In the non-fiction The Devil In Pew Number Seven, pastor Robert Nichols and his family are terrorized by a neighbor in the small town of Sellerstown, NC. I’m not talking about knocked over trash bins or trampled flowerbeds. I’m talking about threatening letters and phone calls, no fewer than 10 separate bombing incidents, and the hiring of a sniper to riddle the family’s home with bullets.
The account is narrated by Rebecca Nichols Alonzo, the pastor’s daughter, and eldest child. Now grown with a family of her own, she decided that the story needed to be told. What she and her family endured at the hands of a neighbor (Mr. Watts) might enrage you on several levels. First, you will be furious that a disgruntled church member could spend his days terrorizing a young family. (Watts had lost his control over the local church when the new pastor came to town. This didn’t sit well with him.) Then, you might experience what I felt, and that was pure incredulity that the pastor refused to move his family to safety. He was determined to continue turning the other cheek. He forgave in the name of Jesus, flatly refusing to leave his parish, or his home.
The attacks grew worse. Dynamite was detonated around their home… even next to Rebecca’s room. Mr. Watts killed their dog. He flattened their tires. He would grin at them while they talked with police. He continued to evade the law. The pastor and his wife continued to pray for him. When their daughter and son would cry to them in fear of what would happen next, they would calm them by quoting scripture. It was more important to forgive than to run away.
Spoiler alert (stop here if you don’t wish to know the outcome):
Mr. Watts did not kill the pastor’s wife. She was, however, murdered when the children were quite young. She was shot by a deranged man, who was infuriated because the pastor and his family took in his wife and infant son (to help keep them safe from his abuse). This man shot both the pastor and his wife. Only the pastor survived.
The man who shot the couple went to prison. Eventually, enough evidence was accumulated to also send Watts to prison. The damage, however, was done.
Following the death of his beloved wife, and years of unrelenting fear at the hands of Watts, the pastor’s nerves got the better of him. He had several nervous breakdowns, and over the course of the next few years, completely fell apart. They finally moved from their home to live with relatives in another city. He grew worse. He started hearing voices. He started questioning why he didn’t move his family. He was repeatedly hospitalized. It didn’t help. The pastor died when Rebecca was 14, and her little brother was 9. They were heartbroken.
Following the death of the father she idolized and adored, Rebecca, now living with her Aunt and Grandparents, received a phone call. It was Watts. He was out of prison.
He called to tell her that while in prison, he had found the path to Jesus. He wanted her to know how sorry he was for his behavior. He wanted her forgiveness. And at the age of 14, she did just that. She forgave him. Watts then kept in touch with her over the years, and set up trust funds for Rebecca and her younger brother. Being a very wealthy man, this was easy to do, and likely the only way he thought he could help.
At the end of the book, Rebecca tells her readers that she’s sure that her forgiveness of Watts would be questioned. But really, how else could she overcome her grief? It’s how she was raised. It’s precisely who her parents wanted her to be. She shares:
“Bitterness is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die.”
You can’t help but marvel at her strength, and her unwavering faith. This story was not about terror. It was simply about the power we have to forgive. 3 stars.