Amish aren't alone in mourning children's violent deaths

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NICKEL MINES, Pa. -- A large crowd of Amish converged last evening at a family farm to mourn the loss of five schoolgirls and to pray for five others fighting for their lives.

All were victims of gunman Charles Carl Roberts IV who Monday lined them up against the chalkboard and shot them in their one-room schoolhouse, less than a half-mile away.

Mourners arrived with pots of mums, boxes of food and heavy hearts.

Meanwhile, 15 miles away in the Lancaster County community of Leola, some 1,600 worshippers, mostly non-Amish, held their own service, one so tearful that mourners ravaged the tissue boxes church ushers offered them as they exited.

The service was alternately emotional and uplifting, people said as they left The Worship Center, a nondenominational church, where they heard contemporary Christian singer Michael W. Smith do traditional favorites such as "Amazing Grace" and an original, "This Is Your Time," written in memory of the victims of the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado in 1999.

"This was her time. This was her chance. She lived every moment, left nothing to chance," he sang.

Worshippers dabbed at tears as Mr. Smith incorporated the names of the Amish children who were killed: 7-year-old Naomi Rose Ebersole, 12-year-old Anna Mae Stoltzfus, 13-year-old Marian Fisher and sisters 8-year-old Mae Liz Miller and 7-year-old Lena Miller.

"We needed to pray and to have people come together," said Pastor Sam Smucker, who used to be Amish. "This is a place where we could put our arms around each other and ask God to put his arms around all of us."

The Amish are resilient and come ready to comfort, pray and feed each other, even during lesser tragedies.

"They come together. If your barn burns down, two days later you have a whole new barn," he said. "It's amazing."

It will take more, much more, to rebuild the lives Mr. Roberts destroyed, Mr. Smucker said.

They've begun by returning to one of their core pillars: forgiveness.

A family of one victim -- Mr. Smucker would not say which one -- visited the Roberts family today.

"They just knocked on the door and said, 'We forgive you,' " Mr. Smucker said.

Earlier yesterday, Amish and English converged for a biweekly farmers market in downtown Lancaster, 15 miles from Nickel Mines.

The bustle of the market was more subdued that usual, buyers and sellers said. Normally, they said, voices echo in the cavernous Renaissance revival building that resembles a church.

Instead, the English spoke of Monday's horrors and the Amish spoke of compassion.

"We want to pray for [the Roberts family]," said 16-year-old Barbie Stoltzfus, as she sold tomatoes and spinach at the market. She is not related to Anna Mae Stoltzfus. "It will take a while, but we want to forgive. It sounds like it was a nice, loving family but something was wrong with the guy. It is hard for us to believe he could do this."

Shoppers, at times, were overcome with emotion upon seeing strangers in familiar Amish bonnets selling their wares.

"We have a lot of caring people. I had a customer a couple minutes ago crying her heart out saying, 'I am so sorry. I am so sorry. I wish there was something I could do,' " said Anna King, a 76-year-old Amish woman who works for S. Clyde Weaver Smoked Meats and Cheese.

"People look at it and think, 'It could have been our children.' It could have been anyone's," said Mrs. King.

Nearby, Bob Meck, owner of a fruit stand, wondered if the two Amish boys who work for him were related to the Miller sisters, who died in the shootings.

The boys have cell phones, but Mr. Meck was reluctant to call, partly out of respect for families that might be grieving and partly because he wasn't sure he wanted to know.

"I feel so bad. It's just unbelievable," Mr. Meck said as he bagged heads of lettuce for a customer. "Everyone here is upset. The market isn't the same today."

It wasn't the same anywhere in Lancaster County, said customer Judy McMichael, 53, of Lampeter.

At her morning exercise class, her instructor, who also teaches farm safety and knew some of the victims, broke down sobbing.

"This thing has affected absolutely everybody," Ms. McMichael said.

If there is any good to come of the shootings, it was the chance for the English to show compassion to the Amish, who seclude themselves from the outside world, she said.

"They're learning that we're all here for them, we've been here for them all along," she said. "We've always had a respect for them and we are willing to help them in anyway. Everyone is grieving with them."


Tracie Mauriello can be reached at tmauriello@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-2141.


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