(WOMENSENEWS)--Three men surrounded me as we sat in a small room in the local Beaverton, Ore., Kingdom Hall. I had confessed my most recent sin: making out with a boy, in his car. The elders--men ranging in age from their mid-30s to 50s--wanted to know where the boy had touched me and just how long he had touched me for. They wanted to know:
Did I also touch him?
Did I give him a hand job?
How did I feel during the encounter?
They wanted details; personal, private details. Next, they asked me to read scriptures out loud from the Bible that poignantly said that Jehovah (their name for God) will destroy all fornicators in Armageddon. This, of course, would include me. I cried through the entire meeting and felt deeply ashamed.
I was sent from the room so the men could "deliberate" my fate. I faced excommunication, or "disfellowshipping," that would ban all of my friends and family from interacting with me. I was 24 at the time.
As I sat in my car waiting to hear their verdict, I realized that I could no longer allow myself to endure this. I had put up with it for too long; never measuring up, always needing to change and the endless feeling that I would never be enough for both Jehovah and the religion. I knew then that if I continued on in the Jehovah's Witness organization my very being would cease to exist.
I was born and raised as a member, surrounded by family and friends who deemed it perfectly normal to not celebrate holidays, view women as inferior and disclose their deepest indiscretions to a panel of men within the congregation. The Jehovah Witness organization was begun in 1879 by Charles Taze Russell. Its adherents believe that only they will survive Armageddon, and it is their responsibility to "witness," or go door to door to save others.
Immersed in Propaganda
The organization immerses members by inundating them with three weekly meetings, volunteer work in the "ministry" on the weekends and endless studying of Jehovah Witness literature. A harmful aspect for me personally was the views surrounding women. We were adamantly referred to as the "weaker" sex, while men were revered as next in line to Christ.
The members firmly believe that men have a more direct connection to Jehovah. For my family, this arrangement meant that even though my stepfather sexually assaulted my mother and physically abused me, my mother was not allowed to leave the marriage unless 1) he died or 2) one of them committed adultery. Adulterers are disfellowshipped. Abuse was not considered grounds for divorce because the Bible does not mention it. Only recently has the organization begun to acknowledge that physical or sexual abuse may warrant separation.
While I knew something wasn't right I had no one to turn to.
When I finally did begin to question their controlling, isolating and extremist ways, I was almost always told to discuss my concerns with the elders or pray harder so that I could more fully embrace the teachings. I was too afraid to go directly to the elders so I usually took my questions to other women in the congregation. Unfortunately, they were just as disempowered as I was.
Women Not Worthy of Leadership
Elders control the congregation, from finances to discipline, to confessions and judgment. Women are never allowed to serve as elders, as members believe they are not worthy of this leadership position. Instead, women are encouraged to focus on volunteer work, going door to door in the hopes of recruiting new members.
When I asked why women were not allowed to give public talks or handle congregation operations, I was told that it was "Jehovah's arrangement." We were repeatedly told that Jehovah directly "shows the light" to the governing body--the group of white men who run the organization in Brooklyn, N.Y.--and they pass the information down.
Women cannot perform the simplest of duties, such as praying over the congregation. If for some unknown reason a man is not present, a woman must use a head covering to show her submission to Jehovah's arrangement, then lead the group in prayer.
In addition, women were not considered righteous enough to volunteer at the organization's headquarters until married. Single women had little place in the overall structure of the organization and were viewed as a distraction to the men at headquarters. I felt suffocated by the knowledge that, without a penis, or a direct line to Jehovah, I would never be good enough.
Silence Was Punishment
Ultimately, I found the strength to leave the church that almost erased me. After the elders deliberated over my case, I was not disfellowshipped but I was disciplined. I lost the privilege to comment during our meetings, taken away for an undisclosed amount of time.
I knew I had to leave the organization so I moved to another city. I doubted myself at first and even attended Jehovah Witness meetings at my new location, but found the same sexist and abusive means of control. When I stopped attending meetings, I received calls from the local elders. I explained that I didn't feel the organization had the "truth" as it claimed, and the elders immediately demanded to meet with me. Some congregation members even began showing up at my place of employment. I asked that they stop contacting me. I also let my family know my decision. My mother promptly told me I would undoubtedly die at Armageddon.
I have spent the last five years deprogramming myself. I've done this largely on my own, slowly gaining my independence, making decisions about the world around me, something I was isolated from as a Jehovah Witness.
I've found solace in ex-member support groups and online communities where I realized I was not alone and my questions about the organization and its practices were not unique. Still, I've had to pay a high price, just as the Jehovah Witnesses intend. Those who leave, or worse yet, speak negatively of the organization, are banished. I lost all of my friends from that time and family members.
My mother says we will never be close because of my decision to leave the group. My grandparents shun me. My sister, once my best friend, only calls when she's having doubts about the organization.
I do gain comfort knowing that I followed my truth, not someone else's. I'm now able to fully embrace not only my equality with men, but a true spiritual connection with God, who judges no one and does not reside in any one religion.
Heather Strang now lives a life of her own making. She's a writer, teacher and girl advocate, regularly teaching teen girls how to live their most authentic life. Heather's written for a host of print and online publications, including White Apricot, NW Meetings and Events, Portland Tribune, Retail Design Diva and LivePDX.com. Heather lives in Portland, Ore., with her fabulous boyfriend, short-haired tabby cat and vision boards.
For more information:
Free Minds, Inc.--Promoting Awareness of the Watchtower:
Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry:
Jehovah's Witnesses Exposed:
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