As a Jehovah’s Witness child, our religious community was seen as a spiritual paradise in contrast to all other organizations on earth. This mindset was routinely emphasized in Watchtower publications.
One Watchtower assures us that “[God] has made it possible for honest hearted ones to move out of the wicked world, figuratively speaking, and into the spiritual paradise that he has created.” (“Dwell on What Jehovah Has Done for You,” Watchtower, 15 January 2011)
Our worldwide brotherhood did seem rather impressive to my young mind. Wherever we were, it was no rare thing to find ourselves staying over and sharing dinner with new Witness “friends.” Over a home cooked meal we’d swap “How did you come into the truth?” stories, make small-talk over the latest Watchtower publications, and after us kids were hushed away to listen to taped Bible dramas, the adults might engage in gossip over those that had recently succumbed to the world.
“The world” was JW jargon to encapsulate everyone that didn’t happen to also be one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Faithful members were encouraged to be vigilant, because any number of demonic lures could snatch a loyal Witness from Jehovah’s organization into the clutches of the wicked world. A hushed mention of the term was enough to carry my mind to Live Forever book illustrations; I mentally transposed the faces of the disfellowshipped over those of opium addicts, disco harlots, and gay cowboys.
This condemnation was not exclusively reserved for the unreligious. Other Christian faiths were considered to be part of the wicked world. And our religious publications seldom wasted an opportunity to contrast the JW version of Christianity with our competitors.
For example, the 2014 Yearbook contains the account of a Somali woman who accepted an invitation to visit a Kingdom Hall. There she grew angry when no one welcomed her and stormed out of the door. Later when she told her experience to the Witness that had invited her, they all realized that she had mistakenly visited another church building. The anecdote ends by sharing that the Somali woman eventually found the Kingdom Hall, was warmly welcomed, and became a regular attender.
Accounts like this are used to infer that even among the religions of “the world” there is no kindness like that of the Witnesses. There is another undercurrent that runs through this and similar JW anecdotes. A warm welcome is merely the first step in the conversion process.
As an adult, I began to see that the JW version of kindness didn’t always match the Watchtower picture. The initial love bombing was soon replaced by a sort of caste system that celebrated those that held position and disregarded those that didn’t live up to the heavy load imposed by the Governing Body. And those that ran afoul of any number of the religion’s rules might be expelled.
Witnesses that once rushed to embrace someone entering through the front door would as quickly turn away from someone shoved out the back. I experienced this myself when I was disfellowshipped for the crime of not agreeing.
After separating from the Witnesses, I accepted invitations to visit other churches. In attending some of these religious rivals, I couldn’t help but notice similarities. As I entered old churches, converted theaters, and the occasional dank basement, I was bombarded by smiling, Holy book-holding people. Questions such as “Who are you?” and “Are you visiting?” were quickly followed by invitations for Bible study and baptism. The jargon was different but the experiences weren’t far off from my JW background.
It also wasn’t rare for those groups to claim exclusivity due to the love they showed one another. An acquaintance that was raised in a high control group, commonly called the 2×2’s, talked about how his own childhood was marked by religious-vacations to stay at the houses of various “friends.” His mother was proud that they could count on anyone of their faith to take them in off the road. It sounded like my own family.
After I separated from the JW religion, it was sometimes a challenge to integrate into the world. A discomfort or awkwardness lingered when associating with people of different backgrounds. The stigma was all on me due to my upbringing. But over time I widened out and met people of different backgrounds – some of whom became real friends.
Recently I took a trip to western North Carolina, a scenic area on the east coast of the United States. My girlfriend and I were hosted by a couple who lived half-way up a tall mountain with gorgeous views of the scenery. We were complete strangers, just introduced online. We made shrimp and steak tacos for our hosts as a small thanks for the paradise-like accommodations that would have rivaled the most exclusive resort. As we drank frosty bottles of Negra Modelo with our new friends, we learned about their incredible lives.
He was 60’s student who enlisted in the military to serve in the Vietnam war before getting out as an objector after a crisis of conscience. Back home he became a street flower vendor before opening his own shop. She was an ethnobotanist that toured the world conducting research for National Geographic. He told us about the local foliage. She told us that cannibals loved SPAM, because it allegedly tastes like human flesh.
For example, many use tobacco, chew betel nut, or take drugs for recreational purposes. – “A Godly View of Life”, What Does the Bible Teach?
And she told us about betel nut. As a JW, betel nut was considered another of Satan’s machinations that could catapult an unsuspecting Witness straight into the world. It was up there with marijuana and tobacco, though no one seemed to know exactly what it was. Our host told us that betel nut was chewed by islanders from the age of nine onward. It resulted in addiction and the loss of teeth. Thanks to the Watchtower I dodged the bullet on that one. I could have had dentures at eleven!
The couple enthusiastically explained that they had made hospitality their way of life since touring Europe as young adults. Although decades had past, they vividly gave accounts of being approached to share a tent, roof or meal. When they returned to the States, they wanted to do the same and have continued to open their home to others passing through.
As we toured the local downtown an Eastern-European girl approached asking for directions. She was working as a counselor at a rural summer camp and was planning to walk back. The couple insisted they drive her. As we dropped her off and waved goodbye, we exchanged smiles and waves that transcended language. And there were no religious tracts exchanged.
We only stayed two nights, though our hosts implored us to stay more. Instead we set out to explore the local area, camping high in the middle of an expansive forest. By day we ventured down into the valley towns and city. One night we ended up staying too late enjoying cocktails and local music. A greeting to another couple led to another invitation to stay over.
The next afternoon another set of new acquaintances took care of our lunch bill. Beyond hospitality and food, we received housing advice, job leads, personal tours, conversation, and more. All came without an expectation of anything in return, not even a visit to a church building.
In religions like JW’s, kindness is not free or without conditions. When directed toward outsiders it is with the anticipation that it will lead to a conversion. But as easily as it is given, it quickly goes away whenever someone runs afoul of the religion. It’s true that in many places in the world kindness may be rare, but to insinuate that it can only come within one tiny Christian sect is simply false. It’s a lie told to enforce us-versus-them style thought control.
The more I’m exposed to the world, the more I’m exposed to genuinely kind people that give from the heart rather than religious obligation. And like my hosts, it motivates me to want to show similar kindness to others. Have you ever experienced unexpected kindness from “the world?” Please share it in the comments.