When I explain to others that I no longer speak with my father or several siblings due to my decision to no longer follow the teachings of Jehovah’s Witnesses, I am met with puzzled looks and mouths that don’t know how to respond. Most everyone I know believes that their religious convictions, or lack thereof, is a personal choice.They just do not get what the “big deal” is with regard to what happened when I decided to no longer be one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. “What?” they ask; “Your father doesn’t speak with you because you don’t go to his church anymore?” That doesn’t make any sense, they say. Who would stop speaking with their own children over a religion? If you’ve not been associated with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, some Orthodox Jews, the Amish, etc., then you may not understand this practice at all, but for those of us who have, it is known as “shunning.”
I was already somewhat familiar with the term by the time I was eight. My mother, a practicing JW for just about six years, was the first person I can ever recall being disfellowshipped. I came to understand her place in odd circumstances, such as the night she needed our only car, which also happened to be meeting night. To make it all work, she took my father, sister and I to the Hall, but first we had to stop and pick up good old sister Smith, as we always did, along the way. Sister Smith was real quiet. I’d never known her to remain so silent. The typical conversations between the adults in the car were a thing of the past. When I asked my father later why no one said anything in the car, he told me. He explained to me in the best way he could that my mother was no longer in Jehovah’s favor (as if he knew who was and was not in Jehovah’s favor!) and therefore the brothers and sisters in the congregation were no longer allowed to speak with her.
Years later, after I’d decided to make “the truth” my own, I typically knew who was getting disfellowshipped before the congregation at large found out. I was either helping to “catch” the wrongdoer in the act of sinning, or was close enough to the elders and ministerial servants to know what was going on behind the scenes. Once the announcement was made, a few of us would gather together to talk about the newly disfellowshipped person. “Tsk, tsk,” we’d remark, “I always knew there was something not right about him,” or “I knew it was only a matter of time before Jehovah brought his sins to light….” Then we would glance toward the back of the hall (the last row of shame), where we’d find the disfellowshipped person. They would usually get into the hall just as the song was starting, and sometimes leave before the final prayer, just to avoid walking by someone in awkward silence.
When the time came for me to go, I swore there was no way I was going to be made a spectacle before the congregation. I debated for the better part of a year about leaving. I knew once I had made my decision, there would be no turning back, no sitting in the back, no aim for “reinstatement.” Conveniently, I was relocated just before I left. Once my move was complete, I wrote a letter to one of the elders and explained what “sins” I had been committing, further indicating that I was not repentant and would not be appealing the decision. I wanted it over as quickly as possible. I didn’t even let my own father know what was happening. He found out once the elder told him, but that’s another story.
I can still recall all these years later the last time I stepped foot in a Kingdom Hall; like an object frozen in time, I still have my New World Translation that I received at the District Convention in 1985, complete with a miniature sized version of the Theocratic Ministry School schedule from 1987, including the date on which I was officially disfellowshipped. My heart was broken when I left, along with the hearts of many others. A connection had been severed with not just my immediate family, but the hundreds of “friends” I had made over a span of five years. In an instant, I was cut off from everyone, completely separated, not even twenty one years old, feeling completely alone in the world. I was scared, petrified and momentarily lost. It took me a long time to regain my footing. I’m grateful that those who are leaving or are thinking of leaving have the multitude of online resources available today. If you are or have ever been a Jehovah’s Witness, then you know the decision to leave is probably the most difficult decision you will ever make in your life. If you haven’t yet made a decision to formally join, think carefully before you do, as there is no such thing as a graceful exit.