I’ve always heard that the holiday time, especially Christmas, are stressful for people. Families coming together even for a time of celebration and gift giving can cause friction between members. Growing up as a JW, though, I never had the opportunity to experience this first hand. That is until this last Christmas.
I had mentally checked out the organization and stopped attending meetings at the end of October 2018, and only a month later on December 1st, I bought my first Christmas tree. My brother (who had been disfellowshipped most of my life, but who I had recently reconnected with) had asked me around that time why I had jumped so suddenly into ‘worldly’ things such as celebrating Christmas (I would also attend my first birthday party that same week also, as one of my kids got invited to a party of a classmate), since it takes most people a little while to get involved in those activities. My response was that to me it wasn’t a matter of going to bed one night as a Jehovah’s Witness and then waking up the next morning as a pagan high priest (that would be a terribly boring movie idea). I had already been mentally distancing myself from the organization for the better part of a year. So, when the tipping point came, it was an easy choice for me to make, at least internally. Another important factor was that my 2 kids, ages 5 and 7, had already missed out on several years of being a normal child, so I didn’t want them to lose any more precious opportunities and memories. (This is a very important reason for me personally and one that I hope that my family and friends, if they ever read this, will realize. When you try to leave the organization you will hear people ask you to ‘think about your children’, or something to that effect. For me, this IS thinking about my children. I’m doing this for them.)
So it was, that my family spent a Saturday at Home Depot picking out the tree and all the decorations. We were very lost and confused and had no clue where to start. But it was amazing. My children were beaming with happiness as they picked out their own ornaments. I even picked out a tree ornament of a door as a nod to my former way of life. (No one else thought it was funny, but I got a kick out of it) We got home, after spending too much money, and put up everything. The trick for us was to put up the tree in my bedroom so that it wouldn’t attract undue attention from unexpected visitors. Also, my bedroom has curtains that don’t let out any light, so there was not chance of blinking lights being seen from the road. This arrangement lasted all of December. It was also such a relief about not worrying what my kids were or were not participating in at school. They would come home with drawings of Santa Clause and Christmas trees, and even got to be in their classes during their school Christmas parties (not a huge deal to the average person, but a world of difference to a former Witness parent).
Which brings me to the week of Christmas, and the crashing down to the reality of my situation. My parents and sister had decided to visit me that weekend. Which normally would be fine, except that I had a huge pagan Christmas tree in my house and two young kids who may not know when to keep their mouths shut about this exciting new journey we were on. I was extremely lucky that they would not be staying in my house but in the house of a friend of theirs in the congregation here that was out of town that weekend. So at least that lessened the chance of them stumbling unto my new decorations. My youngest it turns out laid it on way to thick with everyone ( “Hey, Christmas is bad. We DEFINITELY DON’T celebrate it!”)
I had decided beforehand that I would do my best to be as honest as I could with them about the serious doubts I had about the organization, without letting on that I had already left it, albeit unofficially. I had even ordered two copies of ‘Crisis of Conscience’ to give to them if they were willing to listen. Maybe I was being naive, but I honestly thought that I could get them to listen to reason. That they would take me seriously since I have always been the ‘good’ one in the family, and had been more zealous than most in my desire to serve God. So if I spoke out in concern of something, clearly I would have the credentials to back it up in their eyes. But I was wrong.
I had 3 days with them. 3 days to work a miracle. My dad I felt would be the easiest to start with, as he was never very strong in the truth and not very studious, relying mostly on my mom for guidance. So after dinner on the first night I asked to spend some time alone with him. I began with questions about how he came into ‘the truth’, Why he got baptized and what convinces him that this is God’s organization. Then I asked if he ever had any doubts about anything we believe. To my surprise he did mention some minor teaching he had a problem accepting. Not earth-shattering news but I took it as my opening. “Dad, I’m not sure that this is God’s organization”. I will spare you the details of the conversation, but we talked for awhile about different topics I had problems with and the arguments against them. He mostly just sat there and listened, clearly not being able to rebut any of the arguments I was using. As it was getting late we parted ways. I went to bed that night not knowing if the conversation I had with my dad was productive or not. I knew I would have to take a different approach with my mother the next day. My dad was just practice for the real challenge.
My mom was the reason any of us every had a shot growing up a Witness. She was the one to be baptized first back in the 70s, my dad just tagged along out of pressure. She was the one to take all of her kids to the meetings by herself, as my dad was inactive for over 30 years. One of her kids, my older brother whom I already spoken about, had left the organization in his late teens. And for over twenty years there has been very little contact between the two of them. It has been a source of great tension in the family. My secondary goal in talking with my mom was to get her to see how cruel and unloving the way the whole family, myself included, had treated my brother over the years.
By the time I saw everyone the next morning, the cat was out of the bag. I had hoped to discuss things with each one of them one on one, but I had no choice now. So I started talking. And talking. And talking. Over breakfast, lunch and dinner, and into the evening. It never turned heated and my sister kept asking me a lot of questions. I was starting to feel a sense of hope that maybe I was getting through to them. I rolled the dice and brought out the ‘Crisis of Conscience’ books I had bought for them. They flipped through them as I briefly explained Ray Franz’s story. I had this. I had been a Regular Pioneer. If there was anybody who could convince people that their religion was wrong it was me. Day 2 was in the books as a win.
Now it was Sunday and they were planning to go home at some point. I saw everyone again and even cooked breakfast for everyone. But the mood had changed overnight. My dad, mostly silent all weekend was now visibly irritated. My mom was emotional and on the verge of tears. My sister was quiet. I knew I didn’t have much time. But I had unfinished business to get to. I needed to make one final plea for my brother. I talked to my mom privately and spoke about shunning and the effects it had on people. I even showed her from the Bible how the practice of shunning people, especially family members, was unscriptural. Then I dropped the hammer. “I don’t know how comfortable I will be going forward having a normal relationship with my parents, knowing that at the same time you are shunning your own son and my brother.” It was my preemptive strike knowing that is what they were getting ready to do to me.
OK was all she said. I tried to hug her once more as she pulled away. The only thing my dad told me was to not tell my other brother (who is slightly younger than me and is not baptized though still believes what JWs do) any of this. As if I was already written off and he didn’t want me to infect anyone else. They left in a tearful and awkward mess. When the door had closed behind them I saw the two books I had gotten them neatly stacked on the kitchen table. A silent reminder that I had failed.
I felt horrible. Mostly for my older brother. I had let him down. I had arrogantly thought that I could, over the course of a weekend, change everyone’s perspective and reconcile the family with our own ‘prodigal son’.
But I didn’t have time to dwell on it. It was now 2 days before Christmas, my first Christmas, and I would not ruin this for my kids. I let my older brother what had happened with our parents and I offhandedly told him that I wish that he could be there to share in this first time experience with us. And to see his niece and nephew, whom he had never met before. I didn’t think it would be feasible since he lives several hours away and it was only 2 days before Christmas (he has kids of his own as well). But to my sheer joy and amazement he agreed to make the trip and visit. We hugged, we talked (like really talked together for the first time in our lives), we sat around the fire, and we all shared in my kids opening up their very first Christmas presents in the morning. It was a magical ending to an emotional time. Over the course of a few days, I had 2 family reunions of sorts. One ended with me probably losing my parents and sister, the other ended with me gaining a brother.
As my brother was getting ready to leave later that day I had an idea for a spur-of-the-moment Christmas present for him. I ran and got one of the ‘Crisis of Conscience’ books I had planned on giving my parents (he had never read it but always wanted to) and inscribed the inside cover with a message: ‘‘To my brother. Thank you for being there for me during my ‘crisis’. I will always be there to support you!”
And that is what real family looks like.