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Violence in the pews

By Rebecca Nichols Alonzo

A church should be a safe and inviting place to worship God and spend time with fellow believers. But what if the church you attended was the center of a violent war between a disgruntled man who was faithful to sit in the church pews every Sunday with a relentless passion to destroy your devoted pastor.

What if during a Sunday night service, while you and the congregation sit listening with hearts pricked by the Word of God, are jolted by an dynamite explosion that could be heard miles away. Would you be apt to leave the church to attend another one that didn’t have a big red target on it, one that was “safer”? Or would you stand by your pastor and pray for God’s protection.

Thankfully, my dad who pastored a church in the 1970s had a dedicated church who chose to stand by him during the five years of terror we experienced by one man, a wealthy county commissioner, who sat in pew number seven every Sunday morning. Not only did everyone know who was behind all of the threatening phone calls and letters, sniper shootings and dynamite explosions, but this vindictive man lived across the street from our home, the parsonage. He knew when we were home, when we went to bed, and when we went on vacation, he hired men to rain down havoc inside our home. Our home was not a safe place. I was taught as a little girl to get down if I heard tires squeal because that meant an explosion would be shaking our home minutes or seconds later. The parsonage was not a safe place.

The community was shaken

How could it be with a man threatening we would leave Sellerstown, “walking, crawling, dead or alive?” Even with ATF mobile units in our yard and FBI agents looking to convict the perpetrator, the devil in pew number seven managed to strike. My dad’s response to the threatening letter was, “When the Lord gets ready for me to leave this church, He won’t send the message by the devil.” My dad was a Navy-vet, 6’3” strong man and did not hesitate to lay his hand down as a good shepherd would for his flock. The community was shaken by the attacks, but the church grew even during this time from 11 to more than 100 in less than a year.

But sadly in our case, evil knew no bounds. When I was just four years old and my mother was pregnant with my brother, bullets flew through our windows and the earth shook from 10 explosions during those years we lived in North Carolina.

Since this story has come out and people read what my family and our church went through, many are tempted to not believe it. They wonder how a pastor and his wife that were so loving and peaceful experience this kind of torment from a man that attended our church — isn’t church suppose to be a place of healing and restoration and peace. Can’t church-going people work it out in a meeting and move past the problem without offense? Maybe in some cases, but not ours.

During this time that we suffered at the hands of a madman, my parents knew that for me to live a life of freedom, they would have to model a life of forgiveness in front of me and my brother. At night during the scariest times for me, my mom and dad would kneel down next to my bed with me to say our prayers. We asked God for protection and to help us forgive our trespassers. We prayed for this tormented man and asked God to take away the hatred and bitterness that drove him to pace outside our home at night and scheme his next “trick” and how he would get away with it.

Because I was taught as a child the words of Jesus in Matt. 6:14,15 where it says, “For if you forgive people their trespasses [their reckless and willful sins, leaving them. Letting them go, and giving up resentment], your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their trespasses [...] neither will your Father forgive you your trespasses.” (Amp.Bible)

Reflect the heart of God

I was taught that we are all sinners in need of forgiveness and we all need to extend that forgiveness to others. If we don’t, we become prisoners in our own bitterness and anger.  Our parents modeled for us what Jesus models for everyone: Forgiveness is a choice and forgiveness is the language of heaven. We are called as believers to live a life that reflects the heart of God. To love the unlovable, to pray for those who persecute you and to bless those who curse you.

Here are some of the responses I have received after people have read my book:

“I don’t think I could forgive like that!” A close second response is, “Well, if Becky can forgive someone who murdered her mother, I should be able to forgive my business partner for what he did to me … or my family member for hurting me, or people that have blamed me for things I didn’t do … or my spouse for cheating on me.

Personally speaking, I’ve learned that when I step back from my hurt long enough to give it to God, he can gives me peace to get through the process of forgiveness. Forgiving someone is not saying what they did was okay or even that you have to have a relationship with them, in some cases that would be dangerous. But on the other side of the hurt, there is healing and Romans 8:28 is a promise you can take to the bank. God watches over his Word to perform it and he can take anything that we’ve been through and use is for his purposes.

Rebecca Nichols Alonzo is the author of The Devil in Pew Number Seven (Tyndale Books, 2010).

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