When I was a nine year old latch-key child, I answered a knock on my door one day to find two young ladies with a small child. One, whose name was Sonia, asked if my parents were home and when I told her no one was there, she asked if I knew about The Bible, at which point I became ecstatic—first, that someone was even taking the time to talk to me, and second that I could show off my very own Bible storybook given by my great-aunt who raised me for the first three years of my life. I had spent so much time reading these stories, but as my mother was not religious, I had no one to direct my questions toward or share my thoughts with. I told her all the stories I knew about and when she asked if I wanted to learn more, I was totally beside myself. She asked me to check with my mom and she would come back another day. However, when I asked my mother she refused, saying that they were ‘brainwashers’. Nevertheless, I begged until she grudgingly relented and my studies began. However, having been warned by my mother and others, I was not an easy student. From the beginning, I determined that I was going to learn about the Bible on my own terms—no one was going to brainwash me! So I began our study sessions insisting on not using their Bible, but rather the only one we had in the house, a HUGE family heirloom King James Bible where generally all the birth and death certificates and other vital papers were kept. She agreed and we began to study from this Bible. Each week I brought all kinds of challenges to them—I heard that God’s Name was not really Jehovah—she dispelled this on day one, having me look up Psalms 83:18 in my own Bible. Why don’t you celebrate holidays, salute the flag, and so on. She was never frustrated by my questioning, but was rather encouraged that I was asking them, and when I had questions that she couldn’t immediately answer, she would acknowledge it and promise to come back the next week with information we could both research to find the answer. Because of this, over time, she gained my trust, admiration and respect. However at the same time, I had been invited by my neighbor to attend Sunday School at the Baptist Church across the street from my house, but because my studies were more in-depth, I found these lessons elementary. Further, we children were not encouraged to ask questions but just listen. It appeared that mostly everyone was as bored as me. So, when following the format of the Bible study I was accustomed to, I began to ask questions way beyond what was expected, I frustrated my Sunday school teacher to the point where she would simply ignore me. One day I invited a little girl I befriended to go with me and one of the bigger girls in our circle began to pick on her by pretending to swing her legs, but would kick the girl on the sneak tip. This happened several times right under the nose of our Sunday School teacher who appeared not to notice, but I couldn’t raise my hand to say anything, because it had already been established that she would not respond, so the next time I saw her foot heading for my friend, I put my leg in the way, so that she would hit me instead. Well, finally my teacher did respond, by pulling me outside and telling me to leave and not come back because ‘we don’t need troublemakers like you here’. I assured her I wouldn’t.
Over time Sonia and I became more than student and teacher, but rather she became a surrogate mother to me, even though we were only a little over ten years apart. Probably realizing how often I was left alone, she took me under her wing and invited me to her house to stay over and we would make sausage bread and listen to Karen Carpenter songs. She was the first adult I remember relating to me as a person, who not just listened to me, but also shared her own life lessons, encouraging me to stay close to God. In addition, she introduced me to a community of people who were just as welcoming as she was. They were impressed with my intelligence, dedication and commitment to serve God and I reveled in being part of something where I was valued and appreciated. I also developed friendships with people my age that also loved God and wanted to please Him. I can honestly say that being a part of The Witnesses built so much of the foundation of who I am today, and the following are several reasons why.
- STUDY AND APPLICATION of God’s Word in my life - Living as part of the structure of the Witnesses, I was able to see in the lives around me, those people who not only studied God’s Word, but also whose lives reflected the things we studied. There were no double standards accepted here. The people’s whose homes I went into and stayed within for years were as circumspect as the word they preached. It was here that I began to see that one could really live a holy life unto God—and be happy doing so.
- ACCOUNTABILITY – One thing that was stressed, is that if you are not living the life you are preaching to others, it will show, and when it does, it will not be ignored. In the Witnesses, no one expected you to be perfect, but everyone needed to be accountable. If there was a struggle of some sort that was kept hidden, even when it was found out, there was an invitation to restoration, but if the person refused it, then according to God’s Word, they would be cast off from the community. I’ve always read this in the Word, but nowhere else have I seen it enforced. The intention was as the Apostle Paul explained, that this be done with the hope of eventual restoration, so those who were “disfellowshipped” could still attend services, but no longer carried the privilege of preaching a word they themselves refused to follow. If and when they desired to be restored, they could contact an elder and after a time of counseling would be released again into community activities.
- CONSISTENCY – One of the things I loved most about The Witnesses, was no that matter where you went, you were learning the same thing. One Summer at age 12, I went down south to spend the summer with my brother, I noticed there was a Kingdom Hall not far away, so I went in and let them know I was visiting. Immediately they set up a study and brought me to weekly services, where I was learning the same things in South Carolina as I would have been in NY. Thus I was able to keep the consistency of my studies even while away from home.
- COMMUNITY – Like I said, no matter where you go, if you are a Witness, you are family. I could go to another country be taken in as a brother or sister. Here is where I first learned and experienced the blessings of connectivity. Also by visiting “Bethel”, the place where the Watchtower and other publications are processed, I met people who had literally dedicated their lives to working together, bringing their various talent, skills and experience into building God’s Kingdom. In effect they (and their family) worked there for room, board and a living expense stipend. They didn’t have much money, but they were the most joyous people I’d ever seen. In addition, we all were a part of the success of every endeavor and venture. When a property was brought, we would all come to build, and clean, repair, and restore it to mint condition. In doing so, there was a general sense of pride and ownership.
- SOCIAL, PROFESSIONAL AND CULTURAL DEVELOPMENT – If anyone praises me today on my public speaking and communication skills, I silently give credit to the Theocratic Ministry School, in which was a part of our required training. In it, we learned the points of public speaking that were necessary, either ‘in the field’, engaging people in conversation at their homes, or in the pulpit when teaching the congregation. Not only did we theoretically learn these skills, but were also guided and graded upon our progress in public presentations before the congregation. The feedback given was always lovingly directed with a view to up-building and in this we were able to learn from others as well.
One other thing I appreciate is that despite the fact that although I’ve gone separate ways for many years now, they still receive me with love even to this day. They still knock on my mother’s door where I used to live twenty years ago to ask how I am doing and if I am ok. I even remember visiting my old congregation years after leaving and being received with so much love and joy that I couldn’t stop crying with gratitude knowing they still cared about me.
Recently I was even reunited with Sonia after she moved back from Puerto Rico and able to personally share that it was her intervention and approach with me as a child that laid the foundation of the work I have been doing with youth for the past 15 years. I went to visit her and her family and was received with the same warmth and love I experienced as a child.
So, say what you will but I know that God sent them into my life not just to save me from what would’ve mostly likely have been a life of destruction and early death, but also to give me a format of godly structure, dispicline, respect and acceptance, and this is why even today as a born again disciple of Christ Jesus, I am grateful to and love The Jehovah’s Witnesses.