“For King, forgiveness has not come easy. Some parents have mourned the death of their daughters. Others have seen their daughters fully heal. His daughter survived, but he also lost her.
Every day, he fights back his anger. Every day, he has to forgive again.”
A single word in black cursive font hangs above a large double-pane window in Terri Roberts’s sun room. It says “Forgiven.”
The word — and the room itself, a gift built by her Amish neighbors just months after the unimaginable occurred — is a daily reminder of all that she’s lost and all that she’s gained these past 10 years.
The simple, quiet rural life she knew shattered on Oct. 2, 2006, when her oldest son, Charles Carl Roberts IV, walked into a one-room Amish schoolhouse on a clear, unseasonably warm Monday morning. The 32-year-old husband and father of three young children ordered the boys and adults to leave, tied up 10 little girls between the ages of 6 and 13 and shot them, killing five and injuring the others, before killing himself.
Terri Roberts’s husband thought they’d have to move far away. He knew what people thought of parents of mass murderers. He believed they would be ostracized in their community, blamed for not knowing the evil their child was capable of.
But in the hours after the massacre, as Amish parents still waited in a nearby barn for word about whether their daughters had survived, an Amish man named Henry arrived at the Robertses’ home with a message: The families did not see the couple as an enemy. Rather, they saw them as parents who were grieving the loss of their child, too. Henry put his hand on the shoulder of Terri Roberts’s husband and called him a friend.
The world watched in amazement as, on the day of their son’s funeral, nearly 30 Amish men and women, some the parents of the victims, came to the cemetery and formed a wall to block out media cameras. Parents, whose daughters had died at the hand of their son, approached the couple after the burial and offered condolences for their loss.
Then, just four weeks after the shooting, the couple was invited to meet with all the families in a local fire hall. One mother held Roberts’s gaze as both women’s eyes blurred with tears,
she said. They were all grieving; they were all struggling to make sense of the senseless.
But the Amish did more than forgive the couple. They embraced them as part of their community. When Roberts underwent treatment for Stage 4 breast cancer in December, one of the girls who survived the massacre helped clean her home before she returned from the hospital. A large yellow bus arrived at her home around Christmas, and Amish children piled inside to sing her Christmas carols.
“The forgiveness is there; there’s no doubt they forgive,” Roberts said.
Steven Nolt, a professor of Amish studies at Elizabethtown College, said that for most people, forgiveness and acceptance come at the end of a long emotional process. But the Amish forgive first and then every day work through the emotions of it. This “decisional forgiveness” opened a space for Roberts to offer her friendship, which normally in their situation would be uncomfortable, he said.
Ten years later, the Amish families are still consciously deciding to forgive every day. About six miles from the Robertses’ home, down narrow country roads lined with cornstalks and rolling crop fields, the small village of Nickel Mines is visually unchanged, except that where there was once a schoolhouse by the road, there is now just overgrown grass. Many of the school-age children were not yet born or are too young to remember.
But it’s impossible to forget. In one home, a 16-year-old girl sits immobile in her wheelchair, unable to speak or feed herself. Nearby, a 23-year-old man sits at his kitchen table, also struggling to speak, though for him it’s not because he isn’t physically able. He just can’t find the words to express the emotional pain he’s felt every day for the past 10 years.
Rosanna King was among the youngest in her class that day: She was 6. Aaron Esh Jr., then 13, was the oldest.
Roberts has developed bonds with both of them.