This is the story of our visit with our new friend Terri Roberts. She has graciously allowed us to share it in our next book – “Someone To Tell It To: Moved with Compassion”. Hers is an inspirational story of grace and redemption. We encourage you to pruchace her recently published book – “Forgiven: the Amish School Shooting, A Mother’s Love, and a Story of Remarkable Grace”.
“On October 2, 2006, my firstborn child, whom I’d cradled in my arms, overseen his first steps, taught to love and serve God, watched grow into a gentle, hard-working man, a loving husband and father – this beloved son walked into an Amish schoolhouse with an arsenal of guns. Before it was over, five precious young girls were dead, five more were seriously injured, and my son had taken his own life.
“Suddenly I had a new identity: the mother of the Amish schoolhouse shooter. I cannot describe my devastation, the gut-wrenching pain, the nights of anguish. All those sweet young lives, families, our own family – changed forever because of a single senseless act of evil and rage committed by my own dear son.
“I would survive this tsunami.”
The scene was bucolic. The small white frame schoolhouse. The white (picket) board fence surrounding it. The Amish children playing in the yard. As it came into view, the significance of our visit really hit us.
A half-mile beyond was her home, with its pastoral setting and view.
En route, we passed the ubiquitous souvenir shops and Pennsylvania Dutch restaurants, the horses and buggies and Amish boys on bikes that share the highways with tractor-trailers and SUV’s and countless Amish farms and the acres and acres of fields surrounding them. Even in winter’s starkness, the trees bare, the fields barren and snow from a recent record storm remaining where the sun is slowest to penetrate, the vista was beautiful. Peaceful. Calm. Iconic.
How could such a place hold the memory of such a painful day?
Her smile and warm greeting made us instantly feel as if we were in the company of an old friend, our spirits connecting on a deeper level than would be expected for someone we were meeting for the very first time. She welcomed us into her beautiful sunroom and offered us hot cups of tea.
“This is where I spend most of my time. It’s my refuge. I love it so much.”
Above the door to the room there hung a large wooden plaque that read:
It is well with my soul.
Windows on three sides framed the countryside beyond them – a neighboring Amish farm, a row of evergreen trees, the multiple bird feeders providing sustenance during the fallow winter months. The walls’ yellow color provided a constant reminder of the sun on sunless days. A cushioned window seat held her laptop, a lifeline to the world, especially to the communities of people with whom she shares a uniquely awful kind of pain. On the seat were a few stacks of books, including the two we had recently sent her – a cancer devotional written by Michael and our first book together, Someone To Tell It To: Sharing Life’s Journey.
We commented on the comfort and beauty of the sunroom.
“Do you know how we got it? Three days after the shooting, an Amish builder came to visit us. Previously, we had talked with him about adding it on to the back of the house; I’d always wanted one. But the expense was more than I thought we could handle, especially because we had already designated our savings for the Christmas Disney Cruise the family would take to give the children a new focus for such a major holiday.
About five or six weeks later he asked if I still wanted the sunroom to be built. I couldn’t believe it. When I told him that building it probably wasn’t the best thing to do, especially in light of the expense and what had just happened, he responded ‘You need this.’
“So, he they came and built it! We paid for some of the cost. But a large portion of it was a gift. Can you believe that graciousness? We’ve been blessed with generous spirits such as his throughout these last nine years. The Amish community has been simply incredible.”
“Your story – and the Amish response within it – inspires us so much”, we replied.
A few weeks before, we had heard her on a radio interview. She talked about her book, Forgiven: the Amish School Shooting, A Mother’s Love, and a Story of Remarkable Grace and about the metastatic stage four cancer she was living with. Her extraordinary story is powerful, hard to shake – both in its pathos and in its redemption.
We reached out after the interview and asked if we could meet. We knew instantly when we had heard her that we shared a strong and common bond – a belief in the absolute importance of taking our brokenness and wounds and allowing them to be used as a source of hope and healing for others. She is doing that through the horrific events surrounding the loss of her son and through the cancer that challenges her physically, emotionally and spiritually every single day, including the day of our visit. She agreed, noting that depending on her strength on the day of our scheduled meeting, she may have to postpone our time together. Thankfully, in spite of her pain that morning, she was still able and willing to meet. We were exceedingly grateful for her graciousness and generosity of time and spirit.
In talks to groups and media interviews, including in a TEDx talk to prisoners at Pittsburgh (PA) State Prison, she shares about the two gifts that were given to her husband and her that day. Among the many family members and friends who flooded their home to offer consolation, the first gift was their neighbor Henry, an Amish man. After massaging Chuck’s slumped shoulders, Henry spoke to him,
“Roberts, we love you. We don’t (hold) anything against you. We forgive. We forgive your son …”
That unexpected, amazing grace helped her husband and her to realize that very day they would heal. The second gift was a counselor, named Betsy, whom they had never met before, who came to their house along with a pastor. Betsy asked her if she had good memories of the almost 33 years they had together. Of course, in spite of the horrific events of that day, she did have many good memories. Betsy encouraged her to think about those memories, to take her mind back to the wonderful memories of her son Charlie. She reminded her that whatever our worst day might be, that day is not our whole life. It is simply one moment of our life. That insight helped her so much, she recalls. She believes that God gave them Henry and Betsy on that very first day to give them hope for all the difficult and confusing days to come.
It was absolutely the darkest day of her life. She cried out to God that night in bed.
“This is so awful.” It’s as bad as it gets.”
Never had she heard of a crime worse than what her son committed that day. She prayed to be given a way to use that day for God’s glory, for her son’s actions to be redeemed. She remembers that prayer, her request, every day now as she strives to redeem(s)the pain and the horror.
She told us about one of her surviving sons – Zach – who declared on the night of his brother’s death,
“I will not be coming to my brother’s funeral. I hate him for what he has done. I will not honor him by being there.”
She knew that Zach would regret it some day, his refusal to come to his brother’s funeral. In the days that followed, she asked every one who came into their home to pray for a “heart change” for Zach. One of their Amish friends (the builder) asked what he could do for them; she asked him to pray, as well.
“Can I give him a call, too?”
He didn’t get to talk with Zach directly when he called. He left a message on Zach’s answering machine. Whatever the message said, it changed Zach’s heart. The day before his brother’s funeral, he called to say when he could be picked up from the local train station. That change of heart was another gift to their family.
Many more gifts came the next day. At her son’s grave, as he was laid to rest, 30 – 40 Amish people attended the service. They formed a protective barrier around her family, shielding them from the cameras of the news reporters out on the road at the edge of the cemetery. They offered the gift of their presence and of privacy, to give her terribly shattered family some peace in that final moment with her son. Following the committal, the first to greet and embrace Chuck and her were the parents who had two young daughters die at hand of their son. Another moment of amazing, remarkable grace.
“Forgiveness is a choice we make”, is the mantra she tells us and every other audience to which she speaks. “It is not a feeling. It is not an emotion. It is a daily, conscious, intentional choice. Once the choice is made the feelings and emotions will follow.”
Even the Amish community admits that forgiveness is not an easy choice. They too acknowledge that a decision has to be made every day to do it. “Forgive and you will be forgiven”. These words of Jesus, in Luke 6, compel them to obey.
Theirs is an example for all of us to follow.
Five young girls died that terrible day. Five more received injuries that have taken years of healing, healing that still continues. One of those girls, the most severely injured, Rosanna, is 15 years old as we write this. She is nourished by a feeding tube and is dependent on a wheelchair. Rosanna cannot talk, but is able to make sounds that can be interpreted and understood. Rosanna’s family has welcomed Terri into their home to help care for and encourage Rosanna. For years Terri had spent every Thursday evening with her. Now to conserve her strength because of the cancer she lives with, Terri must limited her visits to every other Thursday night.
The first few visits left Terri “an emotional basket case”. After them she pleaded with God,
“Okay. If you want me to do this you need to be my strength.”
The visits got easier. Today, Rosanna and Terri are intimate friends. Terri is utterly thankful for this gift. She is thankful for Rosanna’s family and the community that has embraced her and her family. Their relationship is one of the most fulfilling relationships of Terri’s life and the most endearing one to emerge from “The Happening”, as the Amish community calls that fateful, terrible October 2006 day.
“Now she comes and visits me”.
The tears in her eyes and the catch in her voice as she shares about their special relationship touched our hearts. It was powerful.
We asked her if she and her family have received many hateful, harsh expressions from others about that day. She said, very few. Nearly all of the things others have said to them have been supportive, kind, gracious. We wondered why does she think that is?
“It was the Amish community’s response” she replied without hesitation. “Forgiveness frees us. Their forgiveness freed others to let go of the destructive anger, bitterness and condemnation. It freed us too.”
In interviews she says that her son built a prison in his mind.
“Any prison in our mind is worse than any cancer. It’s worse than any walls we can live in. We do not need to allow these things to bind and blind us.”
She described very openly for us the events of the day that dramatically changed her life forever. How she heard the news. How she fell to the ground in a fetal position, wailing in utter horror, anguish and disbelief in her son’s yard, feeling as if everything inside of her would be expelled. How the Amish community responded with an unearthly word of forgiveness. How her relationship with that community has only deepened and grown throughout the last near decade. How she has traveled to other places of horror and anguish to meet with other mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters and children and friends in places that have become all too much a part of the American, and the world’s, lexicon – places such as Sandy Hook and Aurora, along with many others.
Both she and her husband Chuck immediately thought they would have to move away. Amish farms and families surrounded their home. They thought that they could never face those neighbors again. But that never needed to happen. The community surrounding them made that unnecessary. So did the faith they hold dear, which helps them to be grateful and to seek joy.
She chooses every day to seek joy in the midst of her trials. While “The Happening” was the worst thing that has ever come to her life, she is a survivor. It was a tsunami of incredible force. Yet she knows that it’s not the only event in her life, not the final word, not the sum of her experiences.
“There are so many things in life that tear us apart. Where do we choose to forgive and bring even our enemies into our lives? That choice is a gift.”
Terri Roberts feels it’s more important than ever to share her story of loss and forgiveness … and of finding joy amid the sorrow.
“To my dying day,” she said, “I will keep telling this story.”
As we prepared to leave that morning, she gave both of us both a copy of her book, first signing it and inscribing it with a reference to this beautiful and poetic biblical passage, Philippians 4: 6 – 9:
Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. (NRSV)
Those ancient words define her life. We expect they always have. But never more so than since “The Happening”. Terri Roberts impressed us deeply. Her spirit of graciousness and gratitude, of forgiveness and joy no matter what the circumstances, is a spirit we pray will continually grow in our lives. It is this spirit that we strive to share with the world. For it’s what the world needs to rise above the challenges of our days.