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When asked, most people say that the worst pain imaginable is when a parent loses a child. A spouse, traumatic; a friend, sad; hunger, gruesome; death itself, sometimes unbearable " but the wrenching pain that comes from a mother outliving her child is often said to be...inconceivable.
"How do we respond when life's tragedies shatters our hearts?" Terri Roberts, the mother of Charles Carl Roberts IV, asked the audience on Friday evening, April 13. Oct. 2, 2006 is known as the day when Charles Roberts IV, 32, entered the Nickel Mines school building in Lancaster, Pa. and shot 10 Amish girls, before turning the gun on himself, leaving five dead and one severely injured.
When Roberts approached her audience at the Perry Reese Community Center at Hiland High School in Berlin, Ohio on Friday, she wasn't asking us why her heart was shattered or even how it was supposed to heal. She was inflicting to those of us who gathered the idea to how we cope with tragedy.
Almost 1,000 individuals, Amish and English, sat in the crowd to hear the story retold by Terri Roberts. On the way to Hiland High School the traffic was all headed in the same direction " to Perry Reese " to learn the truth about forgiveness.
The night began with Lisa Troyer singing "Come, Now is the Time to Worship." As the audience congregated and found their seats, Troyer told the crowd that "whenever we get to come together to talk about forgiveness, that is a time for us to worship." One by one they drew their chairs and waited in anticipation. Waited for the answer, waited for an understanding, waited for the reason as to why Charlie took innocent lives that day.
The event was sponsored both by Gospel Book Store, owned and operated by Eli Small Hostetler, and Behalt/Amish and Mennonite Heritage Center, owned and operated by Paul Miller. As Eli took the stage to begin the evening in prayer, he told the crowd of an experience he had during a visit he took to Amsterdam after the shooting in 2006. He said he had encountered a man who told him when they had heard about the events at Nickel Mines they all wanted to be Amish for a day, so they could understand forgiveness.
This is what fueled the many articles proceeding Oct. 2. They all told the story about forgiveness.
After Terri Roberts heard the sirens echo through her neighborhood, after she learned her son had been involved, after she learned he was the cause, after she learned he was dead, Roberts tried to process that it was all something Charlie was capable of. She witnessed her husband holding a dish cloth over his face, rubbing away so many tears that the skin on his forehead began to peel. She witnessed families and friends learn one by one the connection to the event, to her son, to their own child's death.
She felt her heart shatter.
"In our humanness we cannot understand all of the things that happen," Hostetler said closing the prayer before Roberts appeared on stage.
It's the true nature of this area, the Amish community that inhabits such a large portion of the state. The English view the Amish as a group that upholds their beliefs every moment of every day; they are viewed as "living saints." We live in a world of temptation " everywhere we go we find people and things that work to place distance between ourselves and God. But in an Amish community, the one true variable that always stays constant is their purity.
The attitude of the evening was solemn. Maybe because of the anticipation, maybe because of our knowledge of the history already, maybe because of the video that played capturing footage of emergency vehicles and interviews. It's a moment in history that has been marked as a tragedy. A tragedy for which one of Roberts' beloved sons was responsible.
Charlie was born to an ordinary family, his mother was employed at Sight & Sound Theatre, his father was a driver for Amish families. Charlie married and created a family of his own. But when his daughter died shortly after birth, he turned his grief into anger. Unlike the teachings of forgiveness and finding God's grace, Charlie blamed Him for unjustly taking his little girl. This is what Terri believes started the fire in her son's actions that day.
After Charlie dismissed the 15 Amish boys from the schoolhouse on Oct. 2, he tied the feet together of the 10 girls and lined them up in front of him. One by one he shot them, saying they would pay for his daughter's death. He would take the innocent, just as the innocent was taken from him.
Before reinforcements could break through, Charlie turned the gun on himself.
The darkness that evades our own minds is nothing short of a living hell. When a creation takes to the shadows and succumbs, light can rarely penetrate.
As the Roberts returned home to find solace and healing, unsure of how the journey could manifest itself in front of them, Henry " an Amish neighbor " knocked on the door.
Roberts refers to Henry as her "Angel in Black," because out of the ashes Henry brought hope to the Roberts family. As he approached Roberts' husband, Charles kept his head down and buried, not meeting Henry's eyes for nearly 45 minutes. Henry placed a hand on Charles' shoulder and said "Roberts, we love you. We don't hold this against you. We forgive.'
Out of the ashes. Hope for ahead.
On the documentary video, the voice of an Amish woman comes across and she explains what forgiveness means in her community. "You haven't forgotten what's happened," she said. "You've released unto God the person who has done this. You've given up your right to seek revenge. You're free."
As Terri Roberts stands behind the podium, she addresses the crowd with assurance, "My mind will never stop going back to that day. I will never forget. The sadness of the tragedy is not our whole life, it is just the hard parts. Recognize with them. Deal with them. Reach out."
What do we do when our lives are shattered?
Proceeds from the evenings events will be donated to the Community Therapy Barn in Lancaster, totaling $2,400.
Hostetler and Miller offer their thanks to the community of Berlin and its neighbors for traveling to witness Roberts and her "Journey Through Adversity," as the program was titled. After her battle with cancer, Roberts believed that she had already known adversity, been challenged in her faith, unknowing that the storm of Oct. 2 was still ahead.
Followed by a question and answer session, the final message for the evening was clear and defined. "His ways are not our ways," Roberts said. "We ask God to restore our joy."
The power of forgiveness became a bigger story than the tragedy itself in the days following Oct. 2, 2006. And today, through conferences like the one on April 13, articles written, novels published, the story is told again and again, not to relive the moments of sorrow, but to understand how grace can come from the depths of despair.
What do we do when our hearts are shattered? We forgive.