Soul Searching is our series about how the most secular generation in history is changing the face of religion.
“So I hear you’re leaving the truth?”
My grandfather asked me this question when I was only 19. It was my second year of college, and I already knew by the tone of his voice that he was disappointed in me. From the time I was baptized, my grandfather had it in his mind that I was going to follow in his footsteps and become an elder of the Jehovah’s Witness congregation. This was one of the highest honors of the faith, second only to working for the Watchtower organization in New York. College was not encouraged, and my grandfather had already expressed his reservations about me attending a four-year university.
The emotion in his voice was familiar; I’d heard it the summer of 2003 when I told him that I was moving out to live on my college campus. And now I was hearing it again, right after I had made the decision to leave the organization completely.
As of 2016, the Jehovah Witness organization had more than 120,000 congregations and more than 8 million active members worldwide. A study done by the Pew Research Center of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the U.S. noted that they make up more than 5% of the total religious population in the United States. Black and Latino participation is disproportionately high, which some sources attribute to the lofty promise of living eternally in a paradise given to those in adverse situations. Only 10% of those in the organization identify as millennials (low considering we’re a quarter of the U.S. population); the strict rules and beliefs, coupled with its socially conservative policies, aren’t exactly in line with the majority of young people.
I ended up being no exception.
Being a Jehovah’s Witness was the most important thing to my family. As a child living in San Bernardino, CA, our entire week was filled with what my mother often referred to as my “duty as a diligent servant.” Monday nights were often filled with bible study and preparing for the following evening’s “theocratic school,” where I would practice how to give formal talks in front of the congregation while memorizing lines of what I would say when I approached someone’s door. After Tuesday’s theocratic school, where we would often spend three or four hours at the Kingdom Hall, we would spend our Wednesday nights doing family study for Thursday evening’s book study. That meant even longer conversations about the bible and what it meant to be a quality servant of God.
Weekends were even more intense. Friday evenings usually meant preparing for what people associate most with Jehovah’s Witnesses: “field service” on Saturday mornings. That meant spending four to six hours going from one neighborhood to another, preaching what we were taught was the word of God to anyone who would listen while taking few or no breaks.
Sundays would usually consist of a congregational meeting where hundreds of families would get together and listen to a public discourse by a Brother while detailing thoughts about the most current “Watchtower,” a publication that the Jehovah’s Witness organization mass produces on a bi-weekly basis. Most of these teachings on Sunday included shaming others for having immoral thoughts and participating in “worldly” or “ungodly” acts. Sunday evenings would often mirror Saturday mornings, except not only would you go back out in field service in search for new people, you would also make “return visits” to those from the previous day.
Fear is often a weapon used at a very early age to keep younger participants in line. From the time I was seven years old, I was constantly reminded about how I would not inherit eternal life if I ever made Jehovah God upset or made the decision to leave the organization. Once, when I was about 13 years old, I saw people outside of an annual Jehovah’s Witness convention with signs telling believers to free themselves from the religion. I remember my mother warning me that these were folks who chose not to accept “the truth.” She told me they would eventually be destroyed by Jehovah for turning their backs on God and denying themselves the true word. She explained what their demise would look like in great detail, that a fiery death would consume them all and at no point would God grant them favor.
Not only did I fear leaving the organization, but I also felt a huge amount of pressure to be the perfect servant, an ideal that was often pushed in the congregation.
By the time I was 16, I was obsessed with the religion and telling everyone about “the truth.” I believed that doing so would gain me favor with not only those in the religion, but with both Jesus and Jehovah God. I would spend more than 40 hours a week studying the bible, reading publications, and going door-to-door, while also balancing a part-time job and schoolwork—all because I believed that this organization was the true way of living.
Until my own truth came knocking at my door.
From the time I was a very young child I always knew my sexuality was different. I knew I was attracted to others who had masculine features, specifically other young men who served with me in the congregation. My truth for years was that I was queer, and I knew that by owning my queerness, I was putting myself in jeopardy with the organization, with my family, and with the circle of Jehovah Witnesses I had met over the years.
The “truth” did not openly accept LGBTQ people. The “truth” did not accept ideologies and concepts that did not align with the message of the Bible and Christianity. The “truth” of the Jehovah’s Witness organization did not match my own. So by the time I was 18, I had a difficult decision to make. Did I continue to lie about my queer identity, or did I accept my truth as a queer person and risk losing everything?
Most people who opt to leave the organization fear doing so because of what happens after you decide to part ways. As with Mormons and Scientologists, once a person decides to leave the Jehovah’s Witnesses they are often shunned and ex-communicated from their immediate circle. Knowing this would happen if I left, my early college years were spent battling depression and multiple suicide attempts.
In what would be my last meeting with the elders from my congregation in 2004, they told me that leaving the organization meant ending all communication with my family and immediate circle of friends from my congregation. I was terrified about what my future would hold, but signing the document to leave the organization meant freeing myself from the fear that had been instilled in me throughout my life, and finding the pathway to living authentically.
It has been more than 13 years since then. The majority of this journey has been me carving out space in my mind to re-examine spirituality when dealing with religious trauma. The greatest struggle in navigating elements of my religious trauma is learning to love every element of who I am, knowing I’d been taught for so long that my identity and true self were what I needed to reject. By re-examining what I was taught at a younger age and juxtaposing that with what I know now as universalism, it has allowed me to better fully understand why so many younger people are choosing freedom over fear that is often engrained in faith.
While leaving the Jehovah’s Witness organization was one of the hardest things I have ever done, it helped me to understand that all that was lost is not necessarily a loss. Removing myself allowed me to see the beauty in other religious beliefs. It has allowed me to examine Buddhist ideologies and become more in tune with the energy of the universe. My personal narrative no longer means convincing others to believe in my way of thinking, but encouraging others to think critically about their own.
Dr. Jonathan P. Higgins is a speaker, educator and thought leader. A Southern California native, his work has been featured on sites like Blavity, The Root, and Attn. You can find him on twitter:@DoctorJonPaul.