Have you ever wondered what it must be like to grow up as a Jehovah’s Witness? I’ve had people ask me this question many times. If you’re curious as to what this experience was like for me, keep reading…
We were poor, black, Jehovah’s Witnesses living in the South. I was raised by my dad who was a single father. He raised me and my two sisters alone.
When people think of JW’s they usually think of people knocking on doors on Saturday mornings and children not being able to celebrate Christmas. Which is accurate, but there is just so much more to it. There were no birthday celebrations, no holidays, no associating with children from school, limited contact with our extended family, no prom or homecoming dances, and no extracurricular activities. We were also strongly discouraged from seeking higher education. As young children we were taught that the world would likely end before we even graduated from high school so there would be no need for us to even try to pursue college or a career. We were told that all we needed to focus on was finding a trade and spending most of our time “spreading the good news of God’s kingdom” until the end of the world came. Therefore,when I did graduate from high school, I had no support from my father when I left for college. I filled out my own assistance for financial aid (FAFSA) paperwork. Because I didn’t have the privilege of owning my own transportation, I found my own ride to college on move-in day. I was not equipped with any of the tools that I needed to be out on my own. I knew a lot about the Bible and nothing about life.
Due to my desire for something greater, I eventually graduated with my Bachelors degree in Social Work and then went on to Graduate School to obtain my Masters degree in Social Work. My dad never attended any of my graduations, not even high school.
Growing up JW, we had somewhat of a tight schedule and we read and studied the bible a lot: On Sunday mornings we went to the Kingdom Hall for our Sunday meeting (the meeting is what most other religions refer to as church). My family was usually the first family there, and one of the last families to leave. On Mondays, we had an hour-long meeting that we called the Book Study. On Tuesdays, we studied the bible together as a family for hours in preparation for the meeting on Wednesday. On Wednesday evenings after school, we went to the Kingdom Hall for the Wednesday night meeting. On Fridays we practiced what we would say when we went out in Field Service (ie door-to-door) on Saturday. And of course on Saturdays, we went out in Field Service. On Saturday night, we studied our Watchtower lesson in preparation for Sunday’s meeting. We did this religiously every week (pun intended).
I want to take a minute to explain to you what Field Service is. Field Service, simply defined is basically when you go out in the damn scorching heat, the freezing cold, and the pouring rain to trespass on people’s property and wake them up early on a Saturday morning just to tell them they ain’t shit and their religion ain’t shit either, and if they don’t conform to the JW religion then their ass is going to die when Jehovah sends his son Jesus Christ to kill everyone who isn’t a JW! Sounds fun right?! Oh, and I can’t forget about Summer Break. Summer Break was especially fun. We got to go out in field service like all day everyday, in the scorching heat, getting doors slammed in our face! It was awesome. *I’m totally being sarcastic here in case you didn’t catch that.
Being poor and Black only added more intricate layers to my whole JW experience. When I was in the 5th or 6th grade, my dad lost his job, and ultimately we lost our home. We moved into this old green, run-down, rodent-infested house. We were so poor and it was all we could afford. My dad refused to move into low-income public housing because of the bad environment it would expose us to. But it was fine because “Jehovah would provide for us” right? I mean after all “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God” right? We firmly and whole-heartedly believed this. We didn’t have name brand clothes or shoes. We didn’t have cable TV. We didn’t even have caller ID on our phone or any of those type of luxuries. We didn’t use the air conditioner very often and if the weather permitted we dried our clothes on the clothes line outside (so that we could keep the light bill low)
I’m not saying any of this for sympathy because these experiences truly helped shape and mold me into the person I am today. Although it is bewildering to me that we always had enough money to put gas in our old beat up gas guzzling station wagon to go out in field service. We would drive out to the most rural and remote areas (what I like to call Klan Country) “spreading the good news of God’s kingdom” to a bunch of racist rednecks with their rebel flags on proud display. Once, an old racist white man even pulled a shot-gun on us and ran us off his property. I really thought my life would end that day. But we were always taught that we have to be prepared to be persecuted and to even lay down our life and die for Jehovah just like Jesus did, so I thought this experience was normal.
In hindsight, it seemed to always be the poor Black families putting in the most effort. It was the poor, Black families clocking the most hours in field service. The other families would go out in field service for about an hour one or two Saturday’s a month and that was about it. Some people didn’t even do that. But not us, sometimes we would stay out there all day knocking on people’s doors. We would even bring water and food with us so we didn’t have to stop. I always hoped it would storm really bad or that I would get really sick on Saturdays so I didn’t have to go out in field service. As a child, I would frequently get pneumonia or bronchitis and have to be hospitalized. I didn’t mind the needle sticks or breathing treatments. I actually enjoyed being in the hospital. I always hated when I was well enough to go back home because being in the hospital provided me with a much-needed break from the never ending meetings and field service.
Now, don’t get me wrong, amidst all of the alienation, lies and brainwashing, there were happy times, too, in addition to genuine love. I don’t doubt that my father loves me and believes that he did/is doing the right thing. I have seen the sacrifices that he has made for my two sisters and I and I am forever grateful for it. I, however, don’t believe what he believes. I don’t believe that a man-made religion that has gotten so many dates and predictions wrong, is “the truth”. There have been so many families, including my own, that have been torn apart because of this religion. To this day, my own father refuses to have a relationship with me because I refuse to return to the JW religion. There are so many children who have been molested by members of this organization and their perpetrators have been protected because of this religion. It’s not just the Catholics dealing with this, the Jehovah’s Witnesses are dealing with this as well! I’ve personally seen this happen and read many other accounts of it happening to others. There are also so many children who have died because their parents refused to allow them to accept blood transfusions that could have easily saved their lives. Imagine the amount of trauma this has caused people and their families.
I am 34 years old now, and it wasn’t until about a year or so ago that I began to realize just how deeply all of this has affected me as an adult. It affects how I raise my son. It affects how I make decisions. It affects how I interact with others. It affects how I view the world. While I do believe in a higher power, I have such a bitter taste in my mouth right now for religion as a whole. I think that there are some people who absolutely need religion to help guide them in their life and give them a sense of purpose and hope, but there are plenty of other people who do not need that to be genuinely good people. You don’t need religion to have a moral compass and/or to be able to understand right from wrong. Some of the most beautiful souls I have ever met do not follow a particular religion and/or don’t even believe in God. Who are we to judge and tell others that their beliefs are right or wrong? Who are we to try to force our beliefs on someone else? Who are we to shun and alienate people, including loved ones, for believing in something different?
After I left the JW organization I was essentially ostracized and alienated from everyone within the organization, including my father. This was and still is very hurtful. Although I was out of the organization, I was now out in this big ol’ world as a young adult without much guidance. I made a lot of bad decisions. It didn’t matter to me at the time because I still believed the JW teachings. I had made up my mind that I wasn’t going to live my life as a JW and I just accepted the fact that when the world ended I would die along with everyone else who weren’t JW’s. So I made most of my decisions from that perspective; never really thinking too long-term. Some of those poor decisions are still affecting me today.
When I hear about famous people like Prince, Michael Jackson, and Serena Williams being JW’s, I always wonder what their experiences were like. I know it wasn’t like mine because everyone’s experience is different. It also makes a huge difference if you grow up as a JW with no choice in the matter vs choosing to become a JW as an adult. Even when I think about the other JW’s I knew growing up, their experience didn’t seem to be as extreme and rigid as my experience. They seemed to be able to do more things and seemed to actually have fun and enjoy life. So when I got pregnant out-of-wedlock at 19 years old and was disfellowshipped (ie kicked out of the organization) I knew then that my son’s childhood would be nothing like mine. He will never know that life. He is 14 years old now and I have never once regretted that decision.
If you are a JW reading this, please understand that this is my experience and my perspective. I’ve been where you are and at one time I firmly believed those teachings as well. I respect your beliefs and expect you to respect mine as well.
My two sisters and I posing for a picture in front of the Kingdom Hall that we attended in Louisiana.