“Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.”
~Elder Joseph Brackett
It was a typical one-room Amish schoolhouse in the peaceful, rolling farmlands of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. On a crisp October morning four years ago, twenty six Amish children, aged 6-13, gathered at the school for their daily lessons.
That same morning, Charlie Roberts said goodbye to his own two children at the bus stop. Angry at God for the death of his first child, Roberts was intent on revenge. He stormed into the Amish school and shot all ten of the girls, killing five of them. Then he killed himself.
This tragic event put a spotlight on a community of people who shun publicity and intentionally distance themselves from worldly influences. The Amish are known for gentleness and simplicity. But it was their reaction to this tragedy that revealed the depth of their grace and the power of forgiveness. In the midst of their grief, the Amish community did not cast blame or express a desire for revenge. Instead, they reached out to the killer's family with compassion. They attended his funeral. They showed love and forgiveness.
What can we learn from the Amish and their way of life?
The shooting tragedy and its aftermath poignantly demonstrates the profound healing power of forgiveness. For a few weeks during this event, we were all Amish as we grieved with them and stood in awe of their grace and dignity. But in our everyday lives , we are clearly so different from this quiet community of simple and spiritual people.
While our lives are full of distractions, material things, technology, and endless sources of entertainment, the Amish seek to separate from the world and anything that would be a distraction from God, community and family life. The Amish don't separate out of arrogance — a simple lifestyle helps them focus on what they value most. They live these values every single day in everything they do.
Here are some of the ways the Amish live and work in grace and simplicity. Perhaps there are ways to embrace some of the Amish lifestyle to create a more authentic and simple life for yourself.
The Amish have no electricity or other conveniences. Nor do they have television, computers or any other electronic media. They don't drive cars but instead use horse drawn buggies. Doing without these conveniences allows them to be independent and self-sufficient, something they highly value. It also frees them from many temptations and distractions that could undermine church and family life.
Think of all of the time you spend in your car, on the computer, or watching television. Imagine spending that time with friends and family, creating something useful, or in spiritual or intellectual pursuits.
Amish women and girls wear simple and modest dresses in a solid color with long sleeves and a full skirt. They wear a cape and apron over the dress and a small prayer cap. They never cut their hair and wear it in a bun. They wear no make-up, jewelry or other adornments. Men and boys wear dark suits with plain straight coats (no lapels). They wear solid colored shirts and suspenders, black socks and shoes, and a straw or black hat. Amish clothing is an expression of their simplicity and humility.
Consider the amount of time, money and emotional energy you spend on clothing and appearance. What would it be like to simplify your wardrobe and grooming habits?
Family is the most important social unit in Amish culture. Children are welcomed joyfully with as many as 7 to 10 children in a family. The elderly are highly respected and cared for, living with the family until they die. Family roles are traditional with the man responsible for wage-earning, discipline and spiritual direction. The woman cares for the home and children. Families spend a great deal of time together working, eating and socializing. In fact, all meals are sit-down affairs taken together as a family. Children learn specific skills from their parents and work along side them daily on the farm or in the house.
How would your family relationships change if you spent more time together, sitting down for meals and enjoying activities together in the evenings and on weekends? What would it take to create more intimate, real time with your family?
Amish communities are close-knit and social. Everyone knows each other. They worship in each other's homes. They share the joys and sorrows of life with one another in a system of support and love. This is not just a tradition, but a Biblical commandment they follow to “love thy neighbor as thyself.” Communities enjoy softball and volleyball games, picnics, reunions and camp-outs. Barn-raisings, quilting bees, group singing, and weddings are an integral part of Amish social life. Their culture and way of life supports close community interaction and simple fun, often involving nature and creativity.
Do you live within a community of supportive and loving friends and neighbors? Are you available to one another in the good times and bad? Do you socialize regularly in ways that foster close relationships?
The Amish are Anabaptists, a Christian theological movement that grew out of the 16th Century Protestant Reformation. Pacifism and forgiveness are core to their culture and belief system. They do not believe in using guns against humans, even in self-defense. The forgiveness and compassion the Amish displayed in the aftermath of the shooting might seem incomprehensible to most of us. For the Amish, forgiving is a way of giving up bitterness. As one Amish man suggests, “The acid of hate destroys the container that holds it.”
Are you holding on to bitterness in the container of your own life? How would it feel to simply let it go, to move past anger and hurt? How could you begin to find the peace of forgiveness and view your enemy with compassion?
Living a life of grace and simplicity doesn't require that you become Amish or give up all of the trappings of modern life. But perhaps these simple, plain people have much to teach us about living authentically. To embrace simplicity, to foster relationships, to love the land, to live in grace, and to offer compassion and forgiveness — these are the virtues that truly make us free and joyful.
Editor's Note: October 2 marks the four year anniversary of the Amish School shooting. On October 13, 2006 the family of Charles Roberts released the following statement thanking their Amish neighbors and the Lancaster community:
From the Roberts family:
To our Amish friends, neighbors, and local community:
Our family wants each of you to know that we are overwhelmed by the forgiveness, grace, and mercy that you’ve extended to us. Your love for our family has helped to provide the healing we so desperately need. The prayers, flowers, cards, and gifts you’ve given have touched our hearts in a way no words can describe. Your compassion has reached beyond our family, beyond our community, and is changing our world, and for this we sincerely thank you.
Please know that our hearts have been broken by all that has happened. We are filled with sorrow for all of our Amish neighbors whom we have loved and continue to love. We know that there are many hard days ahead for all the families who lost loved ones, and so we will continue to put our hope and trust in the God of all comfort, as we all seek to rebuild our lives.
Cards and letters of condolences can be sent to Bart Twp. Fire Company, P.O. Box 72, 11 Furnace Road, Bart, PA 17503.
Donations for the Nickel Mines Children's Funds and the Roberts Family Fund can be sent to Coatesville Savings Bank, 1082 Georgetown Road, Paradise, PA 17562.
The Nickel Mines School Victims Fund has been established by Hometown Heritage Bank. Contributions can be sent to the bank at 100 Historic Drive, P.O. Box 337, Strasburg, PA 17579.