Let The Amish Be Our Guides

A Story of Grace and our North Star for the Journey

[The following account was presented by CBS News in 2013.]

It’s been seven years since Terri Roberts’ life changed forever.

In October 2006, her 32-year-old son Charlie walked into an Amish school in Lancaster County and shot 10 young girls, killing five of them before killing himself.

“I heard the sirens and heard helicopters,” Roberts said. “My phone was ringing and it was my husband and he said, ‘You have to get to Charlie’s right away.’

And I looked at my husband with these sunken eyes, just saying, ‘It was Charlie.’ “It could not be,” she said, shaking her head and with tears in her eyes. “It truly was. It was our son.”

Roberts’ initial reaction was that she had to move away. But the Amish came to her the night of the shooting to say they wanted her to stay.

Some of the victims’ families attended her son’s funeral. “There are not words to describe how that made us feel that day,” said Roberts.

“For the mother and father who had lost not just one but two daughters at the hand of our son, to come up and be the first ones to greet us — wow. Is there anything in this life that we should not forgive?”

Roberts now shares this message with those who have experienced trauma. And every Thursday, she cares for the most seriously wounded survivor of the shooting, who is now 13.

A Ministry Experience

Everyone on the fourth floor knew Maria. She was always rolling herself back and forth down the hall, babbling incoherently. She had lost, among many other things, the ability to speak English and Spanish. One can imagine how much distress and loneliness this caused her, so it’s no surprise that her babbles would sometimes become screams. The funny thing was, no one seemed to mind the noise. Her very presence had a way of causing people to open their hearts.

When I first started visiting, she generally recognized my presence and even was attentive when I would pray with her. But as her condition deteriorated, she was more and more withdrawn. The screaming became more and more frequent. She was obviously in great distress, yet no one was able to help her.

For a few weeks, she was in the hospital. I was worried that she had passed away. Eventually, when she came back, it was clear that she was not long for this world.

There she was in the hallway, screaming as helplessly as ever. She didn’t recognize that there was another person next to her. I tried to just be with her, to witness her pain. I hoped that she might recognize my presence, so that we could pray together. But she kept screaming just as before.

So I pulled the only trick I know for such situations: I just started the prayers of the rite. “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit +” Instantly she was silent, in rapt attention. So placing all my hope in God, I continued: “Our Father…”

It’s significant that I don’t remember what language I said that prayer in, English or Spanish (or some other language?). At that point of real communion of God, real prayer in the Spirit, different languages melt together anyway. It becomes not our own words in our own human languages, but truly the Lord’s prayer – the prayer of the Lord Himself, speaking within us both. The Lord was so clearly present in that prayer we shared. And at the end, she pronounced a hearty “Amen.” The first intelligible word I had ever heard her say in all my time of knowing her.

Then I presented the Host for adoration. “Behold the Lamb of God…” Her eyes were half as wide as her face, entirely fixed on adoring her Lord. At that moment it felt like the Lord was already present in her. “Holy things for the holy,” indeed. When I said the response “Lord, I am not worthy…,” I felt like I was speaking not for her but for myself.

She wasn’t able to actually receive communion, because she didn’t have enough coordination to open her mouth. I left, though, feeling as though she had shared communion with the Lord. I certainly had.

The next time I saw her, her condition was much worse. She was lying in bed. There happened to be a mat by the side of her bed, a sure invitation to kneel. Was I kneeling in recognition of the presence of the Lord in my pyx, or in recognition of the presence of the Lord in her person? I wondered.

She wasn’t able to remain focused in prayer this time. But I knew the Lord was with her. As I got up to leave, she grabbed my hand. I couldn’t easily pull myself away, so I knelt back down. A few minutes later, I tried again to leave, and she grabbed my hand once more.

It was so difficult to pull myself away as she screamed in some terrible agony – yes, physically difficult because of the unexpected strength of her grip, but even more difficult psychologically and spiritually. Still, I knew I had to leave (there was another miracle waiting to happen down the hall). My solace was this: she wasn’t really holding on to me, she was holding on to the presence of Jesus in me and on me. It is, after all, His ministry. It is really Him who visits every person and remains in them long after my body and spirit have left the room (if my spirit was even there in the first place).

Even if she couldn’t recognize that His presence was abiding in her just yet, I sure could. In that moment, perhaps the deepest that I had yet entered into her suffering, I was also sharing in the abiding presence. Praise be to You, Lord, with us in the lows just as much as in the highs.

The next time I visited, Maria did receive Communion (although she wasn’t able to ingest the entire Host). This gave me great satisfaction. After all of the deep communion with God that she had experienced, she had finally received Him in His fullness. “Lord, now you let your servant go in peace…”

I felt as if I had been dismissed in peace. Even the need to reverently dissolve the regurgitated portion of the Host could not make me anxious or distract me from the eternal praise of God. Apparently she too was dismissed in peace, because a few days later she was called from this world. May she who bore the Lord’s sufferings in this life share in His glory forever. Rest in peace, Maria +

Christ and the Arts

These are dizzying times we live in, no doubt. For good reason, we are called by God to times of rest and re-creation in the midst of the busyness and seemingly increasing volatility of our world. Your friends at the Institute for Christian Unity offer you a few moments now to ponder the beautiful–to consider the goodness and beauty of God in the creative expression of God’s people. Please click on the below link to watch a 15 minute video summary of our recent WEE Forum, entitled ‘Christ and the Arts’. The forum was held on January 15 and we were honored to have Elizabeth Ostling of the Boston Symphony Orchestra present to us. Enjoy!

The Church for Orlando

The Church is the body of Christ in the world. The Church is called by God to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ to the whole world, and to do so in word and deed. This proclamation is always urgently needed and never more so than in the instance of human brutality and suffering.

We offer to you Gospel voices–voices for light in darkness–speaking for the Church in Boston to our suffering neighbors in Orlando, to the LGBTQ community, to the victims of gun violence, to the Muslim community and to the poor in spirit everywhere.

What follows are a series of links to statements by leading voices in Boston’s Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Evangelical/Pentecostal and Mainline Protestant communities as well as a special link to practical action the Church (your church!) can take on behalf of the Orlando victims and the LGBTQ community.







A Christian Response Along the Refugee Highway

At our November 2015 WEE Forum, Dr. Gregg Detwiler & Rev. Torli Krua  presented on, ‘A Christian Response Along the Refugee Highway.’ It was a remarkable presentation. Gregg and Torli provided great insight and a holistic perspective regarding the nature & scope of the present refugee crisis, and, vitally, how we can more effectively engage the crisis. Please see below for a 3 minute video summary of the forum.

Holy Week Greetings from an Orthodox Brother

Aaron Friar is an Eastern Orthodox Christian and a friend of the Institute. He recently shared an excerpt from his excellent blog, ‘Like Mendicant Monks,’ that he penned a few years ago but has new timeliness this year (for reasons you will soon see) as the Christian Church prepares to enter once more into the sobriety and joy of the Passion of our Lord.

May Aaron’s words encourage you and bring to your mind and heart a sense of the beauty and wonder of this season! Enjoy…

beato20“Hasten to the Tomb! I had been planning it all week, but like all difficult things, when the time came to actually carry it out, I was lingering in the throes of early morning drowsiness. I have been trying for years to attend the Western Easter Vigil Service that I format every year for the parish where I am employed as an administrator. But for the last several years, the Eastern and the Western calendars have been in sync, and I would never miss a drop of Orthodox Holy Week, especially as I usually lead the service on the morning of Great and Holy Saturday.

But this year I had my opportunity, and I determined to seize it. I saw early on in the week that the monks at the Society of Saint John the Evangelist just across the river from me start their Easter Vigil at the ripe hour of 4:30am Sunday morning. Surely I could return from our parish’s Lenten Men’s Retreat in the Western half of the state soon enough to catch a few winks and rise at deep dawn to hasten to the tomb. But that was before I carefully reckoned the fatigue of driving two hours back and forth and the stamina of a 40-something year old. This morning, when the hour arrived to depart, I was listening more to Pastor Pillow than to my earlier enthusiasm. [Read more…]

Reflections on the Year Past & the Year Ahead at the Institute

“The world needs to know Jesus. We must proclaim Him without any pause, together. The division among Christians is the fruit of our sin, and it is a scandal and our greatest impediment for the mission for which the Lord has called us: announcing the Good News of the Gospel.”

So said Pope Francis in a letter he sent to a gathering of Evangelicals & Catholics this past September – at which I had the privilege of representing the Institute for Christian Unity. For me, Francis’ words capture the essence of our work and the passion which drives me to keep going at this in the face of many challenges. It resonates deeply with our vision: “To raise up a new generation of ‘prophetic ecumenists’ who seek to both confront and heal disunity in the Body of Christ and live as a sign of love for that Body, so that the world would know the good news of Jesus” And I hope it stirs something in you as well.

Over the past year, that vision and passion has motivated me to teach about reconciliation across historic church divides in a number of settings and to create networks between Catholics and Evangelicals through smaller gatherings like the one mentioned above. I also spent a week in April out of my comfort zone at the National Workshop for Christian Unity, helping my good friend and mentor John Armstrong establish the first-ever participation of Evangelicals at that conference.

That vision and passion has motivated my co-Director Vito Nicastro to spend months of hard work behind the scenes to bring about a remarkable joint letter from Cardinal O’Malley and Bishop Hazelwood of the ELCA that even got a shoutout in the Boston Globe. It has motivated our Fellow Matt Crane to create a unique community grass-roots ecumenical forum in the Boston area. Over the past calendar year they have thoughtfully engaged a number of powerful topics including racism, human sexuality, the role of women in the church and the current refugee crisis – all in a space of mutual respect and love. And all of us have been involved in mentoring several young undergraduates and seminarians, all of whom are discovering their own call to prophetic ecumenism.

Though each of us has another full-time ministry, our goal for next year is to continue to expand the impact of the Institute. Some of the ways we’d like to do that include:
• Working with Vision New England to develop more missional partnerships between Evangelicals and Catholics.
• Hosting a multi-day Christian unity gathering in the greater Boston area in the fall of 2016.
• Following up the joint letter by creating structures for Lutherans, Catholics and other Christians to come together for study, prayer and service
• Expanding the WEE Forum to more communities

Warmly in Christ,

Scott Brill
Founding Fellow and Co-Director

The Power of Art in the Cause of Hope

Below is an excerpt from an article written by Charlie Peacock that appeared in CCM Magazine in November 2003.  Peacock’s subject is the extraordinary contribution to life and hope made by one Vedran Smailovic during the course of the Bosnian War (1992-1995). Smailovic’s wondrous deeds have no less meaning for us today, two decades on. Further, they speak unequivocally to the power of the arts in buoying the human spirit. Read and be moved!

“At 4 p.m. on May 27, 1992, in the war-torn city of Sarajevo, people hungry for bread lined up outside a bakery. Without warning, a bomb fell and split the line into pieces, killing 22 people. Not far from the scene lived a musician named Vedran Smailovic. Before the weight of war crushed Sarajevo’s music, Vedran had been the principal cellist with the opera. At his wit’s end and sickened by the slaughter, Vedran made a choice that day. He decided to “breathe life” into the rubble of war. According to author Paul Sullivan, “Every day thereafter, at 4 p.m. precisely, Vedran put on his full, formal concert attire, picked up his cello and walked out of his apartment into the midst of the battle raging around him. He placed a little camp stool in the middle of the crater that the shell had made, and he played a concert. He played to the abandoned streets, to the smashed trucks and burning buildings and to the terrified people who hid in the cellars while the bombs dropped and the bullets flew. Day after day, he made his unimaginably courageous stand for human dignity, for all those lost to war, for civilization, for compassion and for peace.” This is a picture of what the new Kingdom way of Jesus might look like in the wild world we live in. Through this one daily act, Vedran illustrated the calling to do good to all people and Jesus’ command to “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.” I have no idea whether Vedran professes to follow Jesus or not. Still, there’s something to be learned through his storied living. He preached through the gut, wood and horse hair of his cello, musically communicating: “People of Sarajevo! People of Bosnia! We are made for so much more than this! Listen, we are made for beauty! Listen, we are made for truth! Listen, we are made for peace! Listen, be renewed, inspired and cared for.” In the way he knew best, using the resources and talent before him, Vedran exercised “dominion” over the crater in his neighborhood and pushed back the effects of the fall. This was no neutral choice. It affected everyone around him, and its influence spread throughout the world. In fact, two years later, on the stage of the Royal Conservatory concert hall in Manchester, England, world famous cellist Yo Yo Ma performed David Wilde’s composition, “The Cellist of Sarajevo.” Vedran was there to hear it. This kind of story should be the norm for followers of Jesus. I should rise each day and ask God, “What rubble do you want me to breathe your life into today? Where do you want the Kingdom rule to be made visible? How can I help to make something or someone beautiful?” This kind of lifestyle is world-changing, and you never know how far or how long a story will travel on its trajectory of good. The Jesus story of good is still traveling the world today, isn’t it?”

Pope Francis on Christian Unity

“Christian unity will not be the fruit of subtle theoretical discussions in which each party tries to convince the other of the soundness of their opinions. The Son of Man will come and will find us still arguing. We need to realize that, to plumb the depths of the mystery of God, we need one another, we need to encounter one another and to challenge one another under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, who harmonizes diversities and overcomes conflicts; to reconcile our differences.”

Pope Francis – from his homily at the Vespers service for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, 2/27/15