By Abigail King
Though it’s been 28 years since tragedy struck Landisville 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 son and brother, Keith.
In the months following the murders, members of Landisville Mennonite created the 70×7 Fund as a way to “help (the church) engage in practical expressions of God’s love for Keith.”
The 70×7 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’s monthly costs as he serves his 35-70 year sentence at Camp Hill Correctional Institution. Though Keith has a paying job at the prison, he only makes $0.42 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 Keith’s educational expenses.
While the fund supplies Keith with material needs, four current and former members of Landisville Mennonite Church have also developed personal relationships with him and personally choose to show compassion to him, despite his previous actions.
Sam Thomas, pastor of Landisville during the time of the murders, has visited Keith monthly since the tragedy. Leon and Nancy Stauffer, friends of Clair and Anna May, manage the 70×7 Fund and visit Keith several times a year. Ann Martin, Keith’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 Keith was an obvious choice. Each felt called to show compassion and grace.
For instance, Martin said she felt the need to be there for Keith 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 that Keith now feels like a son to her.
For Thomas, he 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 said he feels 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.”
While the Stauffers, Thomas and Martin have forgiven Keith, 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 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, Keith has worked on bettering himself. He is currently 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 even baptized several years after going to prison; he is a member of Landisville Mennonite Church.
Nancy said that watching Keith’s growth has been one of the most impactful parts of the past 28 years. He is more responsible, more mature, more aware of the impact of his actions than he was almost three decades ago.
Keith is able to do this because of the unconditional love and compassion that he is able to — as he wrote in a letter to his church in March — “enjoy each day, the happy and sad moments.”