October 23, 2006 12:00 PM

Six days after Charlie Roberts murdered five young Amish girls in their one-room schoolhouse, his family was still in shock. Outside his home near Nickel Mines, Pa., Lloyd Welk, the grandfather of Roberts’s wife, Marie, could only sit and stare in disbelief. “I didn’t know one person could cause so much trouble,” he says. Just then an Amish family in a horse and buggy passed by. Welk smiled and waved to them and they gave a friendly wave back, a simple act of grace that also stunned him. “The forgiving is hard for them, I’m sure,” he says. “It’s amazing how the Amish do that.”

Perhaps what’s most amazing is the heartfelt depth of that forgiveness. Who, for instance, would have imagined that victims’ families would insist on establishing a fund for the killer’s wife and three children? That’s what the Amish did, days after the massacre. Or that, according to one source, the parents of several of the murdered girls personally approached Marie Roberts to offer their forgiveness? Or that several dozen Amish people asked the Roberts family if they could attend the burial service for Charlie Roberts? John Bachman, the funeral director who handled the Roberts service, says that the killer’s widow was at first astonished by the requests but quickly gave her blessing. “I hope people understand that it truly is a miracle for anyone to feel any sense of forgiveness for this man,” says Bachman, who admits to harboring his own anger toward Roberts. “We all need to take a lesson from that.”

It’s a lesson the Amish start learning at a young age. The Reverend Robert Schenck, president of the National Clergy Council, describes visiting the home of one of the dead girls, Marian Fisher, 13, where the body was laid out for viewing. “About a dozen people were in there, including younger children,” says Rev. Schenck. “The grandfather Ruben Fisher was speaking to the children in the German dialect they use. Then he turned to me and another non-Amish visitor and said, ‘It’s very important that we teach the children not to think evil of the man who did this.'” Indeed, on the night of the killings, Ruben Fisher, who had another granddaughter, Barbie, 12, wounded in the attack, went to the Roberts home, hugged one of the killer’s young sons, and offered the Amish community’s forgiveness. “I was having a conversation with some Amish friends, and they said the Roberts family has a greater load to bear than the Amish families,” says Cathy Saunders, a nurse who was at the birth of two of the girls who were killed, “because not only must they bear grief for losing the shooter, but also the shame and guilt.”

The outpouring of sympathy and support has posed some dilemmas for the Amish. Self-sufficiency is a key aspect to their way of life. They reject any form of financial assistance, including health insurance, meaning they normally must pay for all hospital costs out of their own pockets. With donated money pouring in—$700,000 at last count—and huge bills to pay, they have decided to make an exception in this case and use the charity to cover their expenses. “They’re deeply humbled and appreciate the support people show them, including the financial gifts,” says Herman Bontrager, who has been designated a spokesman for the Amish. “They said they would be denying people the blessing that comes from giving in denying these gifts.”

The Amish elders have already decided to tear down the schoolhouse where the shootings took place, because of the painful memories. That does not mean they intend to turn away from their pacifist beliefs by taking any real measures to make the new school safer. “Security gates are antithetical to the Amish way of life,” says Bontrager, “which is to be trustworthy and to trust others.”

In the week after the killings, the Amish did get one tiny bit of good news. One of the five girls who was severely wounded was taken off life support and returned home to die, but her condition actually improved, and she went back to the hospital. (The 6-year-old girl remains in very critical condition with a wound to the head.) Meanwhile the rest of the Amish community went about the somber task of burying their dead, each girl attired in a white, handmade dress and laid out in a pine coffin. In the unshakable faith of the Amish, the dead are truly in a better place. Midwife Rita Rhodes Reed recalls visiting the family of one of the dead, 7-year-old Naomi Rose Ebersol. Though grieving, Naomi’s father, Amos, chose to focus mostly on the fact that the youngsters had not been sexually abused, as police suspect had been Roberts’s intention. “You know, it was a battle between good and evil in that school,” he said soothingly, “and good won.” Says Reed: “That’s a tremendous thing to say when you’re standing over your dead daughter and saying that good won.”

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