TOMORROW MARKS TEN years since the West Nickel Mines massacre in southern Pennsylvania. It’s painful to fathom, and many find that tragedy particularly striking. It happened in a one-room schoolhouse in the Old Order Amish community of Lancaster County on October 2nd, 2006. The disturbed gunman hugged his wife and three kids after breakfast that morning. Then, masquerading as a repairman, petitioned boys at the school to help unload supplies from his truck before dismissing them at gunpoint. In the scuttle a mother and daughter fled to a neighbor’s farm for help. They called 9-1-1 and the farmer doubled-out to the road to wave down police.
Within half an hour
the gunman shot eight schoolgirls
aged six to thirteen
then turned the gun on himself.
Five girls died.
Healing is ongoing there and our news feeds are ever saturated with equally horrible atrocities, before and since. It’s all but devastating. Surrounding that Amish heartbreak, it was the community’s response that was particularly moving. You may recall their affection,
A grandfather warned his young relatives not to hate the killer, saying, “We mustn’t think evil of this man.”
A father added, “He had a mother, a wife, and a soul, and now he’s standing before a just God.”
An elder Brother said, “I don’t think there’s anybody here that wants to do anything but forgive, and not only reach out to those who suffered loss, but reach out to the family of the man who committed these acts.”
Within an hour, community members visited the shooter’s widow, parents, and in-laws. Despite their own raw grief, they leaned into that difficult situation to offer real tangible forgiveness, shielding the wife from media glare during the funeral, comforting the shooter’s parents as they sobbed for over an hour, and started a charitable fund for the assailant’s family.
Amish fathers razed the school building ten days later, plowing its remnants into the earth, leaving it a quiet pasture for wildflowers.
Six months later they opened a different school nearby called, A New Hope.
Perhaps we’d detect a similar spirit if we zoomed into the human level of other calamitous tragedies.
ONE YEAR AGO, a kindred sentiment was evoked at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC. On July 15th in 2015, thirteen churchgoers welcomed a visitor to their Wednesday night bible study. The guest grew aggravated, brandished a gun, defied pleas to change his mind, and shot 10 parishioners close range, aged 26 to 87. Eight died at the scene and another passed away at the hospital. At the shooter’s bond hearing, family members stood one-by-one to offer heart-stricken words, trying to breathe life into the situation as best they could muster with help. Some of their consolations were,
“I acknowledge that I’m very angry,” said the sister of DePayne Middleton-Doctor, “but one thing DePayne always enjoined … is she taught me we’re the family that love built. We have no room for hating so we have to forgive. I pray God on your soul.”
Felicia Sanders survived that night, but lost her son who dove for the gun to protect the others. “We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with welcome arms,” Felicia said, her voice trembling. “Tywanza Sanders was my son. But Tywanza Sanders was my hero. Tywanza was my hero. May God have mercy on you.”
“I forgive you,” said Nadine Collier, daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance, her voice breaking with emotion. “You took something very precious from me. I’ll never talk to her again. I’ll never hold her again. But I forgive you … have mercy on your soul.”
Gardening with Guns
As a restorative ministry, Plough recently shared news about an intriguing young Mennonite blacksmith from Colorado Springs, CO who started a brilliant movement called RAWtools. Their mission is, “Disarming Hearts, Forging Peace.” Using fire and anvil, they turn firearms into garden tools. When they work with weapons confiscated from criminals, used in calamity (like homicide, accidents, and suicide), or when grieving survivors participate, the healing magnifies.
Brother Mike Martin said the idea was planted during the 2009 christening of the USS New York. It’s a state-of-the-art naval transport with a bow stern made of re-purposed steel from the World Trade Center. Watching the news, Martin said these ideas cycled through his mind,
- “Notice how they bring Christ into it,” followed by thoughts about
- “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks” from Isaiah 2:4, and
- Micah, echoing Isaiah, who adds, “… and they shall all sit under their own vines, fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid,” from Chapter 4.
After the rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary, Martin couldn’t ignore the call to act. His wife suggested, “Why don’t you call it RAWtools. You get RAW when you turn WAR around.” Since then the Martins have worked with,
- A mother who lost her son to stray bullets at a movie theater in Philadelphia. Tears streamed down her face as she forcefully hammered the gun’s red-hot metal, declaring, “This – is – for – my – son”
- Survivors of the 2007 New Life Fellowship shooting in Colorado Springs
- A suicidal vet saved by a random note from a random stranger
- Soldiers living with PTSD
- Native American youth in Albuquerque as a preventative outreach to at-risk teens
- and Terri Roberts, mother of the West Nickel Mines shooter. Terri’s developing an ongoing relationship with the Amish and especially Rosanna, who still uses a wheelchair and eats through a feeding tube. Terri helps Rosanna bathe, reads, and sings to her. Spending that time together helps them both heal. She’s comforted to know that violence – and the damage her son caused – will not have the final word.
RAWtools provides the history for each tilling claw, pick, and shovel, and shares stories of their new garden homes and harvests at their blog on-line. In this video, they share their Vision,
We re-purpose weapons into hand tools
to be used in the creation of something new
preventing the weapon’s use for violence
and creating a cycle of peace.
Bringing it Home
Nickel, as in West Nickel Mines, is an alloying metal that strengthens steel. Adding the smallest amount makes it corrosion resistant. Adding more makes it stainless. Humans officially discovered these properties recently, but some meteorites exhibit desirable chemistry naturally, so blacksmiths and artisans have inadvertently applied this knowledge for 5,000 years. The word nickel is borrowed from nike in the Greek language. Nike means victory, and is related to an equally old Egyptian glyph, nht, that also means strong or champion. Both metal and coin played a gracefully ordinary role in America’s revitalization after the Civil War, saving our nation from economic collapse. It was three cents then. To add, the name Nicholas means victory of the people — and some people even grow nickel beans in victory gardens.
“faith the size of a mustard seed” – Luke 17:6
Acoustic: 21 Guns
Artist: Green Day, 21st Century Breakdown (2009)
“I took some sense and made a nickel of it” – Drake