Fear and Loathing in Menlo Park
Editor’s Note: Although I have been able to accumulate a great deal of information from various sources, and have managed to make contact with several individuals familiar with the details and status of this case, I want to make it absolutely clear that I have had no personal contact with the plaintiffs or their legal assistant, either directly or indirectly. That’s not to say I haven’t tried – I have – but they have refused to communicate with me in any way. They’ve made it clear, because of the fact that I was a Jehovah’s Witness at one time and left of my own free will, that they must consider me an “apostate” and avoid any contact with me. I do not take this personally and I understand why they must take that stand.
All other contacts have either been unbaptized persons who are familiar with the situation and those involved in it, or former members of the congregations involved who have also left the religion.
* * *
Menlo Park is a small California city in San Mateo County, located between San Francisco on the north and San Jose on the south. Its eastern edge, the Bayshore Freeway (US 101), separates it from the community of East Palo Alto.
It’s a nice little town of about 35,000 people with a population that is predominantly white (62%) and Hispanic (23%). For most of its existence, the city has been made up of middle and upper middle class families. The average income per family has been reported to be around $125,000 (USD), and the city enjoys a relatively low crime rate. Child movie star Shirley Temple Black, author Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest), and singers Stevie Nicks (Fleetwood Mac) and Joan Baez have all lived in Menlo Park. Perhaps its most famous resident has been Sergey Brin, founder of Google.
On the other side of the Bayshore Freeway from Menlo Park, snugged up against the western edge of San Francisco Bay, lies the City of East Palo Alto. No two cities could be so close to each other (literally a few hundred meters), and yet be so completely different.
. . .When it was announced that the Menlo Park Elders were being removed (all of them) there were audible gasps in the audience. Of course, the assumption is that they did something wrong, and it’s very hard to get the story out. One of the sisters is elderly and in a wheel chair. The announcement nearly gave her a heart attack and she is now in bad health. – Anonymous caller
East Palo Alto IS NOT part of Palo Alto, the home of world renowned Stanford University. Actually East Palo Alto is not “east” of Palo Alto, it is “north” of Palo Alto. It is “east” of Menlo Park. The Bayshore Freeway and Santa Clara County Airport act as effective barriers, separating a wealthier Palo Alto from its much poorer neighboring city. Palo Alto is also part of Santa Clara County, while East Palo Alto is part of San Mateo County along with Menlo Park.
Unlike Menlo Park or Palo Alto, East Palo Alto has for much of its existence found itself at the lower end of the economic scale. Prior to World War 2, much of the land was made up of family farms owned by Japanese-Americans. During the war, most Japanese families were sent to internment camps and lost everything, including their homes and land. After the war, the city was populated by African-Americans, brought to the area during the war to work in the ship building and defense industries. By the 1960s, the city was so predominately African-American, that there was actually a movement that urged its name be changed to “Nairobi.”
Due to its high minority population and extremely low economic base, crime became a major problem for the community. In 1992, it had the highest homicide rate in the USA on a per capita basis. It has been so economically disadvantaged that for several years there wasn’t a single major supermarket within the city limits.
. . .The elders don’t feel comfortable going [to the Kingdom Hall] as a lot of the people named in the law suit as defendants attend the meetings. This whole thing has alienated the [previous] elders from their life long religion. – Anonymous non-JW contact
Like its neighbor to the west, East Palo Alto has a population of about 35,000. African-Americans have in recent years become a minority again at about 20%. The vast majority are Hispanics, but there is also a small but significant population of Pacific Islanders, including Samoans and Fijians. Whites make up less than 4% of the city’s population. The city has not prospered as its neighbors to the west and south have, and the recent economic downturn has only complicated its existence.
The Menlo Park Kingdom Hall
For nearly fifty years, a Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses has existed at 811 Bay Drive, Menlo Park. The Kingdom Hall building is just a few dozen meters from a busy southbound off-ramp of the Bayshore Freeway, separated from the highway by chain-link fencing and a stand of trees. East Palo Alto is directly across the highway.
The Hall is a pleasant looking building, located in a middle-class residential neighborhood. I’ve been informed that the current structure dates back to the early 1960s, but it has been well maintained and its style fits in well with neighboring homes. While this part of Bay Drive remains residential, it is obvious that as the neighborhood ages it is likely to be replaced by commercial development. A large Veterans Administration Hospital is just a couple of city blocks to the west and the major thoroughfare of Willow Road (State Hwy. 114) is about the same distance to the south.
. . .They [the defendants] have been trying to oust the elders and get their hands on the Menlo Park Kingdom Hall for years. What they have done not only damages the elders, but indeed the entire congregation. – Anonymous male caller
This building and its resident congregation have become a microcosm of the modern Watchtower Society. All that is good and bad about the Society and its adherents, Jehovah’s Witnesses, is demonstrated by what is going on in Menlo Park.
- A large, religious oriented business, enforcing its will at a distance.
- Denials of culpability by the highest levels of the Society.
- A tough, “take no prisoners” middle manager “taking charge.”
- Upper-level managers ignoring the pleas of lower levels and suppressing dissent.
- Entrenched local overseers trying to hold onto positions they’ve held for years.
- A forced takeover of a congregation, its property, and its funds.
- Whistle-blowers trying desperately to get their story told.
- Unsupported accusations, lies, denials, and possibly criminal behavior.
- Cooked books and missing money.
- “Pro per” and penniless plaintiffs taking on well-financed and well-represented defendants.
- Claims of “ecclesiastical privilege” and “theocratic authority.”
- Apparent nepotism and favoritism.
- Alleged racism and discrimination.
- Theft, embezzlement, and abuse of power.
- Loyal friends and supporters.
- Disloyal “friends” and gossips.
- Threats of possible excommunication or other severe punishment.
Jehovah’s Witnesses, as a group and as an organized religion, have always had a policy of “color blindness” and an acceptance of all colors and ethnicities. California was one area where this was often the case, since most smaller towns had just one Kingdom Hall that served everyone in the area. In the 1930s and 40s, whenever an area had enough Witnesses to form a congregation, they would request permission from the Watchtower Headquarters. Many of these small new congregations met in private homes, rented storefronts, and in some very rare cases, in existing churches (on days and times when they were unused).
Although each congregation outlined its territory for the preaching work, there were no restrictions as to where individual JWs could attend. Some Witnesses would cross Kingdom Hall border lines to go to meetings with other family members – or to get away from other Witnesses that they disliked. For the most part, that was accepted behavior. There were even JWs who would go to meetings at two Kingdom Halls so that they could be with their friends and also attend locally. If remote Kingdom Halls didn’t have any qualified brothers to be servants, sisters would be assigned to conduct the Bible Study groups; brothers from other congregations (with their families) would travel to conduct Watchtower Studies, Ministry Schools, and give public talks. This activity still occurs in some remote areas.
Around 1950, Nathan Knorr, president of the Watchtower Society, began reorganizing Kingdom Hall operations. One issue that he insisted on was enforcement of boundary lines; Witnesses were to attend the Kingdom Hall they were assigned to, even if another Kingdom Hall was closer to them. Everyone went to the same Kingdom Hall (except in the southern United States where “Jim Crow” laws required African-Americans to go to their own separate Halls).
Due to the accelerated growth of the Witnesses during the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, many new Kingdom Halls were built. Some territories were divided up more or less by natural geographic boundary lines (city limits, a major highway, a river, etc.). Others were divided up in rather strange patterns, because those doing the dividing wanted to make sure that their friends or family members would be in the same Hall.
As much as the Watchtower will publicly deny it, there was also a nasty little secret that everyone knew (or at least suspected). There was one other factor that came into play in some larger cities and well-populated areas: Race and Ethnicity.
Menlo Park Congregation is Formed
Although I do not have the exact year, I have confirmed with members and former members of the Menlo Park Kingdom Hall that it was established sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960s. San Francisco’s south bay region was growing very fast, as were the numbers of new Jehovah’s Witnesses. Several congregations were set up in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties along with the East Bay counties of Alameda and Contra Costa. (Similar growth was taking place at the same time in Los Angeles, Orange, and other counties in Southern California.)
Every time a new Kingdom Hall was built or a new congregation established, a committee of local elders (they were called “servants” in those days), led by the responsible Circuit Servant and District Servant, would get together to determine the borders and where a new Kingdom Hall would be located.
(I was very young at that time and my father was not a ranking servant in those days, but I heard some strange stories about these meetings. I actually saw the results of these meetings in my own town in California.)
Beside natural boundary lines, other “factors that shall not be named or admitted” came into play. Although California was typically less racist than Mississippi or Alabama, there was still a recognizable amount in play. While Jehovah’s Witnesses were probably less racist than “southern” Southern Baptists, they were still human – and only white men were in control of the management positions at headquarters and the branch offices. You never saw an African-American or Hispanic circuit servant, even in heavily minority areas.
The Menlo Park Kingdom Hall was located where it is today, and its boundary lines were drawn (“gerrymandered”) so that the bulk of San Mateo County’s African-American and minority Jehovah’s Witnesses would go there. Redwood City and Palo Alto Kingdom Halls would cover the predominately “white” areas. For most of its existence, Menlo Park has been 90% minority. Redwood City and Palo Alto were almost all white memberships.
- gerrymander (ˈdʒɛrɪˌmændə) –verb
- To divide the constituencies of (a voting area) so as to give one party an unfair advantage.
- To manipulate or adapt a geographic area to one’s advantage
I’m sure a lot of factors came into play. At this late date, some fifty or more years later, there is probably no way to prove it with documents and most of the leadership of that time period are in their graves waiting to be resurrected after Armageddon, if it ever comes. But there is enough circumstantial evidence to indicate that something was going on that rank and file JWs probably suspected, but would have never discussed out loud. Among the factors involved:
- Whites would not travel into a ghetto or heavily minority area.
- Kingdom Halls located in minority areas would be subject to vandalism and theft.
- Members of “mostly white congregations” would object if “too many” minorities began attending regularly.
- New converts might stop coming to meetings if they were in the minority or felt uncomfortable around other ethnicities.
- Members would be willing to drive further in order to attend meetings where they were “comfortable.”
Even in smaller towns with relatively few Jehovah’s Witnesses, you’d find two congregations (a “north” and “south” or “east” and “west”) where one Kingdom Hall could have easily serviced the entire area. If you visited one while vacationing in the area you’d sometimes notice that most of the members would be black or Hispanic. The other congregation would be mostly white. Everyone in that community knew what was going on, but they’d accept the situation – and in many cases prefer it to be that way.
. . .you don’t know me. I’m a brother from Menlo Park. I can’t give you my name or nuthin’ else – sorry. I know you are trying to help Brother Cobb and all, but I think you are just going to make things worse for them. I heard you are writin’ an article or something like that and asking a lot of questions. Me and a couple of the other brothers think that Brother Cobb is getting a bad deal here, but he and the other elder just need to move on. It’s just causing dissension among the brothers. That’s all I got to say except everything going to be all right in Menlo Park if people would just keep their nose out of it and let us settle things among ourselves. Now you have a good day, OK? Don’t try to call me back, please. – Anonymous Phone Call
Menlo Park Kingdom Hall was located where it is today to be the meeting place for the area’s black minority living in East Palo Alto. Until recently, the congregation was still about 75% black and minority.
The first article of this series, Takeover in Menlo Park – Part One, discussed the background behind the possible court case filed by two former elders of the Menlo Park congregation. If you haven’t read it, I suggest that you take a few moments and read it now. That article was posted on this website on November 7, 2010. Much new information has been forthcoming since then thanks to many new contacts and other sources of information that have come to me.
I want to go off subject for just a moment for a personal note:
This has probably been the most difficult article for me to write – ever. My original plan was to post an article in late December (2010), but due to family issues of my own and required travel, I had limited time available. I also had limited information and confirmed sources. I faced other delays due to computer problems and major construction work on my home. But almost every day that I could get some time on the computer I would work on this, the next article of the series.
About the time I’d be ready to publish, I’d get a call from someone who claimed to be close to those involved in the case. They’d suggest that I hold off for a few days because new information would be available. I’d wait patiently, only to find I’d been misled or would not hear back from that contact. Then something would happen, a new document filed, or a date changed. During these past few weeks I’ve received contact forms through this website and anonymous phone calls – and even a couple of veiled threats that I should not pursue this case any longer. But I’ve continued to take the calls, exchange emails, and search for other resources.
. . .Please do not give up on this story. These men (the plaintiffs) did not deserve the treatment that they got from the Circuit Overseer (Koehler). He is out of control. None of us here understand why they would do this to such faithful elders. Please – please, help us and help them. – An Anonymous JW Sister
I feel I am now on track to follow this case to its final outcome. I’m also working with a member of the “fourth estate” who is tracking the progress of this unusual court case. I’ve received help from former members (now ex-JWs) of the Menlo Park congregation who have given me support and valuable background information about the history of Menlo Park Kingdom Hall – and the parties involved in the court case. As painful and frustrating as it has been, I will stick with this story.
A reader of this website located in Spain wrote me this little bit of encouraging news: [Translated from Spanish] “I have friends in Latin America and in Europe who want to know what is happening in Menlo Park. Some of us are still Jehovah’s Witnesses but feel that instead of showing love and support for the brothers, the Watchtower fails to show love and support for them. How could Watchtower leaders not listen to the cries of these brothers who have served for so many years – their whole lives in fact. We sometimes wonder if Jehovah has really abandoned the Watchtower Society for good. How could He let this happen? What do you think? What do your readers think? – Llámame ‘Sergio’ ”
After I got that email, I did a Google search. I was surprised at how many foreign language articles referred back to my November article. Well maybe Jehovah doesn’t care what the Watchtower Society and its leaders do. But I do! And thousands of readers of Ex-JW.com from all around the world do – including Sergio! I promise I won’t give up on this story.
New and Updated Facts on This Case
- The members of the former Redwood City (South) congregation have completely merged into the Menlo Park congregation. When this took place, the makeup of the congregation changed from a majority of black and minority members (about 75%) to a majority of white members (65%). It was after that merger that all critical votes about the future of the Kingdom Hall were presented to the congregation for approval.
- The Kingdom Hall in Redwood City is now the home for two or three Spanish speaking congregations.
- The original elders (including the plaintiffs in this case) were removed from their positions for “insubordination.” This act of so-called “insubordination” was due their writing an appeal on behalf of a sister in Menlo Park who did not want to be forced to move to another congregation against her will. Circuit Overseer Koehler and District Overseer Misterfield sat in judgment on the elders. No other reason was given for this action. Local elders are urged to contact the Branch Office if they have questions or are unsure if the direction they’ve been ordered to take is the correct one. So essentially they were dismissed for following Watchtower Society guidelines.
- (The elders who were removed at Menlo Park were Jason Cobb, Jon Cobb Sr., Arlen St. Clair, and George Stock. The Cobbs are African-American and St. Clair and Stock are white.)
- According to the plaintiffs, one of the defendants made a public announcement to the combined group that the current elders had been dismissed based on a decision issued by the Branch Office. This misrepresented the facts and made it look like the current elders had done something more serious than writing an appeal letter to the Branch Office.
- Plaintiffs assert that documents that would support their position were in files at the Kingdom Hall. They also assert that the defendants changed the locks on the Kingdom Hall and the filing system to prevent the plaintiffs from accessing those documents. The defendants did this in spite of the fact that they had no ownership rights to the building – ownership that was still retained by the plaintiffs. This was one of the reasons the plaintiffs filed a law suit in District Court. You can’t just lock someone out of his house and then not let him get to his deed and ownership documentation.
- The plaintiffs claim (and apparently have witnesses to support that claim) that alleges that Circuit Overseer Koehler verbally abused CEO Jason Cobb (son of plaintiff Cobb Sr.) and also allegedly physically pushed him. They admit that they should have filed a complaint of simple assault with the police.
- In September (2010), the defendants Brede, Contreras, and Laverdure declared themselves officers of a new corporation to own and control the Menlo Park Kingdom Hall. The name of the non-profit corporation is now “The English Corporation Of Jehovah’s Witnesses of Menlo Park Congregation.” This was put to a vote before the combined congregation in December. (I wonder if Queen Elizabeth knows that she owns a church in California?)
- A Japanese Congregation shares the Kingdom Hall, but holds its meetings on different days. Apparently they have no say (or interest) in what happens in the management of the Kingdom Hall. I wonder if they pay rent or contribute to the utilities? If the Watchtower Society “owns” the Kingdom Hall, wouldn’t they have some rights to participate?
- Jon Cobb Sr., one of the plaintiffs, allegedly received threats against himself and his family. He reportedly has moved his family several hundred miles away to get them “out of harms way.” Apparently he has returned to the San Francisco Bay area in order to appear for depositions, arbitration meetings, and court appearances. [This information comes to me through a third party not related to Mr. Cobb.]
- The removed elders have chosen to limit their meeting attendance at any local Kingdom Halls. They want to try to avoid feeding the curiosity about the case among the other congregations. Some are putting in a few hours in door-to-door service in order to keep their status as “active publishers.”
- While being so insistent on forcing a sister to move her membership to a distant Kingdom Hall against her will, Circuit Overseer Koehler’s relative [allegedly a cousin], Ernest Brede, was an elder at the predominately “white” congregation of Redwood City South (prior to the merger). That Kingdom Hall (2nd Avenue) is located several miles NORTH of the Menlo Park Kingdom Hall. According to public records, and so indicated in the court filing, Mr. Brede lives about one mile SOUTH of the Menlo Park Hall. Under current Watchtower guidelines, he should have been attending Menlo Park all those years instead of Redwood City. This is an apparent act of hypocrisy, considering that his cousin (Koehler) forced the woman to transfer to Santa Rosa and severely punished the existing elders for supporting her request. Hypocrisy in deed, if not in fact.
There is so much more. And the case goes on. I will follow up as things progress and then publish the third article in this series (and more, if needed) to keep everyone updated.
. . .Nobody knows the truth. Everybody is afraid to say anything at Menlo Park. They say the Watchtower don’t know nothing about what is going on and they don’t care. We’re all afraid that if we say anything, they’re going to disfellowship anyone that speaks up. We haven’t seen Brother Cobb in such a long time and we’re worried for him. Some people call him, but he won’t hardly talk to anybody cause he don’t know who’s on his side and who’s trying to get him. – An Anonymous Sister
I am providing all of the public court documents below so that you can read them and decide for yourself the merits of this case.
One more thing: The plaintiffs do not have a law firm or licensed attorney representing them. They have a “legal advisor,” a private citizen, John Steele, assisting them with paperwork and court processing. I have not spoken to John Steele, but I have contacts that have spoken to him and seem to know him well enough. If you’d like to read his personal views on this case, I suggest that you click on this link and go to a Blogger.com site that he has some connection to. I’m not sure why he would publish his point-of-view on Blogger (how would you find it), but I found it interesting. The site is called Fabled Vision. In any case, it’s a little different take on this case.
I’ll present my personal feeling about this case in a later article.