Carol Ann Weaver, Rebecca Campbell & Frances Miller
at Lancaster Mennonite School, Lancaster, PA
(21 October 2007)

The tragedy, sorrow and forgiveness that defined the aftermath of the Nickel Mines school shootings were reflected Sunday in music.

The memories of the five Amish girls who were killed in Lancaster County, Pa., as well as the forgiveness for their killer later expressed by the Amish community, inspired two musicians to write songs in their honor.

Those songs, along with other inspirational music, were featured Sunday afternoon at a Nickel Mines Reflection Concert at the Lancaster Mennonite School Fine Arts Center. The event was sponsored by LMS and Lancaster Mennonite Historical Society.

School superintendent Richard Thomas said it "seems appropriate that we spend time and reflect" on the events of Oct. 2, 2006, when a gunman barricaded himself in a rural Amish schoolhouse in Bart Township and shot 10 young girls, five of whom died from their injuries.

"Any time an incident like that happens in a school, there's a sense of real violation," he said. "School is a place where children should be safe and nurtured. ... What happened that day shocked us into a new reality."

Ultimately, Thomas said, "our security is found in God."

Charles Carl Roberts IV, a 32-year-old milk-truck driver, entered the one-room school shortly after recess on Oct. 2. Upon seeing his gun, the teacher ran out a side door, followed closely by a mother who was there that day for a visit. Roberts soon told other parents in the room and all of the male students to leave, and one 9-year-old girl slipped out while his back was turned.

The arrival of police, summoned by the teacher from a nearby farm, interrupted the gunman's apparent plan to sexually assault the girls. However, police were unable to stop him from shooting all 10 girls who remained before killing himself with a handgun.

Roberts' wife, Marie, later said her husband was "angry with God" for the death of their infant daughter nine years before.

The memorial performance Sunday incorporated elements of a church service, with a brief Bible reading and several hymns led by LMS music director John Miller.

The concert began with Frances Miller, a 1994 LMS graduate (and John Miller's daughter) who lives and works as a teacher and musician in Virginia. "I offer this as a prayer," she said before beginning an improvisational piece on violin.

Sweeping and emotional, traversing the peaks and valleys of expression, the tune imparted a sense of tragedy and anguish without sounding tortured or overwrought. A wordless vocalization in the tune evoked grief, but also a serene sadness.

The improvisation led into an autobiographical song, "Love of Lightness." She switched to viola for "Sounds of My Grandmothers," another original song about her ties to her Amish and Mennonite roots.

Next on the stage were Carol Ann Weaver and Rebecca Campbell, both Ontario singer-songwriters who were affected by news of the Nickel Mines murders.

"We're here because all of us were inspired by the forgiveness" exhibited by the Amish in the wake of the event, Carol said. Carol's Mennonite grandparents came from Lancaster County, she noted, and she visited the area often in her youth.

The duo performed several original songs, including "This Sacred Earth," "Waiting Birth" and "Dancing Dancing River" by Carol and "Brand New Day" by Rebecca.

Carol built a solid foundation for the music on piano, rounding out the sound with strong backing vocals. Rebecca, who occasionally played guitar, led the way with an expressive, breathy soprano with shades of Tori Amos or Jewel Kilcher, stripped down and unplugged, evident in her singing.

The songs touched on themes of forgiveness and rebirth. The LMS Campus Chorale joined the two women onstage for "How Can We Know," a song written by Rebecca on the afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001. The chorale added a regal touch to the song's refrain.

After a collection to help offset the costs of the concert and a brief intermission, the performance resumed with a song by Frances that was inspired by her grandmother's death. Then her father joined her onstage for an arrangement of "Only People" by David Seitz and Merle Good.

The song featured the hang drum -- a Swiss percussion instrument with a delicate resonance -- and two very different vocal styles that meshed together neatly for a very touching collaboration. Frances's portion of the show ended with "Be Well," a blessing song she wrote using strings as a drone.

"Putting my feelings to music feels very natural to me," she said later. "It was a little more challenging ... in this performance setting. But it felt very good to come back here and share."

Carol and Rebecca then returned for another half-dozen songs, including the sweet, delightfully optimistic "Anything World," which was written as a poem by a 9-year-old girl who was killed shortly afterwards in a car accident. Carol set the words to music, and the song was performed at the girl's memorial service by Carol's daughter, Myra. "The Valley," written by folk singer Jane Siberry (with whom Rebecca has frequently toured and recorded) is a riff on the 23rd Psalm.

A highlight of the two-hour performance was "Lobsang," a piece written by Carol within hours of hearing news reports of the Nickel Mines killings.

"Lobsang" is German for "praise song" and refers to a tradition at all Amish services, whether the occasion is joyous or mournful. Carol's song is a melancholy narrative of the events of that tragic day, ending with the refrain, again featuring the LMS chorale, "Oh weep for the children who have gone before us. Lobsang is a difficult song when our children are taken away."

Before beginning the song, Carol named the five girls who were killed -- Marian S. Fisher, 13; Anna Mae Stoltzfus, 12; sisters Mary Liz Miller, 8, and Lena Z. Miller, 7; and Naomi Rose Ebersol, 7 -- and lit a white candle in their memory.

The concert ended with "Every Three Children," inspired by the devastating effect AIDS is having on the youth population of Africa. The song was pertinent, Carol said, because "a child is lost and a mother cries ... but then we rally together as a community. This is a song of celebration."

The chorale again participated in the song, which began with bitter sadness but ended on a positive note as it focused on the children who are still living, thriving and making their ways in the world.

The audience seemed uncertain at times how to respond to the performance, with applause or respectful silence. The Mennonite community has "a very quiet way of absorbing things," Carol said during the intermission. "I can feel that respect."

Writing songs based on tragedy was difficult for her, she added, but said "it's a blessing to share them with these people. I'm honored and touched."

Rebecca said the performance was an emotional one, given the focus of the occasion. "I have to hold it steady," she said. "Songs resonate differently depending on the context. Songs I've sung a million times can have a whole new meaning in a new context."

Music is "a great communicator," Rebecca added. "And I can feel the presence of -- 'resignation' is the wrong word. 'Acceptance,' I guess. Some sense that the world is balanced."

Close to 150 people attended the performance, and reactions as they filed from the LMS performing arts center were positive.

"I really appreciated ... how it brought feeling to the situation," said Sylvia Yoder. "This was an excellent way to mark our remembrance."

Tricia Stoltzfus, who attended classes at LMS with Frances, said the concert was "very sincere, very real."

"Music can express what we can't say in words," Stoltzfus said. "It can touch people, and encourage them onwards."

Milton Lehman said he "struggled, perhaps because of my age, with not always understanding the text of the songs." However, that didn't stop him from taking home a copy of the duo's new CD. "I'm a great lover of music," he said. "And I felt this was a very fitting kind of thing. This was a good way to remember."

The CD Every Three Children, officially released Sunday by Carol and Rebecca, is available for purchase through the school by calling (717) 393-9745. Proceeds from the sale will benefit the Amish School Recovery Fund.

John Miller said later the concert was a helpful tool for people affected by the Nickel Mines tragedy. "There are different levels and there are different kinds of healing," he said. "There is something very healing about a concert like this."

LMS officials wanted to be sensitive to the Amish community and not exploit their suffering, Miller said. "But we are also a part of it. We have been affected by it, and it's for us to try and learn as best we can to live with the tragedies that come into our lives."

by Tom Knapp
27 October 2007

[ visit the artist's website ]