By now, the story is all too familiar--a crazed gunman bursts into a school and takes the lives of innocent children before taking his own.

It has happened too many times since Columbine High School in 1999, but last October, the tragedy took a new twist when Charles Carl Roberts IV, a troubled truck driver, targeted a one-room schoolhouse full of Amish girls in rural Lancaster County, Pa.

By the end of the day, ten children had been shot, and five little girls in the sober grays and browns of the Amish lay dead. They were Naomi Rose Ebersole, age 7, Anna Mae Stoltzfus, 12, Mary Liz Miller, 8, her sister Lena Miller, 7, and Marian Fisher, age 13, who reportedly asked the killer to shoot her first in the hope of saving others.

Beliefnet user Amy Frederick spoke for many members who nominated the Amish when she cited Marian’s sacrifice. “I cannot ignore this unbelievable act of love by a girl this young. In my mind, this little girl did no more or no less than Jesus did for us on the cross. Simply put, she is my hero.”

Incredibly, within hours of the shooting, members of the Amish community were reaching out to the killer’s family, giving food and raising money for his wife and children. “We have to forgive,” an Amish woman told Reuters. “We have to forgive him in order for God to forgive us." Another Amish man said of the family, “I hope they stay around here and they'll have a lot of friends and a lot of support."

The Amish of Nickel Mines, Pa., are nominated, as a group, for their extraordinary power to see beyond their own pain and to forgive without reservation.

“This is an imitation of Christ at its most naked,” Tom Shachtman, author of a book on the Amish, told reporters after the shooting. “If anybody is going to turn the other cheek in our society, it’s going to be the Amish.”

The Amish are a Swiss-German Christian sect who hold themselves apart from the rest of society and shun modern conveniences, like cars and electricity. They speak a German dialect called Pennsylvania Dutch. One of the surviving girls, Barbie Fisher, age 9, said later she could not understand Roberts’ orders because she was only just learning English. Their faith emphasizes God’s forgiveness and submission to what is seen as his will.

Enos Miller, grandfather of the two of the dead girls, who was with them when they died, told reporters the night of the shooting that he had forgiven Roberts. “In my heart, yes,” he said, “through God's help.” CNN reported that the grandfather of another victim said on the day of the murder, “We must not think evil of this man.”

Gertrude Huntington, a Michigan researcher and expert on children in Amish society, told reporters that Amish reaction to the killings was an illustration of their belief in the Gospel.

"The hurt is very great," she said after the tragedy. "But they don't balance the hurt with hate…They know their children are going to heaven. And they know that they will join them in death.”  

For more on the lessons we can learn from the Amish, click here.

Belief on the Street: Could You Forgive--Like the Amish?

View 2006 nominees' photo gallery.
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