This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Unconditional love sustains a journey of redemption

Though it’s been 28 years since tragedy struck Landisville (Pa.) Mennonite Church, current and former church members continue to embody the unconditional love of God.

In February of 1991, Clair and Anna May Weaver and their teenage daughter Kimberly were murdered by their 14-year-old son and brother, Keith.

In the months following the murders, members of Landis­ville Mennonite created the 70×7 Fund to help the church “engage in practical expressions of God’s love for Keith.”

The fund is based on Matthew 18, in which Jesus calls his disciples to forgive and restore offenders “70 times seven” times.

The fund pays for Keith Weaver’s monthly costs as he serves a 35- to 70-year sentence at Camp Hill Correctional Institution.

Though Weaver has a paying job at the prison, he only makes 42 cents an hour. With the 70×7 Fund, he is able to purchase basic care items not supplied by the prison. The donations also go to pay for his educational expenses.

While the fund supplies Weaver with material needs, four current and former members of Landisville Mennonite Church have developed personal relationships with him.

Sam Thomas, pastor of Landisville Mennonite at the time of  the murders, has visited Weaver monthly since the tragedy.

Leon and Nancy Stauffer, friends of Clair and Anna May Weaver, manage the 70×7 Fund and visit Weaver several times a year. Ann Martin, Weaver’s former Sunday school teacher, visits him four times a year and gives the church an annual update on his birthday.

For the four, choosing to invest in Weaver was an obvious choice. Each felt called to show compassion and grace.

Martin felt the need to be there for Weaver from the start.

“He was so young,” she said. “My kids were the same age, and so for me, it was just my mother’s heart.”

Martin said Weaver now feels like a son to her.

Thomas was spurred by the idea of acting as a conduit for what he has received.

“There’s something about truly finding love for Keith after quite a few years,” Thomas said. “I’m sort of surprised at how good it feels to feel God’s grace and love flow through me.”

Leon Stauffer said he felt drawn to practice love within his own personal context.

“This is a setting that we have been placed in,” he said. “We need to find a way to commit to love in the circle that’s touching our lives.”

“This is hopeful,” said Ron Adams, current pastor at Landisville, referring to the group’s choice to pursue compassion and empathy in a world where it feels “rare.”

Question of forgiveness

While the Stauffers, Thomas and Martin have forgiven Weaver, they realize forgiveness is a long — and often agonizing — journey.

“I don’t have a whole lot to say about forgiveness to anyone,” Thomas said. “I don’t think it’s anything the church can demand or really ask people to do.”

The congregants of Landisville were told to take their time to forgive, Nancy Stauffer said, and to use each other as support.

“We were blessed to have each other and to be told that,” she said.

Since arriving in jail, Weaver has worked on bettering himself. He is pursuing a master of science degree in criminal justice. He works as a certified peer support specialist. He taught himself to play the guitar and now teaches others.

He was baptized several years after going to prison and is a member of Landisville Mennonite Church.

Nancy Stauffer said watching Weaver’s growth had been one of the most impactful parts of the past 28 years. He is more responsible, more mature and more aware of the impact of his actions than he was almost three decades ago.

Because of the unconditional love and compassion Weaver feels, he is able — as he wrote in a letter to the congregation in March — to “enjoy each day, the happy and sad moments.”

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