There is also the well known reaction for most people to hide and not to open the door when a Witness knocks. But there is more, a lot more than that. I put JW in my search engine and found a website that lists 141 rules that fill in that blank. As a former Jehovah’s Witness, I have an insight into the faith, an insight that reveals what happens when your mother opens that door and life as you know it changes.
Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs) are known for “preaching” from door to door, trying to spread the word of God and the Bible. That is exactly how they found us. My mom chose to take the time to listen to the members that came to our house and found the core of their message very inviting compared to her Catholic upbringing. She started studying weekly with one of the women and my Dad, although reluctant at first, joined her six months later. After five years, they decided to fully commit. My family became Jehovah’s Witnesses when I was old enough to have experienced celebrating birthdays and traditional Christian holidays like Easter and Christmas, but was young enough that I could be classified as “growing up a Jehovah’s Witness.” On a basic level, JWs hold meetings and read, interpret and apply what the Bible dictates to everyday life. We started attending meetings every Monday, Wednesday and Sunday at the Kingdom Hall, their place of worship. That schedule was tedious and time consuming even though it was the bare minimum. It was also difficult because my immediate family was the only part of my family to leave the Catholic Church and join the Witnesses. It was even harder though to make others understand who or what we’d joined.
In grade school, I could not partake in the holiday parties at school. My mom would pick me up and take me home in the middle of the day. In junior high and high school, I was not allowed to attend school dances or friend’s parties. The faith dictated that I was only allowed to have friends of the same religion. Friendship made with other “worldly” schoolmates was not an option and, for most, highly frowned upon by the faith. Accordingly, unnecessary associating or socializing with non-believers was to be avoided. Fortunately for me, my parents were on the lenient side in their enforcement of these strict rules handed down by the faith. My parents held us to their own scope of accountability and moral value sets within our private household, so the faith did not entirely determine our interaction with secular society. We were permitted to maintain our childhood friendships we had already developed prior to becoming Witnesses and we were given a looser interpretation of the rules than most of my friends’ parents. I was allowed to go to Friday night football games, participate in sports, and attend prom. I went on to graduate from college even though the faith viewed higher education as an improper use of one’s time in “the last days.”
The JW friends that I did have were my age or older, all of whom were a product of a long family connection to the organization or newly converted, spread across several school districts. If a person of the opposite sex wanted to join my friends and I out, we had to go out in groups. Boys and girls were not allowed to be alone together, for dating was only for those who were ready to engage in marriage. As a result, the majority of my 17 and older friends were getting married right out of high school, or while in school. Marriage meant that you could have sex and not get in trouble.
Unfortunately, a large portion of my friends from such young relationships are no longer married to their partners, have divorced and have left the organization altogether. Being a witness also meant, that smoking, drinking in excessive amounts or underage, sex before marriage, tattoos, piercing and anything derived from a “worldly” influence and disrespected the “divine standard” was prohibited and accountable for public social punishment.
One would think that the relationships between the JW youth would be that much stronger because we all were raised to value the members of our faith over non-believers. However, the clicks of JW kids were harsher and crueler than I had known. That’s probably when I first knew I did not want to be a part of the faith. The internal gossip and sh!t talk made it impossible to trust anyone. On the surface, everything looked warm and fuzzy, like the white rabbit in Monty Python’s search for the Holy Grail. But internally it was vicious and calculated. It was like everyone was eager to throw each other under the bus, or into the lair of the “terrible monster with nasty, big, pointy teeth.” No one was safe. It didn’t matter where you lived or went to school. Rumors weren’t just spread around the hallways at school, they were spread from city to city. At an impressionable age it was a confusing and an ugly addition to usual internal/external struggles that “normal” teenagers experience.
Frustrated with the excessive restrictions that the faith placed on my life, coupled with the realization of the woman that I really was, I decided at the age of 18 to withdraw from this organization that I knew so well. Looking back, this was one of the hardest decisions in my life at that age that I had to make. JW’s have a 3-tier system of punishment, dependent upon the severity of the sin. In my initial encounter with the ‘elders’ or priests, I chose to approach them and reveal my misbehavior. They reassured me that if I invested more time in my relationship with Jehovah and proved to be remorseful for my actions, I would redeem myself. Unwilling to change my lifestyle, I was punished a second via public reproval. At that time I was also warned that if I did not change my ways, I would be disfellowshipped, meaning that I would be excommunicated. Ultimately determined to leave the faith, I willingly continued to reject the rules that I was expected to follow without question. During my third and final interaction, they summoned me. Being called before the elders was absolutely terrible—a complete psychological mind f*ck. I had to sit before three grown men and discuss my actions in detail; ones that most 18-year-old girls tell their best friends and hide from their parents. It was violating and demeaning. I eventually broke down when I was told to recite passages from the Bible that pinpointed the sinfulness of my actions. Ultimately, I was disfellowshipped. As a result of this, other JW’s were not even allowed to greet or make eye contact with me. It was a shunning experience.
Now as a woman many years removed from this experience, I have come to realize the effects of this life experience. Jehovah Witnesses pride themselves for speaking in agreement and being like-minded; however for me I witnessed them creating a community of inclusivity that was extremely judgmental of not only secular society, but the faithful as well. However, most JW’s have not experienced what privately goes on behind the door of a judicial hearing as I had. As a result of this, I initially struggled with fostering relationships with others, as I couldn’t find it in myself to trust others. With time and with the support of my family, who left the faith when they witnessed how the elders had treated me, I can honestly say that I do not hold any ill will toward the faith, nor do I experience any regret for the time that I spent as a member of the faith. Ultimately I have walked away with a broader spectrum to empathize with others and have developed a sense of clarity of the world around me.
I have discovered a new click of some of the Jehovah’s Witnesses that grew up with me. We see each other in passing, moving in different social circles that only run into each other as fate would have it. We look at each other and say hello, hug, or just nod. Even though we have left, for some the deprogramming may take months or years. We share our stories with whom we choose. For us there is a certain bond or camaraderie that is unspoken, as we now live our lives as we choose in a free society.