The community has since rebuilt a new schoolhouse for its children. Where the old West Nickel Mines School once stood, you will now find a grassy pasture where the horses sometimes graze. There are no statues, no visible memorials. The field is a testament to quiet and humble forgiveness — forgiveness which is not offered in a personal statement or delivered by lawyers or news crews, forgiveness which is not means to an end but the end itself.

In mainstream culture, we tend to think of forgiveness as a final step — the last leg of a long emotional marathon. But the Amish of Nickel Mines have offered a radical alternative; what does healing look like when the forgiveness comes first?

Grace Eberly is a senior studying world religions and biology. What do you think of the Amish people’s forgiveness? Email her at

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