They sat in the back

awakeThey sat in the back of the Kingdom Hall every Sunday, the sprinkling of women hiding their bruised faces behind their hair; their weakened spirit behind their bible. I was young, and I watched these women and their tears, and their persistent attendance, and I learned from them what it was to be a woman here. It was cold, and it was painful.

The religion was a weapon, a restraint that cuffed these women to their offenders. They lost their entire existence if they protected themselves. If he cheats? Fine, leave him. Adultery is the only grounds for divorce – the bible says so. Fear for your life, end up in the Emergency Room, or take a verbal beating with his drunk, cruel words piercing into your heart night after night? Carry it. God wants you to.

The Elders are trained manipulators. They have well-scripted passages handed down to them from the Governing Body, the self-appointed rulers of the religion. They memorize these passages and use them to keep their congregation in line. One of their most powerful tactics is limiting education and career skills. There’s such a short time left on earth, why waste it improving yourself? That’s selfish. Go spread the word of God, it’s your duty. Between this and the fists, it was a rare thing for these battered women to step out of line and stand up for themselves. So, they carried it.

The women who couldn’t carry it – they were forced out, disfellowshipped. The really unfortunate ones lost custody of their kids to the abusive husbands and their posse of Elders, who have a surprisingly powerful arsenal of legal tools at their disposal.

It’s devastating to be shoved out into the world with nothing. Imagine being stripped of your belongings, your clothes and your dignity, and pushed out onto the street, naked and vulnerable. That’s what it feels like. Scared of the big, bad world you were always warned about, not sure where to go. No friends, no family, no financial help. Lost, alone, and broken. You broke the rules; God isn’t going to help you carry anything anymore.

And what about those kids? They’re raised with venomous stories whispered in their ears about the immoral mothers who abandoned them for the temptations of the world. Hey little one, isn’t it awful that your mom doesn’t want to live with you in the new system? She’s choosing the world over you!

These moms didn’t just lose custody; they lost their children to manipulative lies. They were transformed into evil monsters in their kids’ eyes, far worse than the kind under the bed. They were part of Satan’s army, now. These angry, abandoned little kids were armed with destructive words they were encouraged to voice into the receiver on rare phone visits.

It turns into something these kids have to carry later on, how they treated their own mothers. Years later they realize the heavy, violent toll their own words had on their mothers’ hearts, and they spend their entire lives trying to make up for it. Some of them do, anyway. Some of them sit in the front of the Kingdom Hall with their good Jehovah’s Witness families, avoiding eye contact with that sprinkling of defeated women who sit in the back, every Sunday.

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The Two Witness Rule

accusation

In the Truth, you’re trained to have a defensive, us-verse-them attitude toward the rest of the world. I was taught to not trust anybody except that appointed group of old white men who gave me rules on how short my skirts could be, how dyed my hair could be, what level of education I could pursue, to what extent I could be competitive in sports, and so on. In those men, I was to trust implicitly and with no question. They received the holy spirit of God, which directed their actions. When my mom told me this as a child, I imagined the Elders sitting in that mysterious back room of the Hall, eyes closed, a glowing, fuzzy spirit light funneling out of the air and into the top of their head.

I didn’t really believe it, but I didn’t NOT believe it. It just was. That’s what I was told, so that’s what existed, like everything else in the realm of Jehovah’s Witnesses and their Truth. It’s what existed for me, until I discovered the sneaky, dirty evil that enveloped this Truth.

For me, this evil was first manifest in a man, a Ministerial Servant (one step down from an Elder). He wasn’t much older than my friends and me at the time, maybe 22 years old to our 16, an older brother of one of the girls. A younger girl in the neighboring town’s Kingdom Hall accused him of molesting her at the local swimming pool, multiple times. She was about 12 years old and obnoxious, and nobody believed her. Not until my best friend called me and asked me if I could come and help her. She was going to sit down with the Elders and tell them about the times it had happened to her.

She told me in as few words as possible, and very quietly. He pinned his arm across her chest in the dark movie theater and put his other hand in her pants. She couldn’t move, and she was too afraid and embarrassed to scream. I tried to be solid and stoic for her while she cried her story out. With the Elders, her eyes stayed on the ground, and every detail they extracted was produced with pain and humiliation. Their questions came across callous and flat, and it was clear they were not choosing her side. What exactly did he do? For how long? Did she try to stop it? Who else was there? Did anyone witness it? They finished with some scriptures out of the bible. I don’t remember any of them except Deuteronomy 19:15, “No single witness may convict another for any error or any sin that he may commit. On the testimony of two witnesses or on the testimony of three witnesses the matter should be established.” The Two Witness Rule.

They instructed her and I not to say anything about what happened while they investigated. They told her parents not to go to the police. It needed to be dealt with using God’s direction, and only they were privy to that. The whole family agreed to keep quiet. Meanwhile, we had to attend church with this monster sitting up there in the second row, week after week. We had to sing songs with him, pray with him. I let the fury build in me – maybe I absorbed my friend’s fury. She wouldn’t talk about it, she was pushing it all down as far as she could. And when another girl spoke up, and another, I took in as much of the anger as I could for them, and it changed me. The Truth stopped existing the way it had before. The honest, fair, just Truth that was force fed to me for so long had turned rotten, toxic and dangerous, and I was done with it.

The elders updated her a few weeks later: because of the Two Witness Rule, it was her word against his – all of the girls’ words against his – and his word carried more weight. He was a Ministerial Servant, chosen by the Elders, appointed with God’s holy spirit. How could God have chosen someone who would commit such an act? It wasn’t possible, they insisted.

I let loose with my anger, but slowly. It was very intentional and calculated for a 16-year-old girl. I specifically told those in the church that I knew would gossip to others, until the story had permeated through the entire congregation. It drew a line down the middle of the Hall. Those who didn’t believe the accusations would glare at my friend, before and after church. They would distance themselves physically, moving to the other side of the room. They proclaimed they were siding with God’s holy spirit, and we who sided with the victims were questioning the Elders, thereby speaking out against the Truth. Even my mom defended the attacker, saying there would never be any way of knowing if he really did it. What if I had been the one it happened to? She wouldn’t have believed me. God over family. Religion over family. Obedience over family. Every time.

My plan sort of worked. Because of all the talk, he was disfellowshipped about three months after the initial report. It was too divisive to keep him there. One of the victims’ families went to the police, but the other families refused to cooperate, so the police tossed the accusations aside. At least he was gone.

I was kicked out later for other unrelated reasons – caught breaking the rules. When I was questioned, though, the Elders wouldn’t accept my apologies, my repentance. I think they could see the change in me. They could see that they no longer existed for me. They could feel my quiet dissent. The part that always stood out to me was that it took them 30 minutes to decide to exile me: a 17-year-old apologetic girl who got caught having consensual sex with her boyfriend. It took them three months to kick him out: a monster, a child molester.


The coverup of child sexual abuse in the Jehovah’s Witness religion is prevalent and has recently been brought into the media spotlight. You can research the issue yourself, but here are some links to recent news articles:

 

Dear Mom, I survived anyway

Dear Mom.

When I was “home” last, you were showing my brother your new guitar and ignoring me. He’s always considered himself the black sheep of the family, as if there’s something romantically tragic about it. But even he can’t deny how far in the shadows you’ve shoved me.

At our last family gathering, if I rose up into the air and looked down on us, I’d see a room full of people, laughing and playing, eating and joking, except one still corner of the room. I’m frozen on the couch, chin in hand, watching the love twist around and swallow everyone up, nervously darting around me, not even a narrow miss.

Dear Mom. 

Remember that summer I came back from freshman year of college? I expected to find my bed in the same place. You didn’t even tell me to my face. I had never stood up for myself to you, until that day. I screamed it into your voicemail, because you were screening your calls. How could you turn your own daughter out? I had nowhere to go. I abandoned your church and they demanded you abandon me. You dropped me like I was poison.

Dear Mom.

Once, you asked me to come and commemorate Jesus’ resurrection. You saw it as a glimmer of hope. I walked in and they all turned their eyes away, even you. I said hello, and you acted like I was dead. Dad chastised you and you turned back to me, a forced, tight smile on your lips, spitting out hello as if it was the hardest thing you’ve ever had to do. Was it hard to be so cold to your own daughter, or was it harder to have all of your friends see you?

 Dear Mom.

Last year, Grandma told you she would allow me to say goodbye to her. Cancer comes for the Jehovah’s Witnesses, just like everyone else. After ten years of nothing, she allowed me five minutes. Pained eyes and a weak, old voice whispered that I broke her heart when I left the truth – that I have to come back. Then she was gone. You broke down in sobs at her memorial. You clung to me, guilt wrapping us together – you have to come back, you said. I love you. You seemed so fragile. I never thought of myself as the strong one, before.

Dear Mom.

You taught me to look for love in impossible places. That I’m impossible to love. I found it anyway. I made myself a strong, careful net. For 13 years, I’ve painstakingly crafted it with anxious, desperate hands, this safe space. I had to survive. You taught me that I wasn’t good enough for that. I found it anyway.

Kicked out of the church

I didn’t even look back at my dad, waiting in the car, as I walked toward the Kingdom Hall to my dreaded Elders meeting. Anxiety was nestled in the top of my chest like a poisonous plant, a big brown pit burrowed in with tendrils stretching up to my throat, closing in. It was the kind of stress that brought physical pain, a lump swelling up in my throat and threatening to explode in a flood of uncontrollable sobs. I swallowed it back; time to face the wrath of the Elders.

On one hand, it was so unfair. I was restricted so tightly from experiencing adolescence that I was forced to snap. I had no other choice. It was either make myself fit in this little box the church had presented me with all of its rules and demands, or burst free with all of the hysterical, raging anger of a 17-year-old girl who was never allowed to grow up.

On the other hand, I knew that what I did was wrong. I lied. I led a double life. There were two Naomis – the one who dressed in modest skirts and didn’t talk to boys on the phone and knocked on people’s doors, asking if they would like to talk about Jehovah. Then there was the secret Naomi that very few knew of: the one who snuck out at night to make out with a boyfriend in a parked car; the one who filled juice bottles half full of vodka and drank them at church gatherings; the one who smoked weed in the parking lot during intermission of a full-day convention. The one who got caught having sex before marriage. That Naomi was now on trial.

The real Naomi was somewhere in between. I was raised with good morals and ethics, I had loving parents and I tried to be caring and generous. But I knew there was more to who I wanted to be than this. I was determined to be more than just another submissive Jehovah Witness wife, with no goals of my own to work toward.

Brother Shaffer held the door open, his brows furrowed into a disappointed scowl. I wasn’t going to let him shake me. I held my head as high as the tightening lump in my throat would let me and walked in. I followed him to the back room where Brother Hawkins, Brother Sherwood and Brother Wilshusen were all waiting for me.

Brother Sherwood was the kindest. He had always been one of the nicest Elders, very gentle and slow to speak. He began the meeting by reading a few scriptures regarding modesty and fornication. I did my best to nod at him, fighting the urge to roll my eyes and snort at the archaic, outdated scriptures. Don’t braid your hair, don’t adorn your body with jewelry, wives be submissive to your husbands, women are the weaker sex, and on and on. If he was trying to remind me why I wanted out of this religion so badly, he was doing a great job.

Brother Shaffer and Brother Hawkins were up next. They barely let me talk, tripping over each others words, practically salivating at the chance to tell me what a bad thing I did.

“Do you think anyone’s ever going to want you again?” I remember Brother Hawkins asking. “You won’t ever be able to get a good Jehovah Witness husband, once they find out what you’ve done.”

I didn’t even know how to respond to that one. The tendrils wrapped themselves tighter in my throat and I blinked back burning tears. I let his horrible words seep into my brain – he was right, nobody would ever want me.

“We know your mom has severe anxiety issues,” Brother Shaffer said to me. “If you were a better daughter, if you’d behaved, if you did what you were told, she wouldn’t be dealing with things like that.”

I could hardly fathom what he was trying to say. She was battling these issues because of ME? I started to get sick to my stomach. Was he right? Was I too much stress for her? The self-doubt and guilt were creeping up.

Back and forth the two went, hurling accusations at me: I was manipulative; a liar; a bad friend; a terrible daughter; a bad influence. I tried to wedge my defense in just to be shut down again and again by the big, old bullies of men who were volleying insults and abuse about me over the table at each other like it was some sick game. The room started to close in and I sank further and further into my chair,  grasping the table to stay upright. Finally, Brother Wilshusen spoke up for the first time, sighing and rolling his eyes, pulling me out of it. He just had one question, “Are you pregnant?” I answered indignantly, of course not. He was quiet for the rest of the meeting, staring at the wall.

Brother Shaffer asked if I was sorry. I said yes, I was sorry that I lied and I was sorry that I broke the rules. He asked if I would do it again, I said no. He asked if I would keep seeing my boyfriend, I said no. Things were looking okay, at this point. I thought I stood a chance to remain in the church, still able to talk to my friends and family. After all, I was a week away from turning 18, and then I could make my own decision to walk away, without the humiliation of having it broadcast from the stage of the church.

Then, they lost me. They said my best friend was a bad influence, that she and I caused each other to do bad things and that we couldn’t be friends anymore. They asked if I was willing to cut her off completely. I considered, briefly, lying and saying yes, but I’d had enough of that. I looked Brother Shaffer in the eye and gave him a firm “No. She’s my best friend.” They all looked at each other and Brother Hawkins cleared his throat. He excused me and said they would call me back in when they reached a decision.

I thought the meeting itself was long, but the wait outside was interminable. I fought the sobs from bubbling up by digging my fingernails into my palms. I chewed on the inside of my cheeks. I bit my lips so hard I drew blood. The door finally opened and they told me to come in.

“We’ve reached a unanimous decision, Naomi. Based on your answers and actions, we feel that you are a bad influence on the members of this congregation. You will be disfellowshipped immediately. It will be announced at next week’s meeting.”

Five days later, two days before my 18th birthday, I was publicly kicked out of my church. I was ostracized from everyone I knew. I lost my best friends; I lost my family. The only community I had ever known was gone. I felt it all as I sat in the first row, where my mom made me sit that Sunday. The final prayer was done, and the praying Elder, Brother Shaffer, asked if everyone would stay for one final announcement.

“Naomi Hagelund has been disfellowshipped.”

Gasps followed and all eyes turned to me. I left my bible sitting on the floor and I blindly got up, unable to see past the embarrassment and shame. I caught a few pitied glances out of the corner of my eye but I looked straight ahead as I beelined for the front door. I got in my little silver car, put it in first gear, and peeled the hell out of there, flipping off the Kingdom Hall as I finally let the sobs rack through my body. I let the humiliation and shame wash through me, and then what I felt gave me hope that I had made the right decision – I felt relief, and I felt free.