On Oct. 2, 2006, a troubled truck driver named Charlie Roberts walked into a one-room schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, shot 10 Amish girls, killing five and wounding five, then turned the gun on himself.
More than a decade later, people still struggle to understand what Roberts did; they also continue to grapple with the Amish response: nearly immediate forgiveness.
The Amish Project is a fictional account of the tragedy that occurred that day in Lancaster County, but with purposeful focus on the ensuing circumstances, including the community’s reconciliation.
“I’m sure you’ll also spend a lot of time learning about what happened here this week, but I hope you’ll look for more than that. There is more to Here than what happened on October 2nd.” — The Amish Project
“When I first read this play three years ago, I knew that it was a play I would like to do,” said Debra Freeberg, Calvin communication arts and sciences professor. “It is my earnest desire to build diversity into the Calvin Theatre Company, to share stories of communities that are not as familiar to us—like the Amish.
“This play felt like it should be the cornerstone of this year’s season, which has love and forgiveness as the theme.”
But because the mission of Calvin Theatre Company is educational and the subject matter of the play is complex, Freeberg considered if there was a way to delve deeper.
“The Amish were criticized for having ‘cheap forgiveness,’” she said. “People from other cultures said you had to emotionally feel forgiveness, but for the Amish, forgiveness is embedded in their culture. It is such a cornerstone of their faith. They rest in knowing that whatever happens is God’s will, so they practice ‘intentional forgiveness.’ They decide to forgive.”
“We hope that by gathering here together in this private way, and talking a little bit about the Amish and their uh, culture… it’ll answer some of your questions, like how could the Amish forgive such a thing?”
Because forgiveness is multifaceted and complicated, Freeberg decided to teach a class that helped provide context to “the happening” (as the Amish refer to the tragedy), the Amish culture, and the meaning of forgiveness.
During interim, students read about the horrific historical event, studied the Amish religion and the Christian practice of forgiveness, and reflected on their own struggles with the concept of forgiveness.
“The whole notion of forgiveness is so hard, yet without forgiveness we have the unending cycle of violence and brokenness and chaos,” said Freeberg.
“This just in: The Amish request that the medical condition of the remaining girls be withheld. They extend forgiveness to the gunman. They extend condolences to the gunman’s family.”
EMPATHY AND COMPASSION
Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet ’91, a psychology professor and widely renowned expert on the subject of forgiveness, spoke to the class about the challenging topic: “Within hours after the tragedy, the Amish communicated forgiveness. In a situation where forgiveness seems almost impossible, how is that possible?”
Witvliet went on to explain that there are different kinds of forgiveness: decisional and emotional. “Decisional forgiveness is the commitment not to hold grudges or seek revenge,” she said. “Emotional forgiveness is heartfelt change, where negative responses towards the wrongdoer are supplanted by desire for positive change.
“Empathy is the hub of the forgiveness wheel…. Compassion matters. If we focus on the humanity of the offender, we can begin to see the offense as evidence that transformation is needed and desire that good change in the offender.”
“But all Amish do have a basic code of living, and they call that the Ordnung. And the basic foundation of the Ordnung can best be summed up by the Pennsylvania Dutch word Uffgeva, to give up. See, the Amish give up their individual needs to the community. This is their joy.”
Students in the class were affected by what they learned.
“One of the main points of the class was reflecting on past experiences with people,” said first-year student Mable Uhl ’21. “Now I see what I’ve done wrong in past conflicts. Going forward, I will think more deeply about conflicts. Seeing the person as human rather than the enemy, that is something that has influenced me.”
“We did a lot of talking about empathy as an important way to get over your anger and how it helps in being able to forgive,” added first-year student Olivia Richards ’21. “Forgiveness is one of the most difficult things you can do, but now it might be a little easier in the future.”
Beyond the classroom, the students challenged audience members to think deeply through the culmination of the class: the production of The Amish Project.
“One of my favorite things about plays is that it is a group of artists inviting audience members to have this once-in-a-lifetime experience together—it is a collective experience,” said Emily Wetzel ’15, the play’s director. “Theater asks a person to be present. This play does that: It asks a person to be present and to be part of the conversation.”
“Many of my students have been asking how could the Amish forgive such a thing? And yes—of course—yes and why. Why would someone do this? Why would…. But the Amish believe—and please—this is very important—that there is no why.”
“The message here [in this play] is that forgiveness is just a step,” said senior Ben Henson ’18. “Every character experiences the hurt and loss brought on by this person, and they forgive by recognizing the humanness of him and the humanness of those that experienced that injury. All of this is a very human experience.”
And for those taking on the roles in this provocative play, the experience was deeply personal. “This is the hardest I’ve worked; it’s the role I’ve thought the most about,” said sophomore Lexi Viegas ’20, who played the gunman’s wife. “Throughout the play, she is really questioning God. She learns to forgive herself and her husband, and she’s forgiven. It’s such a transformation.”
“They keep deferring to me, to my grief. I wanted to say stop. Stop. They talk so slowly and so quietly. I kind of like that. Like being read to sleep or something.”
For junior Nathan Meyer ‘19, who played the shooter, the role was unsettling. “One thing I know right away was that I didn’t want to treat it like the usual killer role,” he said. “There can be this darkness in anyone.
“I wanted to get the audience to forget that he did it, that he should really be humanized, and yet, I didn’t want to lessen the act either. Humanizing him has this inverse effect on what happened. It’s definitely really heavy.”
“Eddie wasn’t a bad guy. He just couldn’t keep his darkness down anymore, and it ate him up…. And you can pull your hat down and say that’s Evil, but the reality is that’s all of us. That’s the world.”
“I already realized it’s the most important performance I’ve ever been in,” said Meyer. “It’s so important. It opens up conversations. It really challenges people to talk and think about it. In the end everyone has changed, and yet nothing has been undone.
“The biggest thing I learned is that grace is not an antidote. It is the solution, yes, but it’s not like a pill that you take. We tend to market grace like a blanket to put over it, but grace and grief can be a combined process.
“We see the Amish move on. They move on changed, but the healing has not necessarily happened. This class left a mark on me and made meaningful change for me.”
“There is something about them—something that unsettles you…. It doesn’t matter what your faith is or even if you have one. Something about them makes you wonder what am I? Could I be more?