November 7th, 2010
A small group of Jehovah’s Witnesses, former elders at the Menlo Park (CA) Kingdom Hall, have filed a lawsuit in federal district court charging several ranking representatives of the Watchtower Society with “Conspiracy, Conspiracy to Commit Fraud, Collusion, Fraud, Extortion, Defamation, Mail and Wire Fraud, and Religious Fraud.” [United States District Court For the Northern District of California: CV10-3907 - click here to read the actual complaint as filed in court.]
Jehovah’s Witnesses believe, as all Christians do, that theft of another’s property, and then lying about it, is a sin. In fact, three of the Ten Commandments speak to this issue:
The 8th Commandment: “You shall not steal.”
The 9th Commandment: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”
The 10th Commandment: “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house…nor anything that is your neighbor’s.”
For the most part, faithful Jehovah’s Witnesses try to live by these standards, even though they teach that Jesus replaced those Ten, and in fact all the Law of Moses, with just two commandments as recorded in Mark 12:30, 31:
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”
It’s clear that true Christians would not consider using theft, misrepresentation, outright lies, or illegal manipulation to take away the property of another brother – or anyone else. It would be considered a “sin” – a clear violation of the commandments of both the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures. Baptized Jehovah’s Witnesses are often punished by being reproved or disfellowshipped for violation of those commandments, and that’s in addition to any secular legal penalties.
We might argue about some of the predictions, teachings, and practices of the Watchtower Society. But most of us, Jehovah’s Witnesses and non-Witnesses alike, would assume that every Christian should strive to follow those clear commandments. Most would agree that a “Christian” stealing from another brother is not really a “Christian” at all, but would be considered “an evil one, demon possessed, or serving Satan.”
Apparently the Watchtower Society’s leaders feel that they are not bound by the same rules that apply to rank and file Jehovah’s Witnesses. There have been many past examples, but the latest and most blatant violation by the Society of the Lord’s Commandments is taking place in Menlo Park, California (USA).
How Kingdom Halls were built and financed in the past
Like most Kingdom Halls built between 1945 and 1970, the Menlo Park Kingdom Hall was financed and managed by local Jehovah’s Witnesses. In order to hold the deed, order utilities, and meet local land use and building codes, a non-profit corporation was formed to hold title to the property. In most cases, little or no financing help was forthcoming from Bethel Headquarters in Brooklyn, NY. Any loans or mortgages were arranged locally, usually through a bank or a private party – often arranged with the original owner of the land or by a wealthy JW who was willing to guarantee the Note.
Trustees of the Kingdom Hall corporations were selected from among the local Kingdom Hall servants, and usually included the Congregation Servant, the Assistant Congregation Servant, and one or two others. If one of the Trustees left the Kingdom Hall for any reason, including death or disciplinary reasons, the Trustees would nominate a replacement. The nominee would be announced to the assembled congregation and a vote was taken to affirm the appointment.
Local contributions and donations paid for the mortgage, utility bills, insurance, and maintenance. The Watchtower Society rarely assisted local congregations financially, except in very extreme situations not fully covered by the Hall’s insurance policies.
Menlo Park’s Kingdom Hall
This was basically the method used to build the Menlo Park Kingdom Hall. The local brothers and sisters OWNED the Hall at 811 Bay Road, just a stone’s throw from the Bayshore Freeway (US 101). There was easy access to the Hall from surrounding communities. It was the “parent” of several other local Kingdom Halls built over the next 50 years. As the local community grew, so did Jehovah’s Witnesses within the region.
As the San Francisco Bay Area population exploded, property values jumped into the stratosphere. Acreage and lots that sold for a few thousand dollars in the late 1950s are now worth millions. Even with the recent economic downturn, property values in and around the Bay Area remain high in comparison to other parts of the country.
Pots of Gold Await
The Watchtower Society realized that it had millions, and potentially billions of dollars tied up in its properties around the world. Branch offices in foreign countries had grown in value, but the Society’s largest assets were tied up in the factories, office buildings, and residence halls in Brooklyn, NY. Most of those properties were purchased at fire sale prices many years before, but upgraded and remodeled using volunteer help and donations. Now those properties are worth millions and are highly prized by the Brooklyn community because of their scenic views and access to the Greater New York metropolis. The Governing Body of the Watchtower was sitting on a “gold mine” – and they knew it. They quickly began moving their operations to rural areas, building on cheap and donated farm land. Brooklyn Bethel was up for sale.
Looking out over the North American continent, the leadership of the Watchtower Society realized that hundreds of Kingdom Halls, like the one in Menlo Park, were sitting on very valuable land. The problem was that the Watchtower Society didn’t own those Kingdom Halls – the local Jehovah’s Witnesses did. They had to formulate a plan to get the Society’s name on those deeds so they could add all those properties worth millions of dollars to its assets.
The leadership of the Watchtower Society was breaking the 10th Commandment. They were sinning by “coveting” the houses of their brothers and sisters, those valuable Kingdom Halls owned by non-profit corporations managed by local Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Who Owns YOUR House?
Property rights in the United States have a long and gloried history. Even the government can’t take your property unless it goes through the legal hurdles of exercising “eminent domain.” Property owners have certain expectations that their rights will be defined by the laws of the land and protected by the courts. Let me offer an example:
You want to buy some land and build a house. You go to a bank or a private party and negotiate a loan. A deed is issued giving you ownership rights, but there is also a mortgage or trust deed on the property. As long as you make the agreed payments, protect the property with insurance, and pay the taxes – you get a guarantee (a deed) to live there and do with it as you please. No one can come and take it away from you. If they do, by using forged documents or moving in while you are out-of-town, you have legal remedies to help you get your property back.
Let’s say you have a mortgage with the 8th National Bank. You make your payments every month as agreed. Your cousin sees that you have a nice house and that it has become quite valuable. If only he could find a way to get his name on the deed so that he could sell it out from under you. He really “covets” your property. He goes to the 8th National Bank and tells them that you’ve let the property run down and it looks a little shabby, and it needs some paint. He “bears false witness” by telling the bank that he “also owns the property.” Because you both have the same last names, he claims that you are “family.” He also tells the bank that you may have done something criminal, so to protect the property and their interest in it, they should make a remodeling loan on the property and put his name on the deed to show that he is a “co-owner.” That way, he says, “if you get arrested and accused of a crime,” he can move onto the property and take over. He would then be on the deed and therefore become a “co-owner.”
If you found out that your cousin had done this to you to first steal the property, and then sell it for his own profit – leaving you with nothing – WOULDN’T YOU FIGHT HIM IN EVERY WAY POSSIBLE?
When you read the court documents filed by the Plaintiffs, you will see that the example above is almost exactly what Menlo Park’s “cousins” back in Patterson, NY have done to them. The legal owners, as represented by the Plaintiffs, have appealed to the courts to recognize and restore their rights and declare that the Watchtower Society had no legal or financial right to the property.
The Task Ahead
My anonymous contacts, acquainted with the situation – and knowing the Plaintiffs – have assured me that the charges against them were totally bogus, and that they were victims of a setup directed in part from the Watchtower’s Service Department. According to those contacts, these men have been faithful Jehovah’s Witnesses, active as publishers and elders at that Kingdom Hall for dozens of years. One of my contacts offered these other details:
- The Plaintiffs are not “apostates” or renegades. They have no issues with the teachings or policies of the Watchtower Society – except for their handling of this case.
- Both Plaintiffs have been elders for years, and have served the local congregation faithfully. They don’t want to leave their friends. They don’t want to fight against the Organization. They do not want to “disassociate” or be “disfellowshipped.”
- As described in the court documents, one of the defendants tried to provoke a physical altercation with one of the plaintiffs. In spite of being physically attacked, the plaintiff did not report the altercation to the police – which he now admits was probably a mistake.
- In spite of the seriousness of the charges they have made, they aren’t looking to make headlines or lead a revolt against the Watchtower Society. They simply want the leadership of the Society to admit that errors were made, that their representatives were out of line and acted illegally, and to stop their current illegal policy of property confiscation.
They want the Society to stop hiding behind so-called “ecclesiastical privilege” when their representatives use unethical and illegal methods in dealing with local congregations. That’s what the “Harlot of Babylon,” the Catholic Church, has done for centuries. Is that the model that the Watchtower Society wants to follow?
An Appeal on Behalf of These Brothers
The plaintiffs have taken the proper legal approach to try to get the remedies they have asked for. They are not after monetary compensation – only appropriate court costs. They are asking for a jury trial; they feel that if jurors chosen from the public at-large hear their case, that they will prevail and their point made.
They’ve been told by legal advisors that if they had a good attorney or law firm to represent them, they would likely prevail. So far the only attorneys interested in taking their case want thousands of dollars just to open the case and do the preliminaries. These brothers do not have those kinds of funds available to them. They are hoping that someone knows some legal professionals that might be willing to take their case on a pro bono basis.
They are also open to someone creating a legal defense fund to help them cover expenses. If there is anyone reading this who would be willing to assist them in setting up such a fund, please contact the Editor at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will get the information to them and help as much as I can.
It might seem strange that the editor of a so-called “apostate,” anti-Watchtower website would take any interest whatsoever in the plight of Jehovah’s Witnesses who are still a part, and are likely to remain followers, of what I consider a cult. But it’s not really strange at all. To me it makes total sense.
I am not on a crusade to convert any Jehovah’s Witnesses to my personal beliefs. Let them make their own choice about what they should believe. I just want them to open their eyes to what the Watchtower is doing to them. How many times can you kick a dog before he turns and bites you? Even though I consider the rank and file misinformed and misguided, I truly believe that most Witnesses are trying to do right, avoid sin, and serve God to the best of their ability. I’m convinced that is the case with the majority. But then there are those, like the traveling representatives identified in the court filing, who have ulterior motives and want only to serve “The Organization” for their own reward – not for the glory of God and His Kingdom.
Those of us who have been JWs, and have family members who still are, should show empathy and real concern for the welfare of all Jehovah’s Witnesses, especially those who are watching their local Kingdom Halls being closed down and merged. Later they’ll see those properties sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars – the money leaving their community and going straight into the vaults and bank accounts of the Watchtower Society.
Somebody has to care about these people. In the end, it may seem ironic that it was so-called “apostates” and former Jehovah’s Witnesses that offered them a hand. They sure won’t get any help from the Watchtower Society and its Governing Body.
One Last Comment:
If the “time of tribulation” and the “end of this system” is so close that Jehovah’s Witnesses should not get an education and not improve their employment, then why is the Watchtower spending so much money on new Kingdom Halls and Assembly Hall construction? Oh yes, they not only get paid back for their investment in those construction projects, they will also get the deeds to those properties.
If Armageddon is “just around the corner,” why is it necessary to (1) remodel or refurbish the existing Menlo Park Kingdom Hall, only to (2) turn around a sell it for potentially millions of dollars, forcing the members to travel the extra distance to Redwood City? Is it possible that Armageddon is really not that close? Or is it really way off in the future – if ever?
I don’t think the Watchtower Society knows – or even cares – when, or if, Armageddon will ever come.
This is the first of three articles reporting on the court case and recent events involving the Menlo Park, CA Kingdom Hall. Please feel free to comment and offer your suggestions on how these brothers (the plaintiffs) can properly finance and present their case in Federal Court. If a similar situation has happened at a Kingdom Hall near you, please contact the Editor and give the location and any details you might have about what may have transpired there.