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Pastor relies on God's strength in aftermath of Pa. shooting

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Courtesy of Georgetown United Methodist Church

An Amish buggy passes in front of Georgetown United Methodist Church.
Dec. 7, 2006

By Andrea Brown*

BART TOWNSHIP, Pa. (UMNS) -- For Mike Remel, a 32-year-old seminary student and the pastor of Georgetown United Methodist Church, the recent shootings at a local Amish school impacted him as a pastor, father and neighbor responding to an unimaginable tragedy.

Yet Remel was never so powerfully aware of God's presence as in that moment.

Though the incident was overwhelming, he said, "I don't know that it would be any different for an older pastor," since the strengths that were called for were less his than God's.

On Oct. 2, Charles Carl Roberts IV took over tiny Nickel Mines (Pa.) School and shot 10 schoolgirls -- five fatally -- before taking his own life. Remel and other area pastors stayed busy in the days that followed, offering outreach and hope to their Amish neighbors and the rest of the community.

"I have really relied on God and on my prayer life," said Remel, a student at Palmer Theological Seminary in Wynnewood, Pa. Whenever he became exhausted, "I felt the refreshing of the Spirit sustaining me and uplifting me and allowing me to move on to the next task that had to be done."

One of those tasks was sharing the news with his 5-year-old son, Shawn.

Shawn is a friend and preschool classmate of Bryce Roberts, the 5-year-old son of Charles Carl Roberts IV. Remel lives two doors away from the Roberts family.

"On a personal level, we know the Roberts children; we know Marie," Roberts' widow, Remel said. He said he didn't know Charles himself well because they had opposite work schedules.

"They're doing as well as can be expected," he said. "She's back in their home with the kids. They're receiving ministry and counsel. The kids are back in school. There have been -- praise God -- no incidents" of any of Marie's three children being singled out or picked on by their peers.

As for Remel's son, he said, "We told him Bryce's dad died, and Shawn said, 'Well, Bryce must be very sad.' And we said yes. And we said, 'All of Lancaster County is sad because there were some Amish girls shot in a schoolhouse.' We did not connect the two events. He has since seen news coverage and has connected them himself." But Shawn continues to do well, Remel said.

"One of the things in our family is, we've never shielded Shawn from death, whether it was an aunt or an uncle or a loved one or a friend," Remel added. "We have tried to teach him that death is a natural part of life but that death is not the end -- that God makes a promise to us of eternal life."

Including children in funerals and other mourning rituals helps them to have such assurance, Remel believes.

Inundated with media

In addition to his wisdom as a parent, Remel relied on his wisdom as a pastor and community leader in dealing with the swarms of media that came to the area.

"We were just inundated," he said. Humility is a strong value for the Amish, and though they read and produce newspapers, they are wary of the effects of having their image reproduced in photographs and on film.

Remel had many conversations with camera crews and found this to be the most stressful part of the situation, "just trying to get them to understand that the most respectful way to film this event was don't do close-up shots of their faces. Many were respectful, some certainly were not."

While Remel closed his church to cameras during a prayer meeting in order to protect the Amish, the same motive led him to open the church to reporters as an unobtrusive site for viewing the solemn procession of dark buggies headed to funerals for the girls who died.


Still, amid the stresses were many blessings.

"One of the things that was absolutely astounding was of the Amish forgiving as quickly as they did. And it wasn't just the Amish. It was this community," he said.

"There was a need for forgiveness, to embrace each other and not push each other away. I saw God working in those situations where we were being drawn together."

What's more, he said, "I've seen God in the well wishes from all across the United States and internationally. It's a message of how they've been inspired by the care and faith of the community and of, 'We're praying for you. We're caring for you.'

"This is in some ways -- I don't know how to put it -- I feel very humbled by the experience, and I have learned lessons about Christian love and care from people in my community through this tragedy, and just to see the level of care that is going to everyone involved in this because, you know, both the Amish and the Roberts family are seen as victims in this."

Remel recalled the power of seeing Marie Roberts attending the girls' funerals, and later, seeing the families of the girls at Charlie Roberts' burial behind Georgetown Church. "That was just an overwhelming, humbling experience."

*Brown is associate pastor of Grandview United Methodist Church in Lancaster, Pa.

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