Last week, I got engaged to the man I had been living with for the last two years, and who I knew early on that I wanted to spend my life with. It was such an exciting occasion, and we were absolutely thrilled to be able to share our happy news with our loved ones. My family was ecstatic, having loved and accepted my partner into our family long ago; our friends were equally excited, as we had developed somewhat of a fan club due to how absolutely perfect we are for each other as a couple. We were so grateful for how people shared in our excitement with us, but feel the void of a large part of our loved ones not being so supportive of our union.
We’re Not Worthy
You see, while they are alive and well, I will never have in-laws in my life. They will never congratulate us on our marriage. They will never send well wishes. They will never share in any of our life events with us. They won’t even talk to us.
You’d think that we would have had to do something terrible for such a huge divide within our family, but we haven’t done any such thing.
From their perspective, we are not deserving of their love and support because we not Jehovah’s Witnesses.
When Shit Got Real, Real Fast
When I met my husband to be, Levi, he explained to me right off the bat that he was dealing with some pretty heavy shit in his life at the time. Being one who had literally had enough of carrying around the baggage of my romantic partners, I almost walked away, but there was something in his eyes that told me to stay and listen. They say that you can see pain in people’s eyes, but I never truly had seen pain like this before.
He shared with me that he had just left the religion of the Jehovah’s Witnesses after a long life of struggling within the religion. He was prompted to do so after his step-brother and soulmate lost his life to suicide after a long life of similar struggles within the religion and elsewhere in certain areas of his life. Levi, after that loss, knew that if he did not change his life, and finally get out of the Jehovah’s Witness religion, he would find a similar fate, and soon.
As we spent more time together, I fell deeply in love with him by learning of his life, his story, and by being so close to him while he went through the process of leaving the religion. The pain in his eyes that I noticed was so sincere, so raw, and after so very quickly seeing how incredible this person was who had came into my life, I hoped that I would be able to be his support while the religion stole the life he had known from him.
My Own Experiences with Jehovah’s Witnesses
I was no stranger to the Jehovah’s Witnesses (herein, I’ll call them JW); just like anyone in the world, I had my fair share of JWs at my doorstep, and just like anyone who wasn’t JW, I was equally annoyed. I had always been a bit surprised though when I’d always seen my mother have such strong reactions to the JWs at the door. My Mom is usually a calm, accepting, open and non-confrontational woman, but every time we heard the knock of the JWs, like a flip of a switch, my Mom could and turn angry and a bit confrontational when JWs show up at her door. As I grew up, I found there was a good reason for it.
There is a great divide within my maternal side of my family because of the Jehovah’s Witness religion. All my life, I had seen my mother be a support to her cousin, who had been “disfellowshipped” by the rest of the family: he hung onto her love and support because she was the only non-JW family he had, and she has always lovingly given him the love he deserves.
Growing up, I can remember knowing that something “wasn’t quite right” with this cousin; he was quite strange, and I could even recognize this at a young age. Now I know and can understand better that this cousin’s strangeness was actually the manifestation of a lot of mental trauma within his life as a JW. This is trauma that hasn’t really stopped for him in his life as he feels the loss of his who family, who turned their backs on him once he was disfellowshipped.
A Truly Remarkable Tragedy
Knowing these experiences within my own family, Levi’s story was incredibly interesting, but most of all, it did a pretty good job of breaking my heart. He shared with me that he had always been in the religion, but had never really been a true participant. He knew at 8 years old that he did not feel the religion in his heart. When he told his Mother this at that young age, she had a breakdown, and from then on tried never to show his wavering about the religion on the outside.
At 12, he was baptized, from his perspective, because he wanted to be a “mic runner” in the Kingdom Hall Meetings (the JW’s version of service or church or mass). He told me that when it came to preaching, the going door-to-door, he hated it so much that he would often pretend to ring the doorbells or knock, hope to Jehovah that the poor people weren’t home, and would breathe a big sigh of relief when he could mark on his statistics sheet that those residents were not home.
When he was 17, his parents divorced, and his Mother decided she did not want to be JW anymore. She participated in a “worldly” (aka. Non-JW) life for many years, and raised her youngest son, Levi’s younger brother, outside of the religion. She celebrated birthdays, Thanksgiving Halloween and Christmas, which are big “no-no”s for JWs.
Due to reasons of her own, I’m guessing loneliness from being shunned, she returned several years later to the religion, and ever since, has kept on a high horse about her devotion to Jehovah. Her youngest son never returned to the religion, a decision that we are eternally grateful for, and remains an important element of our current family life.
At 21, my partner married a woman, because as JWs, if you date, and if you want to have sex like a human being does, you must marry. All the while, he was so miserable about being forced into a life he just wasn’t into, that he relied on extremely high doses of antidepressants just to be able to function and fulfill his duty to Jehovah.
At 33, he had enough, and had to make the absolutely agonizing, yet crucial, decision to leave the religion.
When I met Levi, he was free, but was beginning a crucial part of his life where he was literally having to rebuild his whole life from scratch. With his decision to leave the religion, he lost everything. His marriage dissolved (more so due to not being the right match), his relationship with his older brother ceased to exist, his ability to have his young nephews in his life was lost, his Mother’s love was taken away, and toughest for him, his father, who he had loved and idolized for so long due to their special relationship wanted nothing to do with him.
Witnessing a Crumbling Family in the Name of Jehovah
Over the last couple years, I’ve witnessed first-hand the slow and agonizing process that Jehovah’s Witnesses enact in order to “show their love” to those who are at an impasse with the religion. Levi was never formally disfellowshipped, to do so, he would have to willingly attend a meeting with JW Elders, where he would have to go through some formal process where they would let him know he will be shunned forever. Instead, he is considered as “sinfully inactive” and therefore to be treated as though he was disfellowshipped.
I was with Levi the night where his Mom called him with a special message to deliver. I saw Levi excitedly pick up the phone, desperate for a connection with one of his parents. I saw his face fall when he realized that the purpose of her call was to tell him that since he did not live his life according to Jehovah, she would no longer talk to him.
His mother literally called him to tell him she won’t ever talk to him again.
I witnessed the night that Levi called his brother, and his brother told him that he would no longer talk to him, because as an Elder, he had worked so hard to protect himself and his family in preparation for Armageddon.
To have Levi in his life could threaten his place in paradise.
I witnessed Levi trying to talk to his Dad through telephone, email, text message, Skype, and about every other method he could think of to only be ignored.
At the beginning of our relationship, I reached out to his family many times, trying to “convince” them that I am not a bad person and that Levi is doing well and living a good life, and not so sinful as they believe. In response, I was told directly that their allegiance to Jehovah outweighs any desire to associate with a non-JW, and respectfully, pretty much fuck off.
I have seen the love of my life cry too many times due to his broken heart that his family had been torn apart by a cult.
A Resentful Saving Grace
I mentioned that Levi had a younger brother who had never returned to the religion. I am so grateful for this because it is through this decision that I am given the privilege of having in-laws. I absolutely adore my brother and sister-in-law to be, and we have bonded very well despite the fact that geography separates us.
However, there is a part of me that feels resentful towards not my brother-in-law, but his position within his family. He was never baptized as a Jehovah’s Witness. Because of this, he never took a vow to live his life according to the religion. As a result, he is allowed to have his family in his life: they call him, participate in his life, and don’t display any outward concern for the fact he is not a JW, although he himself keeps a bit of a distance on principal for what has happened within the family.
It boils down to this: The fact that Levi was baptized at 12 years old as a JW, and has since left, is the reason why he will be forever shunned. Because he wanted to run the mics at the JW meetings.
I can’t even make this stuff up.
Trying to Understand and Let Go is Not Easy
Being the person I am who is pretty steadfast in standing up for what I believe in, I have tried to fight Levi’s family through my words. Since my first introduction and subsequent rejection, I have written many emails pleading with them to “wake up”, to think beyond Jehovah and more importantly, realize what a life there are missing out on by turning their backs on Levi.
Every day I am in awe of the man he is, the heart he has, his compassion, strength of character, courage to live his life for himself, and most importantly, forgive his family for what they are doing. I never receive responses from his family, I know I never will – no life event, no act of love, no grand gesture will ever change that.
Together, we have learned a lot about the Jehovah’s Witness from the perspective of the “apostate”; that is, the people who have left the religion and have since become advocates and supports for those in similar situations. One in particular who is Lloyd Evans, who goes by the pen name of John Cedars and works for the organization called JWSurvey.org. He was once a Ministerial Servant in the JW religion and has since become a very outspoken advocate against and scholar on the religion.
For me, I have this nagging struggle within myself that wants to honour my own beliefs of being tolerant of other religions. I have intentionally tried to rise above the hatred and discrimination that has been targeted towards different religious groups. I’ve tried to walk the talk of accepting people, and their beliefs, but I think I’ll forever have a lifelong struggle with the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Embracing God as He Is
As a former Catholic turned Atheist, turned Agnostic, I feel resentful that the JWs are using Jehovah (God) to cause hurt towards someone, but manipulate people into believing that hurt to be masked as love, so to bring back those who have fallen away from the religion. I feel angry that my (our) God has been used as a tool for manipulative acts, mistreatment, and abandonment.
While God has for centuries been the cause of war and destruction, this hits too close to home.
As for Levi and I, we can build a new family around us, and together, we have been able to do that. My mother and sisters have embraced Levi as their own son and brother. My Mom, upon our engagement, told Levi she will give him the love of a mother that he deserves. We hold on dearly to those members of Levi’s family that are still in our lives, and have shared their own journeys with the religion. They all share a bond through their experiences of being within and leaving the religion, and experiencing the loss of family members as a result. They share the trauma, the hurt, and the sadness together. Those who are around them, including me, support them through this while trying to be as empathetic as possible.
I am comforted in knowing that God/Jehovah is still with us, even though I do not necessarily believe in a manifestation of God that is tied to any religion. What I know about God is that he does love us unconditionally, and will never turn his backs on us due to our alignment within a religion. Together, we have love, the freedom of belief, and the beauty of wonder surrounding us every day in our lives, which to us, is greater gift to our lives than any religion can ever give us.