She forgives but can’t forget

Wow. What a story.

Please forgive (and, yes, that word will play a key role in this post) my inability to come up with anything more eloquent to say about an absolutely riveting news-feature from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

The 2,400-word masterpiece ran in the Sunday newspaper — on the front page, I must assume, although I don’t know that for certain.

Certainly, most GetReligion readers are familiar with the Amish reputation for forgiveness. That concept is not breaking news.

But a talented Post-Dispatch reporter named Kim Bell, who seems to cover mainly crime and courts, takes a specific case of an Amish woman forgiving and uses the woman’s heartwrenching experience as a peg for one of the more incredible stories — religion or otherwise — that I have read in a long time.

Here’s a big chunk of the top of the story:

KAHOKA, Mo. — Anna Eicher survived a highway pileup that killed her father and two others and left more than a dozen people injured, a crash triggered by a trucker who was distracted by his cell phone.

After four days in a hospital recovering from her injuries in the 2008 crash, Eicher returned to this Amish community in northeast Missouri to bury her father, then did what any good woman of her faith would do.

She forgave the trucker and refused to sue.

The crash was God’s will, she says, and using the courts is not the Amish way.

“We don’t believe in taking advantage of someone and taking their money,” she says.

So, she ignored the glitzy packets arriving in the mail from lawyers urging her to file a wrongful death suit.

She didn’t worry about the medical bills that were piling up from her own injuries — she was confident the trucking company would take care of them. Soon after the crash, a man from the trucking company’s insurer told her to send him all the bills.

“English people told us not to worry about it, they would be paid,” Eicher said, using the term the Amish bestow on outsiders. “We assumed they were paid.”

That dramatic opening scene delivers in a mighty way. Surely you can’t resist clicking the link and finding out what happens next, right?

I do wonder — in such a remarkable story — if a copy editor might have considered deleting the “who was” after “trucker” in the first sentence. That passive phrasing slowed me down just a tad, and I don’t think it’s needed. Then again, I majored in journalism, not English.

What specifically makes this story work? At least three main things:

– First, it’s real. Real people. Real faith. Real emotion. Real circumstances. (Spoiler alert: If you want the joy of experiencing the story’s twists and turns yourself, read it now or forever hold your peace.) I mean, more than halfway through this lengthy story, readers learn that the same woman lost two young grandchildren and a pregnant daughter-in-law when a different trucker hit their horse-drawn buggy.

– Second, it gets religion. No ghosts here, as best I could tell (if I missed them, by all means, let me know in the comments section). The writer even produced a short sidebar titled Who are the Old Order Amish? The second section of the main story does a nice job of capturing the Amish and their beliefs. Again, I’m going to share a big chunk:

The Amish believe in simplicity and nonresistance. They value community and separation from the wider world.

The Eicher family’s weathered farmhouse, off a winding gravel road near Highway 136, has an outhouse but no indoor bathroom, no electricity, no carpeting. The Eichers have a windup clock and a wood stove. A shed houses welding tools.

The other 21 Amish families in Kahoka, about 180 miles from St. Louis, live the same way.

They don’t have telephones in their houses because they don’t want the intrusion of the outside world in their homes. A communal shack is equipped with a phone the Amish use for emergencies.

They have no mirrors in the main rooms, no photographs of any people. They refuse to have their photos taken because the Second Commandment prohibits “graven images.”

Donald Kraybill, a professor at Elizabethtown College in Pennsylvania and author of “The Riddle of Amish Culture” and a dozen other books on the Amish, said Amish religious beliefs are rooted in the New Testament and the Sermon on the Mount.

“They believe they should love their enemies and not retaliate,” Kraybill said. “They’re conscientious objectors and they don’t file lawsuits or use force to get their way.”

(By the way, if you’re wondering how a group of Amish people found themselves in a van — in the middle of a big-city traffic jam — in the first place, did I mention that you really should read this story?)

– Third, it gets more than religion. If this story were solely a religion piece — if it were all about Amish beliefs and forgiveness — it would not pack the same powerful punch. Instead, this is an example of mainstream journalism that intertwines the key religion elements with outstanding general reporting.

In other words, this is a reporter who knows not just how to find her Amish sources at the end of a gravel road — but also how to maneuver her way through a courthouse and a treasure trove of public records:

Approaching from behind was Jeffrey Knight, 49, driving a 2005 Freightliner loaded with 13 tons of scrap metal. Knight, of Muscle Shoals, Ala., already had been on duty more than 86 hours in an eight-day period — 16 hours longer than federal law allowed, court records show. He’d been cited 41 times in three years for falsifying logbooks or similar violations, according to court records.

As he barreled east on Highway 40, passing Mason Road toward Interstate 270, he would have had a clear view of the stopped traffic, but he told police he didn’t see it because he had reached across the dash for his cell phone and flipped it open. Black box information from Knight’s truck showed he was traveling 65 mph before the crash, and he didn’t slow down until ramming into traffic.

“After I hit the first car, I just remember holding the steering wheel and seeing cars going to my left and right,” Knight said, according to a highway patrol report.

Wow. What a story.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • rupzip

    I am totally amazed by these people. And who forget the schoolhouse shooting and the response they gave the shooter’s family? I hear these stories and shake my head at the silly wrongs I hold against people.

    Shame on me.

    David, Red Letter Believers, “salt and light”,

  • rupzip

    I am totally amazed by these people. Who can forget the way they treated the shooter’s family, after killing the schoolchildren in that small school. I think of my small, petty wrongs that I hold on to and I am ashamed.

  • Peggy R

    I recall when the horrible accident happened in ’08. I won’t tell why the Amish folks were in the van in the first place. It adds more pain to the story. It was nice to see the STL PD cover the aftermath for this woman who survived the crash up.

  • Julia

    What an interesting story. I noted particularly that it is very straight forward, not soap opera-ish; the facts and the woman’s words grab the reader. Very well done.

    • Bobby

      Excellent observation. This is one of those stories that seems to write itself. Of course, pulling off such a story is much more difficult than this writer (and her editors) make it appear.

      Bobby Ross Jr.
      My stories:

  • Jerry

    This is a fantastic story. The Amish serve as a witness and a challenge to the rest of us to try better to live up to our ideals.

  • BJohnD

    Amazing. True Christian forgiveness. BTW, the article now has this note at the end:

    EDITORS NOTE: The article generated numerous emails and phone calls from readers wanting to know how they could help. On Monday afternoon, a family friend of the Eichers established a fund at a bank in Kahoka, Mo., with the plan that any contributions would go toward helping pay medical bills of the Amish victims of the Highway 40 crash. Donations could be sent to: Amish Accident Fund, c/o Kahoka State Bank, P.O. Box 168, Kahoka, MO 63445.

  • Anonymous

    I read the original article to my 8th grade class today and they were absolutely riveted. Several students commented how moving it was and we ended up having a deep discussion about faith and forgiveness.

    As we talked about the Amish ability to live out their faith in spite of the wider world not understanding, our conversation turned to how we as Catholics can learn from them. Not only can we learn from their ability to forgive, but we can also draw inspiration from their willingness to live differently.

    The Amish commitment to living out their values in the face of such obvious injustice is awe-inspiring and sacred. It makes me want to be a better Catholic.

  • Marie

    I am moved by the story itself and very happy about the reporting. A reporter giving an account of a positive aspect of a person’s faith while at the same time acknowledging that the behavior is outside the norm of everyday society. In doing this the woman and her faith are not presented as bizarre or freakish simply different but sincere. Well done.

  • mattk

    Wow! That was good reporting!

  • John Wickey

    This seems generally a good article and the comments suggest a very positive response to the reporting of this horrible event. However, reporters writing about the Amish would benefit from a historical understanding of the Reformation, a time when social class was more structured than at the present time and when most people could not read or write. The anabaptist movement was an expression of mistrust of the clerical class as the font of Truth. This movement was largely from the possibly illiterate peasantry and the Amish part of it has over the years resisted change in their culture through the ban, making it difficult for members to leave. They have also discouraged relating with outsiders in other than necessary ways. Outsiders do not join this ethnic group that speaks a German dialect with a sparse vocabulary. Outsiders are referred to as “die hohe leut (those of higher social class),” not “the English.” It is also unclear whether the Amish interviewed by the reporter were actively interested in talking about themselves and whether discussions of theological issues were to some extent colored by the reporter’s own theological thinking. Nonetheless, this is an excellent article.

  • Truth Unites… and Divides

    #1. Good Reporting.

    #2. Why can’t you forgive AND file the insurance paperwork and claims both?

  • glory