By Aaron Earls
On the Thursday evening before Easter, March 23, 1978, the Nichols family had their last meal together in the parsonage of Free Welcome Church in Sellerstown, North Carolina. Six years of terror at the hands of a church member came to a horrifying end. Read how one pastor’s child forgave the unforgivable.
In Matthew 18:22, Jesus tells us we are to forgive someone who sins against us “70 times 7” times.
But does that include forgiving death threats, explosions, and murder? Rebecca Nichols Alonzo says yes.
“Forgiveness is the language of heaven,” says Rebecca, author of The Devil in Pew Number Seven.
In her memoir, Rebecca describes witnessing a six-year terror campaign against her parents by Horry Watts, a powerful county commissioner.
Watts held a deadly grudge over the influence he’d lost when Rebecca’s father, Robert Nichols, became pastor of Free Welcome Church.
During Rebecca’s childhood, her mother recited the classic children’s prayer with her: “If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”
But in the parsonage in Sellerstown, North Carolina, in the 1970s, dying in the night was a real possibility for Rebecca and her younger brother, Daniel.
Someone was trying to kill their father. That person happened to live right across the street. And on most Sundays he was glaring and threatening from his normal seat in the church.
Rebecca recalls the horrors her family experienced—like 10 separate bombings, one of which sent shrapnel through Daniel’s room where he was sleeping in his crib.
After the blast that almost killed Daniel, Watts stood outside his home, laughing and yelling across the street: “If that one didn’t get you, the next one will.”
Through it all—the threatening letters, anonymous phone calls, shotgun blasts through the home—Watts was still a leader in good standing at Free Welcome Church.
But everything changed on the Thursday before Easter Sunday, 1978. The pastor and his family were at the dinner table about to say the blessing.
As 7-year-old Rebecca and 3-year-old Daniel looked on, Harris Williams walked into their home and shot Robert twice, then turned his gun on Ramona, their mother.
Ramona died before help arrived, and Robert was severely injured.
Investigators believe Watts and his associates convinced a drunken Williams that his wife was having an affair with the church’s pastor. In reality, Williams’ wife had fled because of his drinking and had sought shelter with the pastor’s family.
Williams was later convicted of second-degree murder and assault with a deadly weapon with intent to kill. He was sentenced to life in prison.
Rebecca and Daniel’s lives changed forever. But their parents’ legacies have stayed with them.
“As a child, I watched my parents love, pray, forgive, and stand on the Word of God,” Rebecca says. “Our parents never spoke ill of anyone around us, even the man who was trying to kill our family.”
Though it took time, she chose to follow the example of her parents.
“If they had not forgiven and not taught me as a little girl to pray for our enemies, it would have destroyed me with anger and bitterness,” she says.
After going through depression as a teenager and wrestling with why God would allow such pain and devastation in their lives, Rebecca says she “had a profound realization I needed God more than I needed to be mad at Him.”
That forgiveness was put to the test when she received a call from Horry Watts. Ten years after the murder of her mother, 17-year-old Rebecca listened as the man behind her nightmare of a childhood asked for forgiveness.
“I can’t live the rest of my life without knowing you’ve forgiven me,” he told her. Then he asked an impossible question: “Can you?”
He said he’d found Christ during the one year he spent in prison after pleading no contest to conspiring to bomb the church and the Nichols home.
“Mr. Watts,” Rebecca said, “we forgave you a long time ago.”
She points to the cross and how Jesus forgave those who were crucifying Him.
“Jesus was speaking the language of heaven,” she says, “a language humans don’t understand because when we’re hurt, we want revenge. But Jesus wanted to forgive no matter the cost, because the relationship that would come from it was worth it.”
When asked how she moved beyond the pain into forgiveness, Rebecca speaks of God’s faithfulness and the blessings that continued throughout her life. She also mentions three practical steps.
Part of it, she says, is realizing the real enemy is not the person you see.
“The enemy loves to use people, who are created in God’s image, to hurt others,” she says. Understanding this helped her shift the blame and anger away from individuals onto Satan.
“Another part of forgiving was learning our Heavenly Father redeems every drop of pain,” she says. “I don’t have to get revenge. I don’t even have to wait for an apology. I can give it to God, let Him handle that person, and redeem it, restore it, and use it to help others.”
Finally, Rebecca says, “Forgiveness is a daily choice I have to make.”
As she thinks through what she has lost and continues to miss her parents, she asks herself, “Will I continue to walk in forgiveness or will I slide back down into the mud of misery, grudges, and loss?”
And her answer always comes back, “I choose forgiveness.”
Though she now lives in Tennessee, she went back to Sellerstown a few years ago. Old friends still live there. Rebecca says they will always be a part of her life, regardless of the time or distance separating them.
Driving down Sellerstown Road, one can still see Free Welcome Church. Nestled between modest homes and sprawling farmland, the church stands, defying the pain of the past and building on the legacy of its former pastor.
Much like Rebecca, the church has continued, wounded, but infused with grace by a pastor and his wife who taught what it means to follow Christ, what it means to persevere, and what it means to forgive.
“We are not victims,” Rebecca says. “We are victorious.”
Aaron is the senior writer at Lifeway Research.