Weaver slayings test Mennonites' faith in forgiveness
Intelligencer Journal (Lancaster, PA)
Author: David Griffith
PHILADELPHIA - The daily struggle to maintain the tenets of the Mennonite faith is a test of the soul for those who knew a Landisville youth who killed three members of his family.
For Sam Thomas, pastor of that youth, the simplest of things provoke nightmarish memories.
"I still cannot have a knife lying on the counter," Thomas said Wednesday. "I have to put it away."
It was a kitchen knife that claimed the lives of Dr. R. Clair and Anna May Weaver, and their daughter, 15-year-old Kimberly. It was a knife wielded by the Weavers' adopted son, Keith Chul Weaver.
It has been almost 2 1/2 years since the stabbings took place in the family's Shenck Road home, outside of Landisville, but the scars cut with that knife will never go away.
"Sometimes I find myself thinking about what happened that night, and I can't sleep," Thomas said. "It's very real."
The Weaver tragedy became real for the first time Wednesday morning to several hundred participants in a seminar on forgiveness, part of the 12th biennial Mennonite Churchwide Convention-General Assembly. Gathered in a first-floor room at the Pennsylvania Convention Center here, churchgoers heard Thomas acknowledge how difficult following Christ can be.
"I think that day at the funeral was the easiest time to think about forgiveness," Thomas said. "It's gotten harder, since."
The Weaver family attended the Landisville Mennonite Church, where Thomas is pastor. They were there that Sunday, in fact, hours before their deaths.
Dealing with the forgiveness of Keith Weaver is just one of more than 100 subjects being covered in seminars at this year's Mennonite convention. Others include AIDS, abortion and the effects of incest. The Weaver tragedy is among the most difficult to talk about, however, for those who were close to the family.
Leon Stauffer, a former minister of stewardship, was forced to choke back tears as he spoke; it could have been yesterday.
"It's been an outlet for us," Stauffer said of the forgiveness expressed not only by church members, but by the survivors, including two older Weaver children, Steven and Deborah - the slain couple's biological children. Keith and Kimberly Weaver were Korean-born.
But while those closest to the family maintain the struggle to be Christ-like, not everyone viewed forgiveness as appropriate, according to Stauffer.
"Talk was heard about what a "despicable kid' Keith was, and "what's this church trying to do?"' Stauffer said.
Two of Dr. Weaver's siblings, who live in the area, spoke on Wednesday. Joyce Stoner, his sister, visits Keith Weaver on a weekly basis in prison.
"Keith has always been very repentant about what he's done," she said. "He has never said, "It's not my fault."'
For Earl Weaver, the killings have left him with a feeling of "disappointment" in a boy his brother adopted at the age of 4 1/2.
"I can't say I've ever felt angry at Keith," he said.
Weaver was convicted of three counts of third-degree murder, and was last month sentenced to the maximum penalty - 35 to 70 years in prison. Wednesday, the sequence of events leading up to that sentencing were replayed.
From the outset, Thomas said, Keith Weaver was on the minds of everyone concerned.
"We developed a legal support group, and the four of us saw our task as building a relationship with the legal system ... helping the church and family understand what was going on," Thomas said.
The church then helped set up weekly meetings with a psychologist, which eventually became bi-weekly visits, and now, since Keith Weaver has been sent from Lancaster County Prison to trhe state prison in Camp Hill, have stopped.
When someone from the audience asked what Keith Weaver's motive for the killings was, Thomas thought a moment.
"Nobody knows that," he said. "Keith doesn't even know that. I think one of the difficult things with this has been, we can't put a box around this and say, "This is why it happened."'
Because Keith Weaver was adopted at the age of 4 1/2, many people believe his deadly outburst could have been the result of some long-hidden trauma, according to Thomas.
"He was hearing voices: "You can do it, you can do it,"' Thomas said, adding that Keith himself says he has no idea what happened.
The surviving children, Steven and Deborah, have managed to get on with their lives as best they can, according to church members, although neither one communicates with Keith Weaver.
Steven Weaver is going to Denver, Colo., this fall, to complete his college degree. He was a student at Eastern Mennonite College when his family life was shattered.
For members of the Landisville Mennonite Church, Keith Weaver provides a weekly reminder of what Christ preached, according to Thomas.
"We pray for Keith every Sunday," he said. "I struggle with revenge from time to time, and that's where "70 x 7' comes in."
That is the name of a fund for Keith, started by church members after his arrest. It stems from the Biblical story of Peter, who asked Christ if he should forgive transgressions seven times, and was told no, that 70 times seven was appropriate.
It is a fund to which church members sometimes contribute as little as $5, whenever they feel the need to express their forgiveness, according to Thomas.
"It helps them," he said.