I was born Jan 30, 1963 to two Jehovah's Witness parents who were special pioneers in a Southeastern state. They were both African-American, and coincidentally (??) so am I. I grew up around the Watchtower movement and after 21 years, joined it, then after rethinking and realizing the impact of that decision, I withdrew. Growing up in the deep South, I became readily aware of the fact that I'm black and most of the powerful and influential are white. I also became aware of the Watchtower's emphatic claims on its members being able to transcend racial barriers--not only here in the USA but worldwide.
As I was growing up, I was keenly becoming aware that "Judgement Day" (J-Day herein) would be "just around the corner," and that it was fruitless to pursue a middle class status available to most African American men and women as teachers, nurses, doctors, advanced educators, ministers, etc. My vocation would be a fulltime JW marketing agent (a pioneer). It was a life I soon realized would lead to abundant poverty--even for the most mainstream white, Anglo-Saxon protestant male. For a minority, it was a fate worse than slave trade. How so? One, you gave up your independence and relied totally on the Watchtower Master. Displease this Master in any way and you were "toast," "fried," "crispy critters," "sleeping with the fishes," etc. Therefore, I was not totally surprised to discover, among some of my deceased father's correspondence with the Watchtower Master, requests for approval of his impending marriage. Later, there were letters notifying of my impending birth and requests to remain on the special pioneer lists. The responses from the Knorr-wellian Watchtower Master were terse and robotic: rule such and such, and 'others have successfully continued and met their quota [of hours in canvassing activities] while caring for children.' Of course, between the lines was the obvious Watchtower displeasure with the unorthodox childbirth; this displeasure became more obvious when the 'special pioneer' assignments and movements were ceased.
After my arrival on the scene, the remnants of the Civil Rights Struggle within the USA was beginning to gather and forge a bond which would forge ahead into the 1970's Affirmative Action bills and other initiatives to assist women and minority groups gain economic footholds. However, my parents and other African Americans were given spectator seats to these events. I can remember my mother stating the opinion of one Governing Body member (GB, or GBM):
'While the Watchtower members (or JWs) cannot become directly involved with this political effort, we know that it will accrue benefits to our colored associates.'
In other words, 'we hope this will blow over, but if it doesn't the colored associates will have some token of freedom.' It is also a fact that during this same time the Watchtower was defiantly ignoring the draft requirement--a draft that landed many young men in a land that would become their final resting place, Vietnam. While many "brothers" were landing a prison sentence in a military brig, the Watchtower quietly upheld the sovereignty of such states as Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Indiana, Oklahoma, Missouri, etc where Jim Crow Laws were de facto standard. And, to the surprise of many Yankee brothers, the South had black Circuit Assemblies hosted by black district and circuit overseers and white Circuit Assemblies hosted by white district and circuit overseers. Of course, district assemblies were a time for unity! Yes, this was the time when the black brothers could come together with their white brothers and sit in the reserved black sections and listen to the wonderful spiritual banquet provided by Brooklyn. While I am too young to remember the theme and details, I was seated with my parents in Garrett Coliseum (a few miles away from Governor Wallace's mansion) roped off from the white brothers. So, while the Watchtower could find the fortitude to defy the Federal government regarding draft issues, apparently State governments and their segregation laws were entirely too powerful for its deity.
However, this event was not merely a hiccup in time. The Watchtower continued this pattern of isolation and segregation until the middle of the 70's. As black brothers gathered in their storefront Kingdom Halls and recycled church kingdom halls, and observed the incoming 70's and the great hype of 1975, the white brothers sat in their newly built brick kingdom halls in the white sections of Montgomery and other Southern cities. Even after George Wallace capitulated on segregation, the Watchtower continued the practice in its meeting places (as did many other religious groups in the South). Thus, the Watchtower, contrary to its hype, was not the "united" paradise it portrayed. Only after the failure of 1975 to bring in the "6,000 years of human history climax of God's kingdom" on the "fitting" date of Oct. 4/5, 1975, did the Watchtower begin to 'integrate' its southern regions.
How was this integration accomplished? Well, all the poor belongings of the black circuits were sold or scrapped and merged into the white circuits. Most of the white brothers kept their seats of authority and "responsibility" while black brothers were "retired." The reasoning for this was that black brothers would not be able to command the respect of their white brothers and sisters in the South. (I overheard this while sitting at a table with a white circuit overseer and my father.) While some individuals, black and white, did withdraw because of this integration effort, the majority remained and were quite congenial in the Kingdom Hall. Occasionally, your black elder or pioneer might be invited to a white family's home for dinner (gasp!!). For a black person who lacked some spiritual commodity or higher status on the JW "pecking order," being in the newly integrated congregations was sheer hell. A young black man being placed on trial before the JW Judicial Committee for misbehavior often does not face equal justice as a young white male. This could be due to differences in culture where certain mannerisms or expressions are seen as defiance or unrepentance--the key factors that determine whether one gets kicked or 'hand slapped' (in addition to how well one kisses the elders' asses). A white male going to an R-rated movie might not be given any reprimands; a black male seen going to the same movie might get tossed out on his ear.
Of course, while we in the South were struggling to simply remain present on stage and in positions of authority in the Southern circuits and districts, the black brothers who visited from Northern states and Western states made us aware of issues they faced in the inner cities:
Householder: I'd like to get the magazines, but...
JW Agent: Well, if you do desire to read the journals, I can provide you with an older issue at a reduced cost.
Householder: Well, I can afford it! I just wondered, since so many JWs I know are black why your journals only feature white men and women?
JW Agent: (stammer, stutter)
Householder: I just wondered is it a "white" church or a "black" church?
The JW agent would stammer, give some of the "unity" spiel and leave with their tail tucked between their wooly legs. It was in the 80's when I finally began to notice pictures of American blacks in yearbooks, publications, and magazines. In fact, up until the 80's, Watchtower literature gives the distinct impression that the only blacks in its movements are those from West Africa (East Africans tend to be lighter skinned). I often wondered why, given this secondary treatment, my people continued to flock into this movement. But, my answer can only come from a sociological study of religious movements in black America. Blacks used religion for political or social esteem. In the blacksegment of the Watchtower movement, a young man could amass influence and esteem; a black woman could do likewise by being a fluent speaker and recruiter. Plus, the Watchtower offered a strong moral character-builder for young blacks and blacks fallen into life's unsavory trenches of drugs, alcohol and promiscuous sex. Unfortunately, as too many blacks have noted, JWs often seem to have no "soul" in their religious ceremonies when compared to the "spirited" liturgies of traditional black churches rooted in gospel music and good times.
This is not to say that JWs don't have "good times" but that the celebration is subdued--more like a whispered "hurrah" versus a rousing chorus. A good time for JWs in my younger days was a wedding reception or wedding shower (both pagan traditions that the GB seemed to forget about). Of course, as we passed through the sexual revolution of the 60's and into the 70's the GB squashed any sort of "entertainment" at these festivities as well. So, now, many JWs will hold "potlucks" or "picnics" in a park on a Sunday afternoon (oh yeah, my fun meter just tilted off the scale...). Some bolder members indulge in card play and dominoes (whoa, my heart rate is going a little too fast, now...). JWs in the Baptist South did not watch "R" movies (until they come out on TV), some rebuked cable TV viewing (until it came out on regular TV), "debasing music," concert attendance and attending bars and coffeehouses (I presume juice and yogurt bar and health food stores are okay).
A Turning Point
Why did I leave all that excitement?
I was beginning to need more spiritually than I was getting from the WTS studies and magazines. The Watchtower began to repeat itself too frequently in the 80's and became surprisingly more, shall we say, self-obsessed. I must also add that most of the WTS literature was irrelevant to me; most articles are on topics regarding those going to heaven. If you were an "other sheep" like me, you basically knew you were going to remain on earth, and there was no more excitement or reason to hype a new "end-time" date, so basically your job was to show up and make the Memorial attendance count look good. Attend a Circuit or District Assembly, and there we were with more boredom on issues regarding squeezing out more converts, controlling your children, and controlling your banal urges as a part of human nature. As I recall the last district assemblies I attended had overly dramatic "life dramas" on some non-sequitor issues of the day. Mind you, none of these were probably relevant to real issues. Nothing like, my daughter is pregnant; my son is doing drugs; my son/daughter is "gay." No, more of these dramas dealt with those "grumbling" morons the "apostates") who don't appreciate what a wonderful gig we of the GB have set up here. That, to me, was what was the clincher--the relevancy. The GB made sweeping generalizations and condemnations without regard to individuals and, apparently, reality. At one time I remember reading an Awake! on the subject of teens and masturbation--apparently, adults didn't do this (I thought at the time). Later articles issued dictums on the aphrodisiac of "hot sauces" and spicy foods which ultimately led to sexual misconduct. Too bad they didn't know about Ginseng/Ginger Ale! Other topics that I often found unsettling were the GB's constant portrayal of homosexuals. As I was maturing, I didn't know of any homosexuals--just effeminate men who were often mocked as we met them in our canvassing activities. So, when I actually met my first gay male, a member of the small congregation I attended, I simply saw him as a rather meticulous and effeminate male. In the South this can be a deadly combination for a young man; even worse than being 31, single, not dating and never married, as the old wives' tale goes. Of course, the Watchtower exacerbated the ostracism of gay men and women as it never really examined them as people, but as alcoholics and narcotics. Thus, I found it sad but not surprising that many former JWs who happen to be gay are also recovering from the "cures" they tried--from marriage to extreme full-time service.
The last memories I have of how elders deal with the subject of gay men and women is a public discourse wherein gays and lesbians were labeled and smeared with the cause of all our "moral breakdowns." At the time I was in deep denial, or approach-avoidance, of my own sexuality (full of homophobia), and so I bought into the false assumptions that many JWs (black and white) concocted regarding how gays are "made." One theory goes that straight males go to college, get raped or hazed in the fraternity and then become confused. While sexual abuse and rape are in the histories of some gay men's childhood, it is not a cause of homosexuality. And, of course, don't get caught in the bathroom with one--it could be contagious...or so they make it seem.
The Watchtower still can't handle this aspect of humanity, and has no broad dictates of what to do about gays and lesbians, aside from "you stop that, and quit practicing that." This is akin to prohibiting a young person in love from marrying their object of desire. As I hinted above, the WTS doesn't deal with these issues very well. It took them until 1991 to print an article dealing with the problem of HIV infection. For those who don't know, HIV infection began in the late 70's and rode rampant throughout gay and straight communities in the 80's, and it seems that HIV infection has always been present in African countries.
Yet with this firm non-grasp of reality, the Watchtower insists on being the final authority on life and death issues and psychological issues, even sexual issues. Given that a person sitting a desk in Brooklyn has no clue what goes on in the lives of me and you, but especially mine, why should I submit to their dictates?
I decided that I could no longer bear the inconsistencies of discipline and doctrine, as well as their narrow-minded arrogance. In making my escape from the Watchtower, I planned well. I tried it their way, but I also packed a "golden parachute"--my college education and training in computer systems. So, when I bailed out, I dove into my work while attempting to balance and wade through the remnants of my spiritual past. After passing through a repressed-grieving period for my father, I had my "awakening."
I also began a spiritual journey that took me into faith-filled Christianity and then into a reflective look at spirituality in general. Again, a balance between the extremes of view that had plagued my life for a quarter of a century.
At present, I am entering a doctoral program and will be receiving an advanced degree from a major university. I intend to use my newly gained skills in assisting those seeking a way out of the Watchtower "matrix" of influence and dominance.
Being out of the shadow of the Watchtower has given me a freedom to
explore spirituality and myself as I never had before. Along the way, I
have met many other 'survivors' who are courageous titans. The wonder of
laying aside the mantle of a "marketing representative" for the Watchtower
Society is meeting people of varied backgrounds and embracing them for
who they are, not whom the Watchtower Society wants them to be, and how
I can make them Watchtower clones. It was a startling "awakening" to discover
that Jesus did very much the same in his ministry to individuals--"just
as we are."
To flesh out the sketchy profile I have posted, my discomfort with and distancing from the Organization stems from my childhood struggle with doubts, uncertainties and that fragile thing called "faith". I was rather moody-- sometimes gung-ho JW, other times brooding whether my family and I were doing "right" thing. Amazing, now that I can reflect, how obsessive it became to know who was "right" (good) and who was "wrong" (evil, wicked).
My "faith" hinged on the constant message that C.T. Russell had predicted 1914 AD and from that foundation sprang the irrefutable authority of the Governing Body and others "in charge." I hadn't known about the "zero year" issue where 606 BC "magically" became 607 BC, so that 1914 AD would be maintained. And, someone probably will say, "1914 isn't all there is to the Truth". Okay, we'll see.
All I knew is that in 1975 or *before* I had much opportunity for adult life, I'd be living in a "new system". First, I realize that some of the fervor of this date came from the people in the congregations. Second, I realize that it is part of Christian belief to expect Jesus' return. Nevertheless, when this group continued to state anyone who expressed doubts was wicked, it seems unfair that they would later "punish" those who were "too eager in expectations"-- expectations ignited by their propounding and preaching beliefs based on "a" date. The fervor for a date...
A date counted from 1914, counted from 606. A date given and "suggested" by an auspicious body of men who had as their "divine right" the 'accurate' prophesying of 1914 as Christ's Return. Never mind that this date had previously been selected as 1874, 1844, 1799, etc. and its usage was now simply ideology plagiarized from Adventists. This date IS the Holy Grail.
If it's wrong, then there isn't a Governing Body. There is no "earthly organization" mirroring a "heavenly organization". There is no "144,000" remnant of exclusive Memorial partakers. There is no worldwide preaching of the "kingdom of God". And, by weight of authority claimed in 1914, no reason to refuse blood transfusions, organ transplants, conscientious objector duties, school sports, pursuit of a college education, job promotions, etc. etc. etc.
It's all a great big hoax if 1914 and 607 BC -- another pivotal date -- are incorrect.
I think it all began unraveling in 1975, but I just didn't know how to handle it. Here I am-- a dependent of JW parents--lacking in practical job training who hasn't really planned a life past 9th grade--aside from "pioneering". Fear of abandonment kept me ensnared. Fear of parents also kept me ensnared--I think Christians would say "fear of man", "pride". I couldn't bear to say "my religion isn't right on everything." Although I believe "fear of parents" was the strongest, since I had been coerced at a very young age to perform in field service
So, I kept "limping along" until I had no choice but to choose baptism to keep the waters smooth. Ironically, I was attending college on commuter basis at this time and had access to tons of magazines, newspapers and books that criticized the Watchtower. Unfortunately, most were simply written from the standpoint of orthodox Christianity and not in terms of the internal contradictions within the Watchtower's belief structure.
These were easily brushed aside.
I pursued my "dedication" in 1984, and even managed to squeeze in pioneering in late 80's. I thought this would get me into the "higher levels" of "joy" that so many expressed. But, as many of you know, this is a vicious treadmill with no "slow" button. You can never do enough to get that elusive "joy."
Stress caused by a relatively new job and lack of supportive elders within the new congregation-- after all, I had a college degree--began to click on the "light" and surface my long repressed doubts (that 1975 failure was still never explained).
Someone probably is thinking--if you weren't raised inside the Watchtower system--why not just go see a doctor to aid with the stress and ignore the elders? First, elders are THE "guardians of the gate" and your reputation as a JW rests on their opinion. Second, elders are THE "counselors" and often a JW seeking secular psychological or emotional support is seen as spiritually deprived. Not all elders are made in this mold, but those few have a difficult struggle fighting the "norm".
After my "awakening" I moved again to new city/ new congregation/new employer. This new employer was more "reasonable" and of better "character" and the workload less stressful. My mood with work went fine. In fact, I found "excuses" to stay late at work to avoid the congregation. When I did attend meetings, I found myself experiencing extreme nausea and anxiety attacks-- later, I learned that these are symptoms of a person in conflict, or dissonance (ie: what you hear/see is out of sync with what the analytical and deductive reasoning tells you *is* happening). The same symptoms of the "perfect suburban housewife" whose husband is alcoholic, teen is drug abuser, etc. etc. Calm on the outside; storming on the inside.
Worse? When I tried to speak about my feelings and misgivings with my mother or other family, no one truly listened or echoed sentiments. Finally, I found myself dodging meetings, assemblies, tossing the subscription magazines, stopping my subscriptions, and in a last desperate act, asserting my independence by announcing my move to a new job out of state far from my extended family.
I thought I'd probably hobble along like before: meet the new congregation then disappear. The funny thing is that I had begun reading self-support books from various bookracks, and I felt emboldened to make a "cold-turkey" change. After a month of living in a hotel on a limited wardrobe and using that as an excuse for not attending meetings, in a last attempt, I drove around town on a Saturday looking for the KH given the phonebook address. I didn't find it.
I tried again Sunday morning. No success. I tried again the next week. Nope. Being the superstitious JW and having all those stories of JHVH keeping people from seeing things [oh yes, the Devil does that too...], I decided to spend the next Sunday reading the newspaper and chomping down pancakes. On Monday morning I noticed that I was calmer, relaxed, and not jittery--my stomach was at ease. In fact, the usual stomach knots on Sunday were gone.
At this point, I wasn't ready to go find G-O-D, and had frankly counted myself as an atheist. "No more religion for me..I'm full!" I never told my family this. What I did do is take time to compose a few notes on the failure of 1975 and how that failure meant Governing Body had no claims to theological privilege. ["duh!"..to use a childish expression, I had only touched a tip of my iceberg] I began a research odyssey/adventure to find a vast number of reasons for being skeptical about the Watchtower.
My research also revealed orthodox Christian history and creed vs. what I had been taught "they believe". Christians don't believe in the Resurrection. False. So, my horizons broaden, somewhat. I considered the typical "born-again" Christians, but the dogmatic approach and totalistic, absolute views scared me.
So, at this point, I am spiritual and try to tolerate all beliefs-- yes, even JWs, because as flawed as their doctrines can be some persons do find a path to self-recovery. However, the tragedy is that those persons will remain dependent on a religious organization vs. becoming functional human beings. I think the skeptic in me will surface from time to time, but I've also learned that skepticism is part of what being "faithful" and spiritual encompasses.
Permission to reprint granted.
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