On Palm Sunday, March 28, the Lifetime Movie Network will premiere a made-for-television film, “Amish Grace,” about the Oct. 2, 2006, shootings of 10 Amish schoolgirls in Nickel Mines, Pa.
Five of the girls, ranging from 6 to 13 years old, died at the hand of an “English” milkman, that is, non-Amish, known to all the children. Charles Carl Roberts, 32, took his own life as state troopers prepared to storm the school. Then, in the immediate aftermath of such tragedy, the Amish parents and community forgave Roberts, astounding the media and people around the world who watched the story unfold on their televisions.
The film respects the facts of the event, but takes some artistic license in order to explore the Amish belief in unconditional forgiveness as well as their practice of shunning, which seems to contradict the act of forgiving.
When the Amish community extends forgiveness to Roberts and then visits his wife, Amy (Tammy Blanchard), to console her and her children for their loss, Amy is astounded. But one Amish mother, Ida Graber (Kimberly Williams-Paisley), tells her husband, Gideon (Matt Letscher) that she cannot forgive the man who murdered her daughter, Mary Beth.
Ida accuses Gideon of making Mary Beth’s life and death cheap by his “easy forgiveness.” He replies by telling her that the Lord does not ask them to follow an easy path: “… faith when everything is the way you want it is not true faith. It is only when our lives fall apart that we have the chance to make our faith real.”
This fictionalized account of those events takes its name from the 2007 nonfiction book, “Amish Grace: How Forgiveness Transcended Tragedy” by three Amish scholars – Donald B. Kraybill, Steven M. Nolt and David L. Weaver-Zercher.
Executive producer Larry A. Thompson said in an interview that even before he obtained rights for the book, Kraybill had explained that the authors would not be able to consult on the film. This was due to their close relationship to and respect for the Amish community that lives “plain” and does not seek notoriety nor approve of film and photography.
Thompson, a television and film professional, is a life-long Catholic and member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Los Angeles. He explained that his reasons for making the film emerged from his reflection on the words of Jesus in the Our Father.
“When I heard about what happened to these Amish children, I recalled that I have prayed these words all my life, ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.’ I don’t think I really understood what they meant until I heard of this astonishing and powerful story of how the Amish people forgave. Their actions made me realize what God has really asked us to do as Christians. I talk the talk; these people walk the talk.”
Two documentaries made by Catholic filmmakers take the events at Nickel Mines as their point of departure to explore forgiveness. “The Big Question: A Film about Forgiveness” (2009), directed by Vince DiPersio, was produced by Paulist Productions, and “The Power of Forgiveness” (2008) by Martin Doblmeier, Journey Films. Both films look at forgiveness from various religious, spiritual and philosophical perspectives and are available from Amazon.com.
“Amish Grace” is a powerful television production that belies its simplicity. The performances are strong, unadorned and credible. The filmmakers avoid explicit violence by suggesting it instead. They chose to make a movie about and with grace and they have succeeded. As I watched the film, I just let the story wash over me and I could not stop crying.
Sr. Rose Pacatte, FSP, is director of the Pauline Center for Media Studies in Culver City, Calif. This review first appeared on her blog.
“Amish Grace” airs Sunday, March 28, (8 p.m. Eastern, 5 p.m. Pacific) on Lifetime. Check local listings for reruns during April and May.