Shawan Harden was only 15 in 1995 when Donna Ellard, one of her close friends, invited her to Judgment Seat, a no-frills dramatization about the ramifications of life choices hosted at Shiloh Church every year. Shawan didn’t know what it was about when she agreed to go, but Donna was going, so she decided to tag along.
That year the show had a scene about a car crash—Shawan doesn’t remember the details of the plot line, but she remembers standing next to Donna during the car crash and Heaven scenes.
“The main thing I remember looking back now is just when they did the car scene outside,” Shawan said. “Somebody had had a wreck, and one or two of them went to Heaven and one or two of them went to Hell, and it was just walking through those situations.”
That night the two teenagers went home and had a long talk about their lives. Donna was a strong Christian while Shawan knew the difference between good and bad, but she didn’t always make the best decisions.
“I knew better, but I had done my own thing for a while,” Shawan said. “I was more apt to get in trouble.”
Their long talk turned into a figurative come-to-Jesus meeting with Donna telling Shawan she needed to shape up and make better choices. They talked about Heaven and Hell, the things they saw at Judgment Seat and the things going on in their lives.
“It just opened up a whole conversation of Heaven and Hell and me knowing better and her saying she wished basically that I would make good choices so that I wouldn’t go further down a bad path,” Shawan said.
It would be one of the last times Shawan talked to Donna. About a week after the show, Donna, 16, crashed her car into a tree and died. It was eerily similar to the scene in Judgment Seat, and at first it haunted Shawan as she tried to grieve.
“(Judgment Seat) would replay in my head,” Shawan said. “It would go from nightmares about the accident and what actually happened, and then I could always remember standing in the Heaven scene.”
Even though it’s been two decades, Shawan still tears up when she talks about Donna.
Through the Darkness
We’d love to say Shawan was fine after Donna’s death and that she was able to cope in a healthy manner, but that’s not usually how grief works. Shawan spiraled downwards for almost a year, fixating on Donna’s last thoughts and the last moments before she died.
“I was drinking a lot and doing some drugs at the time,” Shawan said. “I became really suicidal after all of this and especially after I turned 16 about six months later … It was mainly having nightmares and trying to reconcile all of it in my head … after I turned 16 and just realizing if I do want to see her again, I need to straighten up. It was always reliving those conversations that we had and knowing I needed to give my life to God.”
It was hard to think clearly or figure things out when the grief was so overwhelming, but eventually Shawan came to terms with Donna’s death. The scenes from Judgment Seat helped her realize everything was going to be okay.
“I could go back and replay the Heaven scene and literally remember her standing beside me in there and thinking, ‘It’s got to be something like that to her,’” Shawan said. “Because of Judgment Seat, I had a visual of what I believed she was experiencing, and I didn’t have to dwell on the wreck itself.”
A year after Donna’s death, Shawan started going back to church. Since then, her faith has grown. While Donna wasn’t there to mentor her along the way, it was definitely that late-night talk that changed the trajectory of Shawan’s life.
“It’s forever a part of my life in a way that touched me deeply and is a great source of remembrance that my friend is in Heaven,” Shawan said.
It was more than two decades before Shawan could go back to Judgment Seat. Now that her daughter is a teenager, Shawan wanted her to have the same visual of Heaven she did as a teenager.
“It’s life,” Shawan said about the scenes in Judgment Seat. “Things do happen. It’s really scary on the one hand, but it’s very comforting on the other because it opens up communication with your friends that maybe you wouldn’t have otherwise.”
Judgment Seat is gearing up for their 26th year at Shiloh Church in Somerville. More than 150 church members come together for the production.
Due to the complex nature of the play, production leaders recommend no one younger than 10 attend Judgment Seat. If you do bring your children, they strongly suggest one adult watch the kids while the other participates and then switch for the second showing.
Judgment Seat will run from October 30 through November 1 with two shows each night—one at 6:15 and the other at 8. On November 2 there will only be the 6:15 p.m. show. While the show is free for general admission, VIP tickets are available for $5 and ensure a seat closer to the stage.
For tickets and more information, check out their website.
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