A few days ago while I was walking my dog around my neighborhood, I saw a group of familiar looking faces.walking toward me. The men were dressed in suits and the women wore modest length skirts with sensible shoes. All were carrying what looked like book bags.
As my pup and I began passing them, one of the men made a point of glaring at me while one of the women whispered to the other next to her, furtively glancing at me. Wow! I thought to myself. The group looked familiar – but then again, I live in a small neighborhood – so that’s not unusual. But these people definitely knew who I was and were none too happy to see me!
As I walked up the steps to my building it finally occurred to me who these people were and that I knew them at one time.
I was raised a third-generation Jehovah’s Witness. It was almost twenty years ago that I was “disfellowshipped” – their term for “excommunicated.” That meant that anyone who was also a Witness and had been friendly with me, or even related to me, was no longer allowed to associate or speak to me. Any Jehovah’s Witness who associates with a “disfellowshipped” person runs the risk of being disfellowshipped as well.
It took me several years to adjust to this treatment because, as I mentioned, I was raised in that religion. Jehovah’s Witness children are not raised the same way other children are brought up. Anyone who has spent most of their life as a Jehovah’s Witness is faced with some enormous challenges when leaving. That fact was hard for my friends who had no experience with Witnesses to understand.
Growing Up a Jehovah’s Witness
Most people know that Witnesses do not celebrate holidays. That includes Christmas, Easter, Valentine’s Day, Independence Day and even New Years. Many may not realize that Witnesses are also banned from celebrating birthdays. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that the celebration of birthdays, along with other holidays, has pagan origins. True or not, Witnesses believe it is wrong to celebrate any of these occasions.
They are also not allowed to salute the flag. They are taught that it is showing allegiance to a country and a Jehovah’s Witness should show complete allegiance only to God. They are forbidden from being involved in politics by voting, running for public office, or joining the military.
The holiday and birthday rule can be difficult for a child being raised as a Jehovah’s Witness. Children are not comfortable around those who are seen as “different.” This religion is not a very large one in comparison to others. That means that Witness children will, most of the time, be the only members in their class, grade, or a small school.
The schools I attended were fairly large, but I was definitely still in the minority. Elementary school was not difficult for me, although it did have its moments. In the 5th grade I was bullied by a boy in my class for not saluting the flag. (Looking back, it may not have been nice of him to do that, but you have to give the kid props for his patriotism!) My difficulties really started in junior high school when I started to become interested in after school activities.
Aside from what I’ve already mentioned previously as to what is banned, Witnesses are also discouraged from having friends outside the faith. Witnesses are taught that God (Jehovah) has plans to destroy the earth as it is. He will then create a paradise (a “utopia”) and only people of their faith will survive. God will destroy everyone else. Therefore, while it is fine to associate with a non-believer in an attempt to convert them to the faith, if that person is not interested in joining, you must not befriend them.
It does not matter how good-hearted that person might be, if they are not a Witness (or show no interest in becoming one) you should not befriend them. Witnesses also believe that there is always a chance a non-Witness may influence you to commit a sin. One popular Bible verse they often use to support their belief that you should not make friends with different faiths is a well-known verse in Corinthians that says “bad association spoils useful habits.”
That rule applies to Jehovah’s Witness children as well. After school activities, school dances, pep rallies - they all involve associating with all types of people, most who are non-believers – and therefore not allowed. The same rule applies even if a classmate invites you to their home or to a party – if they are a non-believer.
Needless to say, dating a non-Witness is completely out of the question. That made things difficult for me as I approached my teen years. I was not interested in getting involved with anything that would get me in trouble at school or with the authorities. At school I made a few friends that were not Witnesses who had the same mindset. If I was invited by one of my friends to her house or to an after school activity, I was not allowed to go. It didn’t matter how nice my friend might be - it was because she was not a Witness. After all, she might try to influence me to drink alcohol, smoke a cigarette, or experiment with drugs – not that I had any interest in doing any of those things.
I simply wanted to be a “normal” kid and do “normal” kid things with people at school who were not “troublemakers.” Only because they did not believe the same way as Jehovah’s Witnesses, they were branded “bad associations.” So for my childhood, and that of most Witness children, life consisted of going to school, going home, going to the Kingdom Hall three times a week, and serving in the door-to-door ministry on weekends. (That was something for which the Witnesses were most known.) I was only allowed to associate with other children in their own church. But what about someone who does not have much in common with any of the other children at their Kingdom Hall?
Modern “social media” has made it easier to make friends with those whom you have similar interests. But that was not the case in the 1980’s. Each “Kingdom Hall” has more than one congregation that members are assigned to according to where they live. Everyone is required to attend the congregation services or “meetings” to which they are assigned. Those who do not follow those rules will be reprimanded by the elders. Special circumstances may allow you to attend a different congregation from time to time.
Through mutual friends and family members, I did make a few friends with kids from different congregations other than my own. However, if I wanted to spend time with them, that was looked down upon because they were “not part of our congregation.” While I didn’t dislike the kids that attended my congregation, I felt awkward because I just didn’t have much in common with them.
Starting a New Life After the Witnesses
Needless to say, since Witness children are so sheltered by their families and only members of this group, it can be very difficult to assimilate to the outside world. It can be especially difficult when you have been disfellowshipped. You are ostracized by your relatives and those around you who have known you for years.
A person can be disfellowshipped for many reasons. The primary reason that you “commit a sin” and the elders find out about it. When the elders meet with you they will require you to disclose all the details of your sin (which, if it is of a “sexual nature,” must be very exciting for them). Then you must tell them whether or not you are “repentant.” They then decide whether or not you are “sincere in your repentance.”
I personally cannot tell you how they come to this decision. All I know is they claim “the Holy Spirit guides them.”
My “sin” was that I wanted to leave an abusive husband. According to the Witnesses divorce is only allowed if adultery has taken place and the adulterer is “unrepentant.”
After I was disfellowshipped and split from my husband, I also was laid off from my job. Obviously a very stressful time for me.
Keep in mind I had no college degree (going to college is strongly discouraged by the Witnesses), so it took a couple of months for me to find a permanent job along with an apartment of my own. Prior to finding a job, I kept busy with temp work. Even though money was tight, I was able to make ends meet. It was difficult for me to find a roommate because I’d lost all of my Witness friends – and, of course, did not have any non-Witness friends.
I moved into a small studio apartment by myself. This was my very first time living on my own without my parents – or a husband.
I slowly began to make new friends - some who are still in my life almost twenty years later. But it was not an easy transition. When former Witnesses lose everything familiar to them, especially those who have grown up in that sheltered environment – and being taught that the “outside world” is not a place for them – they are like “a stranger in a strange land.” When trying to make new friends your “picker” may be off. You are not sure who you can trust. Not only that, but everyone you meet and attempt to get to know will have extremely different backgrounds and won’t understand that you are embarking, almost literally, on a whole new world.
Should I go back?
I do have the option of going back to the Witnesses – provided I “repent” for divorcing my abusive ex-husband. But that is not going to happen.
After much research and “soul-searching,” I have come to the conclusion that the Jehovah’s Witness religion is not for me. I now have my own beliefs that work well for me and make me happy. I have also remarried.
Although I do speak to my parents occasionally (Jehovah’s Witness parents have the option of continuing the relationship with their disfellowshipped children if they wish), I still have many other relatives that live nearby who refuse to speak to me. I have managed to come to terms with that situation.
In my case, all of this took place prior to social media taking over the world. Someone facing these same challenges today has online tools to help them cope and meet others who are in the same boat.
Now there are many support groups available online. JehovahsWitnessRecovery.com, Freeminds.org, and Ex-JW.com are just a few examples. There are many groups online on Facebook.com such as Watchtower Uncensored. There are many books by writers with similar experiences such as Crisis of Conscience by Raymond Franz, I Was Raised a Jehovah’s Witness by Joe Hewitt – and many others.
If you are reading this and are in the same situation as I once was, I encourage you to search for groups and books like these. They can be a tremendous help. If you know someone else facing this same predicament, please be patient with them. After all, they too are struggling to find their way in this world after being Jehovah’s Witnesses.
© 2014 - Brenda Thornlow