Thursday, January 20, 2011

Why I love the Jehovah's Witnesses

According to unofficial Watchtower historian Russ Kurzen, God chose to put his earthly organization in New York then the center of the world to be a light to all nations. Maybe. But I think they stayed for the posh city view.

“I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” --James Baldwin

It's easy to take a jaundiced look at one's years spent as a Jehovah's Witness – and I often do. But there's also a trunkful of great memories too, and I refuse to give them up, because to do so would entail denying huge swaths of the things that make me me. I'd like to talk about the love I feel for the Organization.

Funny as it may seem, I actually enjoyed going door to door, challenging the beliefs of others – and laying my own convictions on the line. For a while, my territory included the Reed College area, whose hypersmart students – a.k.a. Reedies – kicked my intellectual ass every Saturday morning. Most Witnesses hated working that area, but I loved it. After all, I possessed something unassailable – the Truth (or so I thought). Their relentless debates forced me to take a rigorous approach to my personal Bible study. At first, it made me a better pioneer. Eventually, it made me a halfway decent “apostate.”

Another great memory. Walking into the Tacoma Dome on Friday morning, Day One of the District Convention, and feeling engulfed by the love of 8,000 other like-minded people. Those conventions were a three-day high for me and even though I knew that soon enough I'd return to my endless cycle of whacking the Soprano and guilting myself for it, by the time the Sunday afternoon closing remarks rolled around, I could do nothing but savor the final moments of what seemed to be a spiritual paradise. Yes, I cried during the final song and applauded like a spastic gibbon when it was all over. I know how cult indoctrination retreats work, and maybe I was a victim of that. But the good feelings I experienced then were very real, and I feel no need to tag them with the graffiti of jaded hindsight.

One specific convention memory. Okay, make that two:

1) District Convention, July, 1983. Walking with my stepfather along the perimeter of Oregon State University's Gill Coliseum, headed to our Food Service table and munching a Muff-N-Egg, unwrapping the tin foil as we go along. We'd left the rest of the family behind and it was just us two, missing most of the program, attending the convention as workers. Not avid outdoorsy types, we called these working vacations our “annual fishing trip.”

2) Same place, the following year. Working the Food Service table again, handing a plastic carton of Swiss Miss vanilla pudding to Sandi Everly. After stalking her that day with a pair of binoculars and a pizza-faced chaperon at my side, I see her up close for the first time, framed in a simple blue cotton dress, her blonde hair pulled back into a French braid; a girl from Eastern Oregon whose sky-blue eyes, like heliotropic sunflowers, always seem to seek the horizon. If you and I happen to be in the Mid-Willamette Valley and it's getting to the end of a perfectly clear summer's day and you see me lost in thought, scanning the distant Cascade Mountain Range, no matter how much I love you, you'll know who I'm thinking of.

Like most people raised in the Witness world, I didn't go to college. For me, Bethel service approximated the experience (minus the education). As a young man in New York City, it was my first taste of life away from home. That's where I had my first drunk experience: thanks to (last I heard) missionary Jeff Taylor, I can't tolerate vodka in anything more potent than fancy spaghetti sauce. In the City, you can be poor as I, like most Bethelites, was and still have a rich experience – if you're getting three square meals and have a roof over your head. And let's get real – that roof happened to be in hoity-toity Brooklyn Heights. My room at The Towers hotel had an unobstructed 180-degree view of the East River and Lower Manhattan's financial district. Circuit Overseer Keith Kelley once complained to me that while he and his wife, with their combined 60 years of service, had to live in a travel trailer, punks like me got to live in nob hill luxury.

Hey Keith, guess what? I also lived across the street from Norman fucking Mailer.

The Bossert Hotel, once known as the Waldorf-Astoria of Brooklyn. My room was on the 10th floor, fourth balcony from the left. Lavish, yes, but I called it home for a while.

Memory montage: Getting lost in Manhattan and discovering John & Yoko's Dakota apartments or just lolling around Central Park with friends like Jon Courson, Brian McCristall, Tim Norvell, Dave Schafer (now a "helper to the Governing Body" – GO DAVE (I guess)!), Paulo Flor, Joel Stangeland, Joel Sommers, Joel Sidoti and a bunch of other Bethelites named Joel. Or with blonde-headed Wayne Barber, tiptoeing our way through the projects in Bedford-Stuyvesant while residents jeered at us from the windows, yelling, "You boys are lost in the soup!" Some of these guys are still at Bethel, some are gone, and a few have left the Witnesses altogether.

My crew on the building 3, floor 4 burst binder. That's me on the far left, behind the multiracial gay couple.

As a Bethel tour guide, I got to meet Witnesses from all over the world, most of whom had scrimped and saved in order to make the pilgrimage to Headquarters. As I showed them along the preternaturally shiny factory floors and multimillion-dollar printing presses humming theocratically along, I could see the pride in their faces as they saw what their hard-earned contribution dollars were accomplishing. I felt it was an honor to tour them around then – and I still feel that way. Sure, there's plenty to disagree with in the Watchtower, but who am I to begrudge these people their stake in the only thing that gives their life meaning? That would be like refusing a dying drunk his bottle.

Stella and her daughters Martha and Mary, a.k.a. the Triplets of Brooklynville. I spent every Thursday at their Park Slope house for book study. Their spare bedroom became my base camp for weekends away from Bethel.

When I heard that the Brooklyn properties were going up for sale, my heart broke a little. Charles T. Russell moved the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society up there in 1909. There's a rich legacy of religious history bound up in those old brownstones and grand hotels. It's a shame that they would cash out and walk away from all that. The Society's coffers must really be hurting.* If that's the case, we might be witnessing the decline of a unique 19th century millennialist Bible society. I, for one, hope they don't disappear completely. To tell the truth, I'd miss them.

Of course, there's more to this trip down memory lane than just that. Gradually, things got ugly until it was time to leave the Witnesses behind or die trying. Still, I love the years I spent in the Organization like I loved high school. They were some of the best years of my life and wild horses of the Apocalypse couldn't drag me back.

*Since 2006, hundreds of U.S. Bethelites have been returned to the field.

25 comments:

  1. Fascinating piece about your life in the Jehovahs Witnesses! For what it's worth, whenever JWs ring our doorbell in hopes of recruiting us, my husband plays with their heads by handing them Church of the Sub-Genius literature -- unless he's in a hurry, in which case he simply laughs loud and long. If you want to see this satirical religion for yourself, here's a Wikipedia link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_of_the_SubGenius. :-)

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  2. I always enjoy your blog posts. You write in an insightful way while also retaining some levity making for enjoyable reading.

    I spent 34 (the first 34) years of my life in it. Reading this post was a good reminder to not try to extinguish the good memories despite my anger. It's a heady experience to feel you know the ultimate truth about the universe and it's incumbent upon you to tell the world to save as many as you can before the generation of 1914 runs out.

    Jason

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  3. As a 15 year Zealous Person for Jehovah (and elder) here is my story.

    http://exjehovahswitnessforum.yuku.com/topic/922

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  4. Thank you for posting this! I thought I was the only ex-jw that really loved it when I believed it. I loved going door to door - I was great at it...I loved the conventions and serving my "brothers and sisters" in food service. I got chills when we all applauded and I felt like I had something no one else did.

    It all came together for me though when one day, I was in a meeting at work and words started to fly out of me....JUST LIKE IT DID WHEN I WENT DOOR TO DOOR...except, I used to think it was holy spirit. It was then I realized...it was ME. I understood that I could get all of those feelings on my own, which is a lot more rewarding :)

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  5. Annette ErnspergerJanuary 22, 2011 at 9:10 AM

    Thanks Joel, for reminding me that bitterness tastes terrible. I have to adjust my thinking now and then....

    And Vinny, I read your disassociation letter and just want to say WOW. Thank you so much for your well thought out points, and the research you did is impeccable. I'll be using that info with my still-in-bondage family, for what it may be worth to them. Can I find you on facebook like I did Joel?

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  6. Thanks for the post. It's nice to be reminded every once in a while that I had good memories about being in the organization. Swiss Miss vanilla pudding...I'm still addicted to that stuff. Have two packages in the fridge as we speak, in fact. I loved doing rural territory. Just getting out of the city and breathing in some clean air. Packing a lunch and having a bit of a road trip as a kid. My "binocular crush" was Ambre Zimmerman. For two District conventions, I had to make sure I "accidentally" bumped into her a couple of times. Fun memories. Thanks again.

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  7. THAT'S what the binoculars were for?! Sheesh, I never knew. I wonder if anyone ever scoped me out. If they did, I sure never knew about it. The young brothers' evident unwillingness to talk to the single sisters was one of the contributing factors to me ultimately leaving. I found boys who WOULD talk to me!

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  8. I wish I could adjust my thinking and remember good times, but the reason I left the JWs as soon as I turned 18 is that I never believed any of it and it was miserable for me the entire time. I'm so happy for you though that it was such a good, affirming experience for you. I hope the rest of your life is fulfilled and joyful!

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  9. I really enjoyed reading your blog. I was raised as a Jehovahs Wittness so alot of what you said was very familiar. Thanks for posting something like this, its nice to know Im not the only one who left but still has respect and love for the organization.

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  10. Great blog, I'm also an ex-Jehovah's Witness. This made me think of the good times that I did have as a witness, something I've never did before today. I left bitter, disappointed with the whole congregation gossiping about me. But I'm here. I'm your newest follower. Thank you. I also have a different blog that I hope you'll visit. I'd like you to follow me too ;). Regardless, what a blog.

    http://watchtower-dilemma.blogspot.com/

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  11. It's really nice to read something not completely tainted with bitterness. I'm glad that you can look back fondly on your experiences as a witness. I'm not to that point yet, and I have a lot of deprogramming to do still, but I do firmly believe that there are a lot of good people trapped in that religion. Don't get me wrong, I know there are a lot of bad people there, too, but I know that a lot of the witnesses are truly genuine. It's sad that they haven't realized what's being done to their minds. Anyways, thanks for the "uplifting" read!

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  12. Muff'n'Eggs!!! How I loved them! A whopping TEN tickets for those suckers, too!

    I remember FIGHTING for the opportunity to help with expediting. As a 'sister', who despite being a weaker vessel could out-back-press most of the young brothers in my congregation, I wasn't allowed to actually move food from one end of the building to the other. I was given the task of handing food items to the ticket takers during the breakfast rush. I was so insulted, I ran away and pouted on the roof of the racetrack we were renting.

    And that's about as much JW-speak as you'll get out of me. I never missed door-knocking. My complaints were dismissed as "fear of man". Um, no. I didn't feel right asking people to join a religion I couldn't make myself believe in. I suffered from cognitive dissonance.

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  13. Interesting how some of you ex-JWs who stayed into adulthood actually enjoyed going out in service knocking on doors.

    When I was about 14 or 15, I was already becoming a non-believer, and this was one of the straws that broke the camels back. I absolutely hated being forced to knock on doors and push Watchtowers. HATED. IT.

    Now if a JW comes to my door, I do enjoy being on the other end, difficult and skeptical, questioning their premises etc..

    Recently a 12 or 13 yr. old kid with a woman came to my door, him questioning me about what I know about the spirit world and the supernatural. I completely turned it around on him (in a friendly manner), questioning how he knew such being existed. I felt sorry for the kid and I hope I planted a skeptical seed.

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  14. My life was horrible. When i was at the meetings i played the role i had to play but at home i was an angry child. Constantly getting introuble because I was resisting and trying to fight. I hated it. The only time i had fun was when we had gatherings and we would do play and dance and stuff like that. Everything else was bullshit. I was raped, beaten, sodimized, talked about by the children, everything you can think of. When i finally told my family what happened to me the brothers convinced them that it was my fault because at 15 i got pregnant with my daughter, so they said i was like that anyways and my parents went on with it and tried to make me feel like it was my fault. And i felt guilty for a short while. I felt stuck for the whole time like i had no out. But now i am grateful and thankful that i have a wonderful family married to the love of my life and father to all of my children. I was never a promiscuous girl ever, but they branded me as such. Maybe its because they knew of all the brothers that were taking advantage of me there. Most of them are dead now. And one of them is blind. I can say god don't like ugly. I am a true Jw survivor and try to educate as many people as i can.

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  15. Hi Maigyn- what a sad story. But I'm glad to see you've got a happy adult life. Thank you so much for sharing your story.

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  16. may 30 i hope you all can find hope and healing,and a great realationship with GOD still,we know GOD is all over and is just a prayer away and looking for true seekers of him,im glad that GOD is not in organizations anymore and he is definatly no longer in my little box i put him in,he is and is a rewarder of those who dilligently seek him,the bible prayer and a open heart will find him..love to you all...

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  17. Joel, I just found your blog. I wanted to find out about Brian McCristall and your post came across.

    I read your words and they made me feel so good. Thank you! I'm so grateful I grew up having a spiritual, very well defined formation. I respect and accept everybody's thinking and choices. And I have to say, I respect and accept mine as well.

    Anyway, Brian McCristall is a man I have in such a high regard. I met him in Colombia so many years ago. During my first visit to New York he rescued me from a nightmare. A few years later, in California, he did the same again, he rescued me from misery. I just wish he could know that. I'm so very grateful for his kindness and generosity.

    These words I had to say, somehow. Thank you Joel!

    Best regards!

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  18. Hi there -

    Brian is a good, good person. A true gift to humanity. Contact me at joel.gunz (a) gmail.com. Maybe I can get you in touch with him.

    Joel

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  19. I can respectfully say fine if you want to leave Jehovah God. He gives you that choice. But why do you all waste your time writing blogs and forums and articles??? Don't you now have better things to do with yourselves since you've moved on to a different, supposedly wonderful life? You'd think if you were truly happy now it wouldn't even be a concern to you and it would be the furthest thing from your mind. The question that always reoccurs to me is, if you've decided to stop serving Jehovah God, our Heavenly Father, Almighty God and Creator of the universe, then to where are you going to go???? The world and the religions there don't hold out anything better, from what i've seen. Just watch the news, horrific things happening. No peace, no love, no goodness, no answers. There is absolutely no where to go! So now what? Well Jehovah still offers you everlasting life on a paradise earth if you turn back to Him. I don't see anyone else offering that!!! Jehovah the God of all comfort and of tender mercies. I am thankful for His compassion and 'my soundness of mind' that i believe in Him with my whole heart.

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    1. Hi Anonymous, thanks for sharing your views. To answer just one of your questions, I don't consider it a waste of time to write this blog. (I rarely update it, if you'll notice.) Instead, I consider it a service to other former JWs. Many people who leave the religion are traumatized. Having lost their friends, family and social network and being stigmatized as evil by people who they thought loved them, they sometimes need help coping with very painful feelings and in making the transition to a new life--with all of its opportunities and, yes, pitfalls. I consider it an honor to help. Take good care.

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  20. I am a third generation jw and i loved being a jw most the time, so many good fond memories with friends and family and though i lefy once before to live life as a worldly person i came back and became a ministerial servant, and now i have walked away and sometimes it is hard to forget about sll the bad stuff but remembering the good stuff always jelps thank u for this article.

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    1. Yes, I think it's hard to keep things in perspective. Some days I just hate the name Watchtower, and other days I miss it too, even though I really have no desire to go back. Leaving the JWs is like spring cleaning: you haver to figure what to throw away and what's worth keeping.

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  21. I was looking for a particular article on JWs about a convention in Latin America and somehow I got to this blog...the internet is amazing. Anyway...I see you mentioned David Schaffer in your story. He was my instructor at some point. I don't remember if he was one of the visiting instructors for one of those one-day MS and two-day elder classes back in like '05 or '07 or if it was for the week-long elder school in 2011. I'm thinking it was for the short classes. It was in New Mexico and the Spanish field. The person I'm thinking of (at the time I met him) was in the Service Dept at the USA branch and had something weird going on his head and hair, like spots. Anyway...I remembered the name. Brought back memories from those days...and the food, oh god...the food. I left all angry with the BOE and swearing I'd never go back; I just walked out one day and never went back. I guess I'm in inactive status, idk. But lately I've been reconsidering. None of my fam are JW so it's not a matter of family and now I live in another country so it's not about going back to old friends...I think I miss the simple life I had back then when work really a "means to an end" like a CO once told me and pioneering was the center of it all. I was a good one too...read the Bible, prayed, prepared for RVs and studies, out on service all the time, encouraged other in the congregation, actually did my 70 hrs/month, help 8 people go into the pool, LOL. I used to love morning service at the bus stops and the gas stations and, of course, the morning break at McDs, Einsteins, or Frontier before going to the regular group at the KH. Be out when the sun was coming up over the Sandias was awesome. Also the trips to Amarillo, TX for the conventions were fun...like a caravan with Watchtowers taped to the car windows so we would honk to other JWs as they passed us or we passed them on I-40. Here where I live now the JWs are banned (or whatever status they have...point is they cant practice freely). I'm dating this girl who is also a foreigner and is here because parents work here. She has a aunt and cousins that live with them and are JWs (I didn't know before staring to date). Well I found out because she invited us recently to the Memorial which was a surprise. Of course I didn't say anything about my history with he JWs in the States. My girlfriend and I went and for me it felt like being home. Although the language is still a barrier...I felt like I was among friends and family. It made me think of the times I gave that talk. Brought back so many feelings that I had thought were gone...hadn't really miss the congregation til that day. And now coming across your blog and a familiar name...it's nice. My time here is over soon at the end of June and then I go to a country in Latin America...I think I will look for the JWs there.

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    1. Thanks for sharing your story with so much heart and self-reflection. There are a lot of beautiful people among Jehovah's Witnesses, and I still miss some of them. Happily, some of my closest friends ended up leaving too, and we've been able to pick up where we left off.

      Best of luck on your journey!

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  22. I am not a Jehovah's Witness but have studied and attended meetings with them in the past and it baffled me to hear people who studied the God's word complain so bitterly about past events. We are all humans, we all make mistakes, should I have the right to judge because of that? I know JWs, young people who do their best to stay firm. The fact that we are in the organization does not guarantee anything, it requires a lot of effort to stay firm and remain in the faith.It is my believe and I am writing from experience,I started hanging out with the wrong people and because of this I started adopting behaviors that did not comply with God's words. Slowly, I stopped attending the meetings and finally left. But still remember Jehovah and know I need to get back and and help other people and practice what I preach and above all, draw close to Jehovah because there is nothing better than that. Who said there won't be jealousy or gossiping around Christias if there were in Jesus time, but we need to learn and know how to cope with this weaknesses and talk with our brothers about it. I guarantee you there is gossip and other kind of traits in your family like any other family bit you have never left them and that is because there is love inside everyone of us and is comingfor the Almighty. Thank you.

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