WRIGHTSDALE, Pa. (BP)–A Baptist church in the heart of Pennsylvania Amish country moved ahead with celebrating the start of construction of a new worship center Oct. 9 -– sobered, however, by the murder of five young Amish girls in a one-room school 21 miles away.
“Life has to go on,” Dave Pope, pastor of Wrightsdale Baptist Church, said. “We are all still mourning this in our own way. It is so recent and happened so close,” he said, shaking his head as he unlocked the doors and entered the church at daybreak on Sunday.
“But we have a program to keep to, with a four-day revival starting today and the celebration of the new construction planned this morning,” Pope said, as he climbed a flight of steps and turned the lights on in the sanctuary. “You know, maybe in some way, having all this to do is a good thing. Maybe that will help keep our minds off the tragedy and instead concentrate on the future.”
The sermon this Sunday, by North Carolina-based evangelist Royce Williams, appropriately dealt with how Christ calls Christians to deepen their faith and trust in Him in good times and bad.
Wrightsdale Baptist, the oldest Southern Baptist church in Pennsylvania, is nestled amid several large Amish dairy farms some 20 miles south of Lancaster in southeastern Pennsylvania.
Despite the festivities scheduled for the day, various Wrightsdale Baptist members clutched tissues and fought back their tears.
Kelli Brandenberger, who grew up in the area, wiped tears from her eyes while eating a piece of cake at the celebration of the church’s new construction project.
“I fear that this sort of thing could happen to our children. This whole thing scares me,” she confided as her two children, ages 4 and 5, played with their father in the church gymnasium.
“I thank God the shooter did not have time to carry out all of his plans,” Brandenberger said, shivering a bit as she contemplated the thought. According to various news reports, authorities believed the killer intended to sexually molest the girls in the tiny Nickel Mines community but was thwarted when police arrived at the schoolhouse.
Brandenberger’s concern was shared by many in the congregation. Several members said they still have not been able to absorb how such a violent act was perpetrated in this rural farm setting of rolling hills where news of murders and mayhem usually are distant reports from major cities.
“This just doesn’t happen here,” John Hardy said as he stood on the front steps of the church and watched an Amish buggy pass by, the horse’s hooves pounding a rhythmic clip-clop on the road. “This sort of thing tries your faith, it really does. But hopefully in the end it also drives you closer to Jesus.”
Several Wrightsdale members agreed that the killings by area resident Charles C. Roberts IV was having the same effect. Roberts, who delivered milk to the families of those he killed, shot 10 girls -— ages 6 to 13 -— killing five of them and then committing suicide as police arrived.
“The Amish are such peaceful people. They don’t harm anyone,” Wrightsdale deacon chairman Keith Brown said. “For this to happen to them really makes you think about the frailty of life.”
Brown and other parishioners expressed amazement that the families of the slain and wounded Amish children already had reached out to Roberts’ family to let them know they do not blame them for what happened.
Former Wrightsdale pastor Terry Douglas, on hand Sunday to help celebrate the start of construction, said that “the public as a whole, here and all around the world, learned a lot from the Amish in the area of forgiveness this week.”
Douglas said the grandfather of one of the little girls killed visited the shooter’s family the next morning to pray with them and let them know the Amish community was not holding a grudge and would not seek revenge.
Mike Stike, operations manager for Lancaster Christian radio station WDAC-FM, said the local evangelical community was deeply touched by the Amish leaders’ immediate expressions of forgiveness.
“We’ve had callers all week praising God that the Amish have been such good witnesses in this time of tragedy,” Stike said. “If there is any good to come of this, it is that they were able to show the world that they practice what they preach -– forgiveness.”
Stike said several area churches immediately opened their doors and organized prayer vigils the night of the shootings, and an impromptu concert was held at the Worship Center, a Lancaster church, the day after the killings when Michael W. Smith came into Lancaster while campaigning for U.S. Senator Rick Santorum.
“The Worship Center normally holds 1,100, but this was a standing-room-only crowd that gathered with virtually no notice, to pray and sing and reflect on what happened,” Stike said. “It was amazing.”
Wrightsdale member Scott Osborne, who works for a local feed service, said he and his coworkers were stunned when one of their Amish clients told them the victims’ families had requested that a fund be set up to help the shooter’s family. “We were really touched by that. Imagine forgiving someone that quickly and that deeply. It really made you think.”
Osborne, who said 90 percent of his clients are Amish, said now that the funerals have been held and the children buried, the Amish will put this incident behind them and would rarely talk about it again, even among themselves.
“They have a very different view of death than our society does. They are more accepting of it,” Osborne said. “Several told me at work they believe that God decided to call those little girls home and that is why this happened. They accept the fact that everything happens because He wills it. Their faith is very strong in that regard.”
But though they will put the deaths behind them, Osborne said the Amish, like some at Wrightsdale Baptist, remain concerned that such an incident could happen again.
“They don’t like all the reporters here, broadcasting videos of their simple way of life around the world. They are worried that someone could see how vulnerable they are and decide to take advantage of their situation with a copycat scenario or something,” Osborne said as he served coffee during the construction kickoff celebration.
“I guess in a way, you could say we are all worried that all this attention could expose some weakness that someone would want to try and exploit. But we have to trust in the Lord and let Him handle things. After all, He is still on the throne,” Osborne said.