October 2, 2006, was the day that the world completely changed for Terri Roberts. The day before had given no indication of what was to come. She had had dinner with her son Charlie and his family, noticing nothing out of the ordinary except that her son was, “quieter than usual.”
Nothing could have prepared her for the news she received the following afternoon. Her normally safe and secure corner of Pennsylvania, home to a large Amish community, was suddenly rocked by the actions of her son, Charlie Roberts.
He had taken an Amish schoolhouse hostage, bound ten young girls, and shot them, killing five before turning the gun on himself.
After Terri and her husband Chuck returned home that night, the horror and anguish of what had happened left Terri Roberts doubting God, her son, and herself. Yet comfort was about to come to her family from the most unlikely of places.
As we sat and sobbed, I looked through our window and caught sight of a stalwart figure dressed in black. It was our neighbor Henry Stoltzfoos, whom we’d known for years. He is an Amishman, and was dressed in his formal visiting attire and wide-brimmed straw hat. Striding up to the front door, Henry knocked.
Mind you, Henry had friends and relatives whose daughters had died in that schoolhouse, at the hands of our son. Like all the Amish, he had every reason to hate us.
But as I opened the door, I saw that Henry didn’t look angry. Instead, compassion radiated from his face. Walking over to Chuck, he put one hand on his shoulder. The first words I heard him speak took my breath away: “Roberts, we love you. This was not your doing. You must not blame yourself.“
Henry Stoltzfoos went on to say that he believed the devil had used their son, and that the Amish community would forgive them.
Terri Roberts was dumbfounded. She couldn’t even find it in herself to forgive her son. How could the parents of the slain children find it in them to not only forgive her son, but her son’s entire family as well?
The Amish didn’t just tell Terri and her family they were forgiven. They showed their love in multiple ways, including giving a portion of the funds raised for the victims to Charlie’s now fatherless family.
One man who lost a daughter in the shooting even offered to violate Amish protocol and said he’d use a telephone to call Terri’s other son Zach to convince him to attend Charlie’s funeral. After receiving the call, Zach attended.
The funeral itself provided the moment Terri began to heal. After the family of a slain girl approached and said, “We are so sorry for your loss,” Terri realized that their selflessness was the example she should be following.
“Forgiveness is a choice. The Amish had made that very clear, but now I knew what it meant: Forgiveness isn’t a feeling. These sweet parents were as grief-stricken as I was, their hearts broken like mine. I did not have to stop feeling anger, hurt and utter bewilderment at the horrific decisions Charlie had made. I only had to make a choice: to forgive.”
Terri Roberts now works to spread her message of forgiveness far and wide, side by side with the Amish families who have forgiven her son.