The ‘Devil in Pew Number Seven’ can be found in the church of our lives

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By Fran Salone-Pelletier, Religion Columnist

Thanks to the generosity of a newfound friend who let me borrow the book, I just finished a race through “The Devil in Pew Number Seven.” To call it a race is not an understatement, since I pored over the book until I finished it in eight hours. This was not my reacting to a dare or an enticement to competition. It was purely interest-driven. I was captivated by the true story that took place in Columbus County during the 1960s.
Specifically, the locale was Sellerstown, a kind of crossroad community 30 miles outside of Whiteville, where segregation was still evident. The black folk, mostly hired help on the local farms, attended Mount Pilgrim Missionary Church, while the white community worshipped at the Free Welcome Holiness Church.
 It was here, in the latter house of God, that Robert and Ramona Nichols answered God’s call to serve. He would be the pastor; she, the church organist; and little Rebecca, their daughter, who’d win the heart of the congregation.
As the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that freedom in this place was calculated and determined by one man who “owned” the town. Welcome was limited by his influence. Holiness would be undermined and reinterpreted according to his desires. Church would become the site of controversy and the epicenter of his obsession to rule possessively.
The entire tale is offered in the first-person voice of the author, Rebecca Nichols Alonzo. Its power is in that choice of presentation, especially since it is largely the voice of a young child whose innocence was continually disrupted by the devil in pew number seven and the henchmen he controlled. Its power can also be discovered in the tenacity of a family that refused to be driven from their commitment to God’s will or to lose sight of the strength that is housed in forgiveness.
I am sure we have all occupied pew number seven at one point or another. We have all wanted to be center stage, first in line. We have all felt that our way was the better one. We have all been dismayed when someone else gained the limelight we’d once held. We have all found it hard, perhaps even impossible, to forgive, even when we know that we have done wrong to others, as well having been wronged.
There surely have been times when we have not been able to “bless those who persecute us; bless and do not curse them.” This story is our story, even if we have not taken it to the extremes described in the book. It is hoped it will never occur.
It is also our story as told by the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, when he voiced his call to godliness. “The Lord God opens my ear that I may hear; and I have not rebelled…I gave my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who plucked my beard, my face I did not shield from buffets and spitting,” (Isaiah 50:4-5).
We are called to leave pew number seven, to come forward and follow a “cross-eyed” God, a God who infused divinity with humanity, sought only to be merciful and just, and asks only that we be similarly godly.
Robert and Ramona Nichols showed their daughter and son, their faith community, their extended family, their neighbors and friends that goodness is both costly and contagious. For them, God was an ever-present help, an encourager in bad times and a rejoicer in good ones.
Their faith had feet...and eyes and hands and heart. No matter how desperate things were, they had set their feet on the Way and their eyes on the prize. They would allow nothing and no one to deter them.
With each page, I was drawn more deeply into their dilemma and their determination. The words of Scripture, not just those quoted in the text but the ones I have read and tried to absorb throughout the years, came alive in the vibrancy of a man and woman whose fidelity to God was unwavering.
In myriad ways, they denied themselves, took up their cross, and followed their Lord to crucifixion. Friends and family stood by helplessly, their pleas to leave unheeded. It was not obstinacy that drove the Nichols family. It was love. It was hope. It was trust. To the best of their ability, they thought as God thought, not as humans. It was a costly discipleship.
Their intent, always, was to empower life. It was never to impede it. The homeless would find a home with them. Slowly, the hardhearted were able to unveil their hidden hearts of flesh. Yet, there were those, like the devil in pew number seven, who could not abide transformation. They were determined in their persecution. They sought to shatter goodness into piercing fragments.
To a degree, they succeeded. As a child, Rebecca never felt safe. Her parents lived in the darkness of insecurity. Her brother, younger than she, was unaware that his childhood was devoid of innocence; his memories would be scant and indistinct.
Yet, their narrative was vibrant with ceaseless hope, trust, and faith in a loving God. Their commitment was to speak forgiveness, the language of heaven. It was the only tongue they knew.
In time, this communication would be a charismatic one. It would translate evil into good; hatred into harmony; chaos into order; separation into communion. It would be the dialect and dialogue of discipleship.
I won’t spoil your reading of the book by giving more details. I will only urge you to find the book and read it. Read it with an open heart and mind, or with closed ones that God will open. Read it and then listen carefully to the question Jesus posed to Peter. Hear God asking, “Who do you say that I am?”
What is the content of our belief? Ponder the questions and then wrap them with another, “What has faith in what you believe cost you?”
When we hear God’s word as deeply as the epistle writer James did, we will demonstrate our response in the way we live. We will demonstrate it as the Nichols family did, by speaking the language of heaven, forgiveness, with our lives. Those lives will truly be a free, welcome, holiness church where saintly people occupy all the pews.

Fran Salone-Pelletier has a master’s degree in theology and is the author of Awakening to God: The Sunday Readings in Our Lives [a trilogy of Scriptural meditations], lead chaplain at Brunswick Novant Medical Center, religious educator, retreat leader, lecturer and grandmother of four. She can be reached at grammistfran@gmail.com.