The Devil in Pew No. 7
(iStock Photo/theprint; sterlsey)

A parishioner’s obsession with controlling a small-town church became a living nightmare for a new pastor’s family. Here’s one woman’s remarkable story of pain and forgiveness.

I ran.

 My bare feet pounding the pavement were burning from the sun-baked asphalt. Each contact between flesh and blacktop provoked bursts of pain as if I were stepping on broken glass. The deserted country road, stretching into the horizon, felt as if it were conspiring against me. No matter how hard I pushed myself, the safe place I was desperate to reach eluded me.

Still, I ran. 

Had a thousand angry hornets been in pursuit, I couldn’t have run any faster. Daddy’s instructions had been simple: I had to be a big girl, run down the street as fast as my legs could carry me and get help. 

There was nothing complicated about his request. Except for the fact that I’d have to abandon my hiding place under the kitchen table, risk being discovered by the madman down the hall and, in turn, provoke another confrontation. I knew, however, that ignoring Daddy’s plea was out of the question.

And so I ran.

Even though Daddy struggled to appear brave, the anguish in his eyes spoke volumes. Splotches of blood stained his shirt just below his right shoulder. The inky-redness was as real as the fear gnawing at the edges of my heart. 

I wanted to be a big girl for the sake of my daddy. I really did. But the fear and chaos now clouding the air squeezed my lungs until my breathing burned within my chest. 

My best intentions to get help were neutralized, at least at first. I remained hunkered down, unable to move, surrounded by the wooden legs of six kitchen chairs. I had no illusions that a flimsy 6-by-4 table would keep me safe, yet I was reluctant to leave what little protection it afforded me. 

In that space of indecision, I wondered how I might open the storm door without drawing attention to myself. One squeak from those crusty hinges was sure to announce my departure plans. Closing the door without a bang against the frame was equally important. The stealth of a burglar was needed, only I wasn’t the bad guy.

Making no more sound than a leaf falling from a tree, I inched my way out from under the table. I stood and then scanned the room, left to right. I felt watched, although I had no way of knowing for sure whether or not hostile eyes were studying my movements. I inhaled the distinct yet unfamiliar smell of sulfur lingering in the air, a calling card left behind from the repeated blasts of a gun. 

I willed myself to move. 

My bare feet padded across the linoleum floor. I was our family’s lifeline; our only connection to the outside world. While I didn’t ask to be put in that position, I could see that my daddy, an ex-Navy man, was incapable of the simplest movement. The man whom I loved more than life itself, whose massive arms daily swept me off my feet while swallowing me with an unmatched tenderness, couldn’t raise an arm to shoo a fly. 

To see him so helpless frightened me. Yes, Daddy was depending on me. 

I had to run.

I shot out from under the carport, down the driveway, and turned right where concrete and asphalt met. The unthinkable events of the last five minutes replayed themselves like an endless-loop video in my mind. 

My eyes stung, painted with hot tears at the memory. The fresh images of what had transpired moments ago mocked me with the fact that my worst fears had just come true. 

I had to keep running.

To get help for my momma and daddy. To escape the gunman. To get away from all the threatening letters, the sniper gunshots, the menacing midnight phone calls, the home invasions—and the devil who seemed to be behind so many of them. But I’m getting ahead of the story.

Five Years of Terror

Mr. Horry James Watts lived across the street from us. By all outward appearances, the 65-year-old was an upstanding citizen and a happily married, devout family businessman with nine children. But many of the locals in Sellerstown, N.C., and the longtime neighbors who knew him well testified that, in addition to his respectable public facade, he had a sinister side. Mr. Watts had a reputation as a womanizer, a control freak and a kingpin of sorts—a narcissist who didn’t hesitate to leverage both his influence and affluence to his advantage. 

Mr. Watts seemed to own or control everybody and everything within his power—he even managed to control the church affairs at Free Welcome Holiness Church, which he attended religiously. 

His favorite pew was pew seven. From that comfortable perch, he had the perfect vantage point to mind everyone’s business. What’s more, even though Mr. Watts was neither a professed believer nor a church member, the church followed his wishes without opposition. 

That is, until Daddy arrived on the scene. Daddy was a quick study. Witnessing Mr. Watts’ stranglehold on the church, Daddy made changes to end his dominance. 

Making the case that church business should be conducted by the church brethren as a whole—not by one or two outspoken individuals—the church family voted to turn the business of the church over to members only. From then on, stripped of his power, Mr. Watts had no say in church matters.

This came as a blow to Mr. Watts, who had been serving on the building committee. Mr. Watts became so angry that he sent us an unsigned threatening letter, which arrived at our house on Dec. 23, 1972. 

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