I want to start out by saying that I’m not a judgmental person. I consider myself to be very easy going and accepting of people but I recently discovered something that shocked me so much I feel I have to write about it.
Before about two years ago, I knew very little about the Jehovah’s Witness religion apart from the fact that they wear suits and knock on your door trying to convert you. At a push I’d also be able to tell you that they don’t allow blood transfusions at all even if someone only has that as a chance of survival.
So I was not on board with their methods and ideas but pretty ambivalent to them in a live and let live sort of way. Until I met a lovely girl on the bus. We were both with our kids, (or so I thought at the time), and we grinned at each other and I instantly knew she would be someone special in my life. For a start, she shared my policy of smiling at strangers to see where it would lead. What is that cheesy quote, “a stranger is just a friend you haven’t met yet”, I think that is pretty apt where this situation is concerned! So we exchanged a few pleasantries across the aisle and I can’t remember if it was that day or whether we bumped into each other again not long after, but we ended up walking to the same destination one day and chatting away, I learned that she was a nanny and she told me all about some wonderful things going on in the area for families. After that, we became friends on facebook, and the rest, as they say is history!
She is a wonderful, gentle, caring person with a heart of gold, who has time for everyone, treats my children as if they are her own and goes the extra mile for someone everyday, and today, she buried her father. However, this beloved father, who she was so close to as a girl, teenager and through her twenties, refused to see her, even when he knew he was dying. Her heartfelt letters and cards were read and considered but the answer was always the same, that he would not see her until she did one thing.
Which was what you might wonder. Well, the one little thing she had to do if she had any hope of seeing him before he died, was to sit at the back of a room, every weekend, ignored by everyone there, for years, repenting of her ‘sins’, until it was decided she was forgiven, by which time he would have lost his battle to cancer anyway.
What was her big crime? She chose to leave the religion. The second she made that life altering decision, she was dead to her friends, her family, everything she knew. She had been in a horrible abusive relationship, but was unable to leave while still a witness, so she finally came around to the way of thinking that something that made her live such a life of unhappiness in the name of ‘God’ may not be something that is as amazing as she had been told since birth. She finally drew on every ounce of strength she had and freed herself from both the marriage and the religion. The price she paid was so high. Everyone she ever knew, pretends she doesn’t exist. She wasn’t allowed to mix much with her ‘wordly’ family,the family who weren’t in the religion, so didn’t know them very well and anyone that was in the faith was banned from talking to her.
Today’s funeral was an experience that I found quite shocking. I have had a Christian upbringing, and despite not feeling religious now, I still live by the principles of doing unto others as you would be done by, and trying to be a good Samaritan. I am also always welcome in the church, and not just because my mum is a Vicar, but because there is no judgement about my choice. My friend was told that her dad had specifically requested that she was not present at the wake and that she may attend the funeral itself but she should sit at the back. She received a phone call from an Elder to reiterate this the day before the funeral.
Thankfully, she had some moral support along to help her stay strong. Her husband, myself, and four friends that are also ex-witnesses. She had already decided that she did not want to sit at the back, she wanted to sit at the front, with the rest of the family. So we made our way to a row near the front and sat down, taking up a whole row.
Their presence was obviously causing a stir amongst the witnesses. One lady swung around with an enormous welcoming smile, until she registered who they were, you could see the process of realisation and the smile was gone and shock was quickly replaced by an impassive mask before she turned away. The only people who spoke to my friend were her non-JW family and people who either didn’t realise who she was, or who mistook her for her sister, who isn’t a JW but never has been so it is fine for them to talk to. As soon as they registered who she was it got very awkward and they quickly extracted themselves from the conversation and scuttled off, as if scared.
The man doing the service was obviously nervous, there was a lot of exaggerated lip licking and every time he caught the eye of anyone on our row, he would stumble over his words. He read a lot of versus from his bible and would relate them to the deceased, the main theme of the whole ceremony was not the person that had passed away, but how he was so devout, the many ways he had shown his great servitude and how everything was fantastic because he had so much faith, and even the great pain of his illness was a good thing as he felt it had brought him closer to his Jehovah God. There was a lot of emphasis on not feeling sad as he would meet them all again in the resurrection, (only the witnesses of course, and only a certain number of them), so they should all be happy about that. There was talk about what a good preacher he was, how much faith he had and how his faith had helped him through making some very tough decisions. Like cutting off his own daughter perhaps?
I was left with just an overwhelming sense of sadness, not just for the people cast out from everything they know for making a life choice, but also for the Witnesses themselves. They face a hideous choice, to either never speak to a beloved family member again, to see their child, their sibling, their mother or father suffer, to loose a very best friend you have had from childhood, to have to ignore them if they see them on the street, to face the recrimination of someone deeply hurt attempting to get answers from them, or be faced with the same fate themselves. The pain of that happening over and over again must be unbearable.
As a parent myself now, there is not a thing in the world that my children could do to cause me to cut them off. It would be too hard. But this is what is happening to children and parents all over the world. All because they left the religion, some for reasons like abuse. The more I found out, the more I started to research and what I discovered broke my heart, videos of a son, trying desperately to get his dad to acknowledge and talk to him to no avail. Stories of people that never got to see their beloved family member before they died. The people we were with all had their own stories, that they had lost parents never getting a chance to say ‘I love you’ one last time. One lady I was talking to is too afraid to go into her town because she has only recently left and still feels the gaping hole in her life, she knows that if she does go out, not one of her old friends is allowed to even acknowledge her existence. She is nothing to them, and that is too much for her to deal with at the moment.
I think it says something about my friend that despite these people’s stories, despite their fears about walking into a place filled with people that consider them dead and are most definitely not happy at their presence, ignored by aunties, cousins, former friends, they all travelled over an hour each way to sit by her side. Luckily, her story has a happy ending, despite being left utterly penniless after her JW first husband cleared out their joint bank account and her family disowned her, she is now happily married, with a fabulous family of her choosing, of which I’m blessed to be a part of, and a very successful business. The chains that bound her down are long gone and she is in a very good place. Sadly not everyone who leaves is so lucky.
For help, support and information about anything I’ve written about, these sites have lots of information and contact details.
Edited to add that all the members of my friend’s father’s family are not Witnesses and so our presence did not disrupt the funeral for them, they couldn’t understand why my friend could not be there and have always hated the rifts the religion caused in their family.