Deep in grief, Amish strive to understand and move on

Sun reporters

Along the miles of twisting country roads that divide and unite this community, people went about their business yesterday, tending acres of corn and pumpkins, ordering meatloaf lunch specials at homey diners, and browsing knickknacks at tourist haunts.

But like most everyone living here, Sam Riehl, a sturdy Amish farmer whose dark hair refuses to be tamed under a straw hat, fought yesterday to understand Monday's schoolhouse shooting and hoped to find a way to help those it touched firsthand.

As an Amish man, he felt he knew something of the pain and the contradictions the families of the murdered little girls are battling.

"My challenge in life is to try and be peaceful," he said, gazing across his neatly tilled fields and the rows of corn drying on the husk. "I just can't imagine the chaos."

In times of grief, the Amish are supposed to turn to God and to eschew vengeful thoughts for forgiving ones. Custom encourages the Amish to dust themselves off and move on rather than steep in sadness.

But if he lost one of his girls, one of the little blondes skipping around the yard in sneakers and a black cotton frock, Riehl says he might have trouble with his community's ways.

"You have to think everything's in the Lord's hands," he said. "But I know God didn't tell that man to go shoot those kids."

Near the schoolhouse where the shooting took place, horse-drawn buggies clomped down the roads yesterday as Amish families visited friends and neighbors who had children at the school.

More than a dozen hitched horses nibbled hay outside the home of one grieving family, as people carried in stacks of black cloth and bags of food.

Verna Stoltzfus, a cousin of the mother of Anna Mae Stoltzfus, a 12-year-old victim, has struggled to explain the shooting to her four children, ages 2 to 7. She said her children do not watch television and have never witnessed an act of violence.

"I told them that God takes care of us, but he does allow things like this to happen," she said. "It's like it says in the Bible: If there were no suffering, there'd be no victory."

Stoltzfus sat in her two-story home that relatives built for her family last year in Strasburg, a town a few miles from Nickel Mines.

An ornate clock ticked on the wall behind her. She said her husband, Christ, had given her the clock as an engagement gift, as Amish tradition dictates.

Stoltzfus and her younger children, Priscilla, 5, and Steven Paul, 2, wore clothes that she had sewn from the same tan fabric.

When her elder sons Thomas, 7, and Joseph, 6, returned from school, they removed their hats and counted to 100 by 10s, their lesson for the day.

Stoltzfus sent them out to feed the hens and collect the eggs.

"It reminds you how precious you are and how tragic it would be to lose even one of them," Stoltzfus said of her children, whose beds she stood over Monday night.

"I was watching them sleep for a long time," she said. "And those families, they just won't have that anymore."

Elam Beiler, an Amish father of four boys who works in a Sadsbury Township hardware store, fielded calls yesterday from suppliers around the country wanting to know if his children were OK. They were, but his best friend's 7-year-old daughter was in critical condition.

"It's just something that happens," he said. "You move on and try to forget about it. Of course, you can't. ... It's something that never happened before, and something that will never happen again here, you hope."

Beiler tried to comfort his boys who attend classes near the West Nickel Mines Amish School.

"Everything is taken care of," he said he told them before sending them back to school yesterday.

Stoltzfus said the Amish community would draw together to help the victims' families and tend their farms.

In Amish funeral processions, Stoltzfus said, as many as 70 or 80 carriages go to the grave site.

Young men from the dead person's church dig the grave and tend to the horses after the families get out of their buggies.

Each family is assigned a position in the procession, based on how closely they are related to the dead, and given a number to hang on their buggy. Lower numbers indicate closeness.

According to custom, Amish women and girls wear black clothing for set periods after a family member dies, Stoltzfus said. If a mother loses a child, she wears black for a year. After the death of a grandparent or grandchild, females wear black for six months. They wear mourning clothes for shorter periods after the deaths of other relatives.

Paulette Flinn, who lives in Bart Township, was one of a few area residents whose yards displayed signs of encouragement for their Amish neighbors.

Flinn placed yellow flowers near her homemade poster, which read: "Our prayers and thoughts are with you all."

"Our community needed something to help them know we're standing behind them," she said. "It's just shocking. Very shocking and overwhelming."

Last night, county residents gathered in various locations for vigils to remember the slain children and offer support to Amish neighbors.

About 150 prayed outside the historic Strasburg Railroad, holding candles amid occasional drops of rain.

Kristen Beiler, who is originally from Baltimore, said she kept thinking during the service: "Thank God, it wasn't our family's children."

Her husband, Chris, chose at age 24 to leave the Amish religion and still lives in Lancaster County. Many of his nieces and nephews live in the area where the school shooting occurred.

"There's no way to describe how tragic this is. You can't prepare yourself for news like this," he said. The Amish community is "very thankful for all the support. They can't express it, so people might not understand it."

At the Mennonite Information Center, which sits amid busy Route 30's outlet malls, cheap motels and an amusement park called Dutch Wonderland, they continued to show a movie every hour on the hour: Who are the Amish?

Shelves of books there also claimed to answer that question, and staff stood at the ready with well-rehearsed explanations. Curiosity about the Amish has more or less become Lancaster County's livelihood.

Yet while most everyone around here, from the buggy tour operators to the shoo-fly pie bakers to the profusion of quilt vendors, can and will go on at length about the plain people's transportation and clothing quirks, people have little idea how the Amish will cope with this tragedy.

The books, the movie, the tour guides - they've got nothing on something like this.

Center director Wesley Newswanger, who grew up Mennonite, said yesterday that the families of the Old Order Amish, such as those who lost children this week, are at their best in the worst of times.

They pull together intuitively at times of trouble - not only for their own, but especially for their own.

Turning to the computer on his desk, he pointed to a screen full of e-mail messages from as far away as Ohio, from senders asking what they could do.

In the county's tight-knit Amish network, Newswanger said, the church will step in to fix whatever family and friends can't handle. Because of their intense faith, he said, the Amish might handle something like this better than a modern community.

"People think they can fix anything if they hit it with enough science and technology," he said. "We don't know what was going on here, but we have faith in God. We'll bear this." julie.scharper@baltsun.comSun reporters Jennifer McMenamin and Nick Shields contributed to this article.

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