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.