The Greater Calne Chronicles: Forgiveness at Christmas

Christians of many denominations in the United States will celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ on Christmas. For many, it’s a day of joy and happiness. It’s a time of hope. It’s also a time for reflection on forgiveness.

A news article in Vatican News published on Christmas last year was entitled “Christmas: A time for Giving by Forgiving”. This news article included an audio broadcast that detailed how “During this Christmas season we consider the importance of giving by forgiving, remembering that God sent Christ, his Son, to us so that we may be forgiven.”

Roman Catholics, for example, will recite the Lord’s Prayer at Christmas masses. The same prayer is recited at every Roman Catholic mass during the year. Part of the prayer includes the wording “And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

Other religious denominations have prayers that use the same or similar language.  In some churches, for example, the wording is “Forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Other religious denominations have similar tenets of faith regarding forgiveness.

On the website of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Mr. Heber Grant is quoted in a news article from 2017 that included the subtitle “Christmas is the season to give forgiveness”. His quote included the following wording: “…There is nothing that will bring more joy to us than to be ready and willing to forgive the trespasses of our neighbors against us, and there is nothing that will bring more condemnation to us than to harden our hearts and to be bitter and vindictive in our feelings towards those by whom we are surrounded.” Mr. Grant served as President of the Church from 1918 to 1945.

Forgiveness can be difficult for many.

When forgiveness is given, in many cases that forgiveness is predicated on the person who did a wrong acknowledging that wrong and asking for forgiveness from the person who was wronged.

For some, though, forgiveness is not dependent on the person who did a wrong acknowledging that wrong or asking for forgiveness. Instead, forgiveness is given freely without condition. It’s a difficult concept for many to accept.

Simple, day-to-day activities of wrongs are hard for many to forgive – “He disrespected me.” “She cut me off in traffic.” “He took credit for my work in front of our boss.” “She embarrassed me in front of our friends.”

Happier Days - Elsie Beiler - 2006
A painting entitled “Happier Days,” created by Ms. Elsie Beiler in 2006 to highlight the joy of the children that had attended the West Nickel Mines School prior to the tragedy. There are 26 children – 11 girls and 15 boys – at play in the schoolyard; their teacher is watching from the porch of the school. Note, children’s faces are faceless to reflect Amish religious tenets. Photograph provided courtesy of Ms. Beiler.

Forgiveness in the face of evil is far more difficult for many to offer or to even understand. There have times in our country’s history when the act of forgiveness is highlighted. Not because it is common, but because it is so unusual.

Thirteen years ago, this nation witnessed such an act of forgiveness. A man walked into a school in a small village on Monday, October 2, 2006. Ten students were shot by that man. Five little girls – ages 7 to 13 years – were killed. Five other little girls – ages 6 to 13 years – were injured.

One additional girl, 15 boys, the school teacher, four other adults (one of whom was pregnant), and two infants/toddlers, survived without physical injuries by either escaping or being allowed to leave the schoolhouse.[1]

The man died by suicide. There is no need in this news column to detail the specifics of the horror of that day. Those events affected many in the local community as well as others enlisted to offer assistance – law enforcement officials, firefighters, paramedics, pilots, drivers, doctors, nurses, ordinary folk.

Many bore witness to the aftermath of that horror. While what happened was terrible, the reality is that as a nation, we’ve seen worse in the years before and in the years since. What sets apart this event is the response from the families of the children as well as the response from the local community overall.

Bart Township Panoramic View - September 9 2010 - Frank Heron - Flickr
Panoramic view of Bart Township in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
(Photograph was provided by Mr. Frank Heron through Flickr, 2010.)

Forgiveness.

The little village was Nickel Mines in Bart Township in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The school was the West Nickel Mines School, a one-room schoolhouse. The children and their families were Amish.

Most Americans have never met someone who is Amish, but many would likely recognize them by dress and by custom. The acts of forgiveness were something that Americans and people throughout the world saw on that day of horror as well as in the days afterward.

The Amish forgave the man who killed their children. They comforted his wife and the couple’s three children. They shared the resources donated by others with the family of the man who killed their children.

On Thursday, October 5th, and Friday, October 6th, funerals were held for the five Amish girls. The community enveloped the families with love and compassion. Anna Mae, Lena, Mary Liz, Marian, and Naomi Rose were laid to rest in peace at the Bart Amish Cemetery.

The five children who survived with physical injuries – Barbie, Esther, Rachel Ann, Rosanna, and Sarah Ann – as well as the other children in the school, their school teacher, the other adults, and the infants/toddlers present at the time of the event were also enveloped in that same love.

On Saturday, October 7th, Amish families joined with family and friends of the man who killed the children as that man was buried in the cemetery of Georgetown United Methodist Church in Bart Township.

The Rev. Michael Remel, then the Pastor of that church, recalled recently the love exhibited at the burial. “The Amish rose above the evil,” explained Pastor Remel. “The concept of forgiveness for the Amish is that you forgive first. With that act, the door opens to heal a relationship that is broken.”

During Sunday services on the day after that burial, Pastor Remel prayed with his congregation for “less violence, less hatred, less evil in the world.” He asked God to “let the world learn the lesson of forgiveness that came from our friends, the Amish.”

The reverend, who has been pastor of Mount Gretna United Methodist Church for the past ten years, stated that “The events of those days have had a significant impact on my ministry and on my life.”

On Monday, October 9th, church bells throughout Lancaster County rang at 10:45 AM as a symbolic note that the people of the community – the Amish and the English (the term used by the Amish to describe the non-Amish) – joined together in remembrance of the event the week before.

The Rev. Douglas Hileman, then the Pastor of Middle Octorara Presbyterian Church in Bart Township, recently explained that one of the statements heard from the Amish at that time was “We choose to forgive every day.”

Pastor Hileman and members of his congregation were among those that helped provide assistance to many in the community – both Amish and English. “We – and many other churches and organizations – helped where we could,” Pastor Hileman continued. “The world stopped for many of us. We focused on what was needed. Sometimes it was practical – driving someone to a place they needed to go. In a number of cases, it was more to listen and offer comfort.”

The minister is now the Pastor of First United Presbyterian Church in Fairbury, Nebraska. Thankfully, most of us will never have to forgive someone who kills our children or does a similar act of evil.

But the act of forgiveness by the Amish – not just in this situation, but in all situations where wrongs are committed – is something that we should all contemplate. “Forgiveness is a way of life for the Amish,” noted Mr. Herman Bontrager in a recent conversation. He is a local Mennonite leader who helped speak on behalf of the Amish following the tragedy. It’s a decision to not be held hostage to hostility.”

In a speech given in 2008, Mr. Bontrager explained that “The Amish say there is no limit to God’s forgiveness but quickly acknowledge their imperfect practice of it…The Amish understand that forgiveness is a journey, it is hard work. Several times I heard family members say, ‘Yesterday I had to start all over on forgiveness.’”

While most of us may not have the strength of faith that the Amish live by, we could strive to consider extending forgiveness first in the face of wrongs – regardless of our faith or our lack of faith. Whether you celebrate Christmas or another holiday of the season or don’t celebrate anything, take a moment to consider acts of forgiveness in your own lives.

As you do so, remember Anna Mae, Lena, Mary Liz, Marian, and Naomi Rose. Remember Barbie, Esther, Rachel Ann, Rosanna, and Sarah Ann. Remember the other children, their school teacher, the other adults, and the infants/toddlers that were also in the schoolhouse that day.

Remember the killer, his widow, and their children. Remember the people who rushed in to help, who labored to get children to medical care, who devoted their skills to help the children recover what was possible, and all the ordinary folk who cared. Remember their families and loved ones. And remember those who forgave.

[1] Note: These numbers are based on a review of various reports. The total numbers of adults and infants/toddlers may have six adults (including the school teacher) and three infants/toddlers. Thus far, the after-incident report that might clarify the specific number of people in the schoolhouse has not been located.

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Timothy Alexander
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Timothy Alexander
December 25, 2019 1:54 pm

The story of how the Amish were able to forgive and comfort the family of a murder has always amazed me.