I sat on a bench alone reading my book, “Organized To Do Jehovah’s Will.”
I remember I was in third grade, studying the core beliefs of the Jehovah’s Witnesses faith that I needed to know for an upcoming baptism interview. I also had to be able to explain my reasoning.
I fought the distraction of the daily kickball game and hopscotch on the playground and of the food flying through the air as my classmates declared culinary war on each other in the cafeteria. I wanted to hang out with my friends playing nearby.
Instead, I studied the “answers” to questions like, “How many from among mankind will be resurrected to heaven?” and “When a person separates himself from the world and becomes a Christian, what treatment should he expect from those in the world?”
The harsh reality of the latter became apparent when a bully at my elementary school in Los Angeles snatched the book out of my hands and paraded it around school, encouraging others to make fun of me.
I felt different from everyone.
‘A knock at their door’
My mother was raised a Witness, but left the religion behind in her teens and later became pregnant with my older sister. When I was 3 years old, my mother reaccepted a Bible study by one of Jehovah’s Witnesses who had knocked on their door.
After my mother convinced my father to also study the Bible, my life’s course was set. My parents raised me to be one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and I was taught from childhood to live the lifestyle.
I dedicated my life to God by way of baptism at age 9.
Growing up, I believed that refraining from explicit music and R-rated movies would keep me away from the influence of the devil. I was not allowed to date girls until I was old enough to seriously consider marriage.
No dating without supervision
After I turned 18, I was never allowed to go on a date without a chaperone.
I gave Biblical speeches at my local Kingdom Hall and aimed to spend 20 or more hours a week doing preaching work, also known as “door to door,” trying to convince others to start a Bible study.
I was committed to my spiritual responsibilities, but I often felt sad because I couldn’t hang out with my school friends or go to school dances.
When my older sister bent the rules at age 17 and started sneaking out of the house to hang out with non-believers, I began to resent her. (I still haven’t figured out if that was because I disapproved or because I was jealous.)
Trying to keep us from outside influences, our parents decided to home school us after my first semester of high school. By then, I had started to develop secular interests. I was fascinated by the wordsmiths of rap and the special effects of violent movies, which I was not allowed to hear or see.
Secular interests started to intrude
Little by little I realized how closed off to the world I really was. Everything new I discovered and found interesting had contingencies or restrictions. I was an avid fan of the Sacramento Kings, but was not allowed to hang a Chris Webber poster in my room because it resembled a false idol.
My home-school program required me to visit with a teacher only once a week and allowed me to take community college courses. I wanted to learn everything like music production, culinary arts, dancing and even architecture.
Suddenly aware of all the possibilities, I dropped out of high school at age 17 and got my GED. I began working as a production assistant on film sets for no money, because I was a minor. My parents supported my decision to work for free as long as I was at the Kingdom Hall twice a week.
I was good at it and excited by the creativity of film, so I applied and was accepted to the School of Visual Arts in New York to study film production. That’s when I got into real trouble.
The elders of my Kingdom Hall took turns coming over to my house to Biblically explain why higher education would only serve as a distraction to my worship. They pointed out that I would be exposed to sex, drugs and alcohol, and that I would not find the happiness the world promises by going to college.
But so far I had not found the “happiness” the Bible had promised, either.
A compromise that sent me to New York
I came up with a compromise that would make everyone happy. I would not attend the school to appease the elders and my parents, but I would move to New York anyway and try to make it on my own.
Once in the big city, where the Witnesses are headquartered, I began distancing myself from them. I did the very least at the Kingdom Hall to keep the other “brothers and sisters” off my back.
I no longer wanted to discuss how wonderful the weekly Bible study was, but instead talk about why the Dow Jones crashed in 2008 or debate whether Edward Snowden was a hero or in violation of the Espionage Act.
Two years later, in 2013, I moved back to California to study what I wanted without out-of-state tuition costs. I was academically behind because of my home-school program, and I couldn’t afford a four-year school. So I enrolled at Santa Monica College, a two-year community college.
I tried to balance my search for freedom while remaining a Witness to keep the peace at home.
Love finally led to punishment
I got into a serious relationship at age 21 that ultimately led to a scandal in the Kingdom Hall. I had broken the chaperone rule, and I’d gone even further.
After explaining in detail to a group of elders how I was involved with my then girlfriend, answering every question they had about our physical relationship, my “privileges” were taken away and I was “privately reproved.”
That means I could attend but not participate in the weekly meetings at the Kingdom Hall, and nobody else would be told about it.
I was a threat to the reputation of the Kingdom Hall. The entire congregation looked at me like the foreigner that I felt like for not participating, and everybody came to their own conclusions.
The unspoken shame of my “misconduct” became too much to bear. I said goodbye to everyone after a Wednesday meeting in November 2015 and haven’t seen them since.
I imagine that leaving an organization like that behind is something like what a sequel to “The Truman Show” movie would look like — leaving behind a synthetic environment and stepping into a difficult, grueling world.
Although I am free of the church, I still have very little idea of what makes me happy.
Finally free – sort of
The first thing I did with my newly acquired freedom was grow a beard. I then traveled, unchaperoned, to southeast Asia with my new girlfriend. She’s a very liberal photojournalist who didn’t run when I tried to scare her away with my past.
Quite often, the beliefs I was brought up with cause me to hesitate when doing things anybody else would deem normal. I am afraid of being seen by Witnesses on the streets because I feel that I am doing something wrong and they will judge me for it. I have become the person that I once judged for leaving the “truth.”
Even now as I write this, I instinctively feel that it’s wrong to disagree with Jehovah’s Witnesses. I was taught that anyone who doubted the faith or criticized was an “apostate” and had no relationship with God.
Every day, I have to take a second to remind myself that I don’t believe that a wife’s sole purpose is to support her husband or that I won’t inherit everlasting life if I have dinner with my sister and her girlfriend.
Finally telling my whole life story
Until very recently, whenever I would tell my life story, I would leave out the first 22 years. I cannot effectively explain why I refused blood transfusions or why I believed humans are eternally trying to prove their worthiness of resurrection.
I am embarrassed to tell people that I was a kid who used to cover his ears during the Pledge of Allegiance. Not all Witness kids do this, but I felt that saluting the flag was so wrong that I didn’t want to listen to it.
I still fear that what happened that day on the schoolyard will happen again — that I will be paraded around and humiliated for having once believed that if I didn’t shave my facial hair, I wouldn’t be allowed to participate in a religious meeting, or that I should reject the friendship of anybody who wasn’t a believer.
When I am not being held prisoner by my identity crisis, I am still learning about and am increasingly fascinated by the way the world works.
Blown away by the concept of democracy
I was never allowed to have an interest in politics, but now I can’t go a day without checking the latest news out of Washington. I am blown away by the concepts of government and public policy, and how some believe in the leadership of elected officials, while the 7 million Jehovah’s Witnesses in the world believe God is the only true ruler.
Now a journalism major at Santa Monica College, I am free and able to take interest in everything. I work as a freelance writer and weekend reporter to pay my way through school.
I became a journalist and photographer as a way to learn about the mechanics of the world while at the same time making a living. It’s like giving a progress report to my readers on what I just learned for the first time.
While my parents don’t agree with my life choices, they have been nothing but supportive as I figure things out on my own. They run the risk of getting in trouble for staying in contact with my sister and me—but it turns out that our family bond is something no religion can break.
As far as my religious beliefs go, I will figure it out along the way. I want to come to my own conclusion on who or what created the Earth. I want my relationship with a higher power, if any, to be entirely up to me.
I am tired of pretending to know the answers.
Until then, I turn 25 on Oct. 26, and I will have my first-ever birthday party. You’re all invited.