Perhaps one of Pennsylvania's most popular tourist attractions, however, lies just thirty minutes from our home here in York. People come from all over the country to converge on the little county of Lancaster, to see the Amish. Lancaster was one of the first places Alan and I visited when we were thinking of moving up here. It's just beautiful country, with rolling hills and winding roads. Everywhere you look, you'll see horse-drawn carriages pulling straw-hatted, suspender-wearing men with long beards. As you drive along Route 30, you pass farm after farm of these men sitting behind huge plows being pulled by a team of horses. Just outside their wrap-around porched homes stand clotheslines displaying black pants, blue shirts, simple hand-sewn dresses and white bonnets.
There are painted signs in their yards reading "Fresh Asparagus," "Home made Root Beer," or "Corn for Sale." The tiny shops along the road display handcrafted quilts and plaques with bible verses etched into them, reading, "Be still and know that I am God," and "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." I've been to Lancaster several times since we've moved here, and the more I go there, the more amazed I am that this little town is so popular. Although most cities across America are having a tough time trying to survive in today's economy, this is not the case in Lancaster. Even the non-Amish sector is thriving. The Best Westerns and Holiday Inns that boast "Just minutes from Amish Country!" are booked solid. The Amish museum and the local venders on the outskirts of the farmland are all showing profits.
Why the huge attraction, do you think? When it comes down to it, we're spending our tourist dollars to visit a tiny town and watch people in simple clothing, with simple means of transportation and farm equipment, do without. Why are we so fascinated by this? When Alan's parents visited recently, they brought along Alan's Aunt Sherry and Uncle Paul. Uncle Paul runs his own (modern) farm in Boaz, Alabama, so naturally, the first place he wanted to go was Amish Country. We all piled into the car and drove the thirty minutes to the "Simple Life." Uncle Paul watched the straw-hatted man behind the horse-drawn plow for a few seconds, then said, "You have to respect a people who shed off all the distractions of modern day and just simplify everything. But I gotta tell you, I LOVE my tractor!!"
I think that's pretty much the gist of Amish Country. It puts on display for us a whole community of people that are "doing without," "stripping away distractions," and focusing on God and family. We say, "Wow, that's awesome!" then happily climb into our gas-guzzling SUV's and hurry home to our dishwashers and Ipods and declare, "I could never live like that!" Then something happened that brought to the forefront not only the Amish way of life, but also the Amish heart, soul and immense faith.
This Friday, October 2nd, will mark the three year anniversary of the day that a thirty-two year old gunman, Charles Carl Roberts IV, burst through the doors of West Nickel Mines School in Lancaster County. Roberts took female hostages ranging in age from six to thirteen, bound their hands and feet, and eventually shot and killed five of them execution-style before turning the gun on himself. Five other shooting victims survived, although one does not have full vision in her left eye. The youngest victim, six at the time of the shooting , suffered severe brain damage and is confined to a wheelchair. Family members say she frequently smiles.
Like any school shooting, Nickel Mines School attracted intense media attention and the Amish community was immediately swarming with news vans and dramatic journalists wanting to scoop each other. None of them were prepared for what happened next.
That was when the Amish community shocked the entire world with three simple words: "We forgive him." They didn't just say the words, either, they put them into action. A Roberts family spokesperson said an Amish neighbor visited the stunned relatives just hours after the shooting and offered forgiveness. One Amish man held Roberts' sobbing father in his arms, reportedly for an hour, comforting him. They also set up a charitable fund for the shooter's family.
I'll never forget watching the coverage of that tragedy, sitting in my living room in Orlando. I remember particularly watching Matt Lauer on the Today Show doing an extended piece about the amazing "forgiveness" that occurred. Since the Amish don't do interviews, Matt had as his guests several different religious scholars. One was a rabbi, another a religion professor, the third a Christian pastor. Matt began with an exasperated shrug, and with palms up, arms out, beseeched his panel, "How are they able to forgive?" Matt told them he had children of his own, and that if that man had done this to any of THEM, he'd be wanting severe vengeance.
I'll always remember the pastor's response: "Jesus commands us to forgive, no matter what. In this case, it's very, very hard. It takes PRACTICE. This level of forgiveness requires practice. The Amish PRACTICE forgiveness very diligently." That struck such a chord with me. The Amish, despite their long beards, straw hats and while bonnets, are human, just like me. They get angry over injustice and grieve the loss of their loved ones, just like me. But they PRACTICE being what they know God wants them to be. How many times have I lost my temper and just shrugged it off, saying, "Hey, I'm Irish! We have short fuses!" It's just so easy to justify our bad behavior with excuses we claim are beyond our control. The Amish show us what frauds we all are.
And don't tell me they didn't feel intense anger and grief over the way their sweet girls were brutally taken from them. Google the press releases from that day and take a look at the grieving faces of that community. They had that entire school house completely demolished a week after the incident, they couldn't stand to have the slightest reminder of what occurred there.
There were also many "experts" who criticized the Amish for their forgiveness. They cited that to forgive when no remorse has been expressed denies the existence of evil. My response to them would be this: Apparently, at the scene of the crime that day, police reported there wasn't a chair, desk, or floorboard that wasn't splattered with the blood of those children. I don't believe anyone who saw that room that day has any doubt about the reality of evil.
So, today, in honor of the anniversary of that horrible day in my newly-adopted state, I'm re-affirming the pledge I made after watching that Matt Lauer interview in 2006. I'm going to practice being better. I'm going to practice being less selfish and more caring. I'm going to loosen my grip a little on the "hating of my enemies" I've been enjoying so much. It's going to take work, I know. But, the truth is, the Amish have called my bluff. They look at me with five little child-sized white bonnets in their hands and say, "It can be done."
Thanks for reading!!