[Edited transcript of a podcast first aired on June 11, 2011.]
Some time from late 2008 and throughout 2009, the circuit overseer that manages the Menlo Park and Redwood South congregations in California, named Koehler, began pushing the Menlo Park body of elders in several ways. One thing he wanted was for them to accept a renovation plan for their Kingdom Hall. But they, because they owned their Kingdom Hall outright, wanted to simply maintain their Hall “as is.”
Another thing he wanted was to merge the Redwood South congregation with Menlo Park. It isn’t clear when this came up, but it seems logical that with his cousin as an elder in Redwood South, bringing him and his friends over into the Menlo Park congregation could sway the vote enough to get the remodeling project he wanted passed.
Another move he made is less clear, but their reaction to it shows the kindness and pure motives of the Menlo Park body of elders. Circuit Overseer Koehler attempted to pressure a sister from Menlo Park to change congregations and attend a Kingdom Hall in Santa Rosa, California – apparently just because her job was nearer to that Hall. When she tried to refuse and exercise her constitutional right to worship where she pleased, the Menlo Park body of elders supported her.
I have been told that around this same time, the Menlo Park body of elders wrote a letter to the Watchtower Branch office outlining the oppressive and abusive manner Circuit Overseer Koehler had been conducting himself. As anyone who has ever been a Jehovah’s Witness knows, the chain of command is sacrosanct in the organization. I once criticized my local elders and was told that by doing that I was challenging the authority of Jesus Christ himself. And we don’t have to imagine the response of the Watchtower Society to this local body of elders criticizing one of their middle managers. The court documents lay it out for us loud and clear.
In February of 2010, the District Overseer was sent along with the Circuit Overseer to Menlo Park. They met with the body of elders there and after that meeting, they recommended the removal of the entire body.
A few months later, the elders in Menlo Park received a letter dated May 24, 2010 from the “Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses” telling them about the “report” they received on March 9 from the CO and DO meeting recommending their removal as elders. The letter states in part:
“As you are aware, the circuit overseer and the district overseer have recommended your deletion as elders. After careful and prayerful consideration of this matter, we agree with those who have taken the difficult position that you are not qualified to serve as elders. Your deletion as elders will be effective July 1, 2010.
“Obviously, your deletion as elders will be a disappointment to you. However, there is still much you can do to be an encouragement to the congregation. Your whole-souled service to Jehovah is not dependent on an appointment in the congregation. The greatest privilege any human can have is sharing in the sanctification of Jehovah’s name and declaring the good news of God’s Kingdom. Therefore, do not let this turn of events overly discourage you or stumble you. We can learn a lesson from the steward of King Hezekiah named Shebnah. Though dismissed from serving as a steward, Shebnah was allowed to continue in the king’s service as a secretary to his replacement. Thus, even though we are removed from a position of responsibility in Jehovah’s organization for some reason, should we not continue to serve God in whatever capacity he permits?”
This stuff is truly offensive and it is amazing to me that these four brothers took it like men and have remained a part of the cult after experiencing such treatment. “Should we not continue to serve God in whatever capacity HE permits?” the letter asks. As if the decision to remove these men was made by God himself. Talk about hubris and putting on airs for themselves. What is worse, nobody ever signs these letters and this one is no exception. It is signed with a stamp that just says “Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses.” There is a code that indicates to those internal to the organization who in the Branch office wrote, stamped, and sent it out, but those receiving it are only told it comes from GOD through his organization.
Those guys had to know this was total baloney.
The letter goes on to explain that the Redwood City South congregation is dissolving and their group of Jehovah’s Witnesses is going to join the Menlo Park congregation. The Redwood South elders will be reappointed to be elders of the Menlo Park congregation starting on July 1, the same date the current elders were scheduled to be deleted. In addition, three of the Redwood South elders, including the CO’s cousin, Ernest Brede, the new Coordinator of the Body of Elders – no coincidence there I’m sure – were to start attending Menlo Park immediately, quote, “to provide assistance during the transition period.”
As if these brothers who had run the congregation just fine for decades now need help during the final month of their tenure.
The way the letter closes is particularly painful, and illustrates just how completely callous and out of touch with the reality of life your everyday Jehovah’s Witness lives the organization in Brooklyn truly is:
“We desire that you continue to find joy in making your valuable contribution to the Kingdom work by your zealous activity in the Christian ministry. We are confident that Jehovah will bless you for doing so. We sincerely pray that you will qualify again for extra privileges of service sometime in the future. Please accept our warm Christian love and best wishes. Your brothers, Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
In other words, “Don’t think this absolves you of your obligation to go out in serve us, gentlemen. And by the way, don’t hold your breath about ever being elders again. It’s over. ‘Forget it Jake. It’s Chinatown.’ ”
But Jonathan Cobb Sr. and Arlen St.Clair aren’t J.J. Gittes, and they weren’t about to let themselves be walked all over, their congregation taken over, and their Kingdom Hall be stolen without a fight. Even though the odds are long that you can ever beat ‘the man’ and find real justice, good people like the Cobbs and St. Clair still strive to find it.
So, having asked the Watchtower organization for help and protection against this thug C.O. and getting removed from their positions in response, these brothers did the only thing left in their power to do to obtain justice: file suit in federal court.
The various documents in the suit end up totaling hundreds of pages, so to summarize what the suit is about, here is the short version:
As discussed on the previous Cult Free Radio, religions are structured either hierarchically – with the parent organization owning everything, their representatives priests and ministers basically employees, and the parishioners pretty much just observers and money donors, or they are structured congregationally – with each local congregation owning their own property, supplying their own local ministers from among their own parishioners, and with the parent organization mainly providing coordination services, advice, and sometimes helping to combine the efforts of several congregations in a sort of economy of scale type of way.
Well, Jehovah’s Witnesses have been structured congregationally throughout history in order to shield the Watchtower Society and the other national and international-level corporate bodies from liability that arises based on things that happen locally. Because of this, local congregations OWN their OWN Kingdom Halls and in most states are incorporated legal entities with their own body of elders as the legal officers of the corporation. There is NO LEGAL CONNECTION between the local congregation’s corporation and the Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses Incorporated or the Watchtower Society of Pennsylvania or New York, Incorporated.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses Branch office can appoint or remove elders.
It can NOT appoint or remove corporate officers from a local congregation. ONLY the vote of the local congregation or its body of elders, in accord with the laws of the state in which it resides and the articles and bylaws filed with the state corporation commission, can make changes to the corporate officers or the corporate charter, articles, and bylaws in ANY way.
But what the elders that came over from Redwood City South congregation did is take over as officers of the Menlo Park congregation’s legal corporation, bank accounts, and deed to the Kingdom Hall itself. They are so gutsy in this that they did some of this months AFTER the original suit was filed and the plaintiffs had to amend the suit to add on the continued crimes they are alleging these corporate goons are still committing.
One ray of hope remains in this, and that is that former elder and CEO of the corporation Jason Cobb was able to get one of the congregation bank accounts frozen, so that the Borg cannot get their hands on those assets at least until the court case is over.
The defendants have given their initial answers to the court’s questions and the plaintiffs are scheduled to be deposed next week.
The biggest challenge for the plaintiffs is that they have no attorney, and as most of us know, the Watchtower has dozens, if not hundreds, of attorneys both in Bethel and around the world. The defendant’s lawyer is a Jehovah’s Witness, and his main defense is that this is a religious matter and as such is out of the jurisdiction of the courts.
The plaintiffs, the elders who were kicked out at Menlo Park, not having an attorney but rather simply a legal advisor with what appears to be a solid knowledge of court paperwork, do not have anyone to argue their case for them or really advise them professionally as to the best way to pursue this case.
I have very little hope for them and if they lose the case, it is likely that they will not only be disfellowshipped, but they will be saddled with court costs and the attorney fees of the defendants, which no doubt will be exorbitant and the maximum allowed by law.
Brothers, if you are listening, God would not allow such things to be done by “His organization.” Faith in God is one thing. Faith in a clearly flawed man-made organization that puts the bottom line dollar before both God and men is foolhardy. No offense. I’m with you in this suit but what if you win?
Do you walk back into Menlo Park congregation vindicated? I don’t see it happening. They WILL disfellowship you, win or lose. The only reason they haven’t done it already – and they could, you know, for “brazen conduct” – is that they do not want their horrible shunning policy to make them look any crueler in court than they’re already going to look.
I hate to be the voice of negativity. I do hope you win because maybe it will force a change in the way the Watchtower does things, and prevents them from doing the same thing to other bodies of elders and congregations in the future. But I don’t see you four brothers ever getting justice from the organization no matter what the court decides. I’m sorry this happened to you and I hope you get justice from the courts, at least.
You can hear the entire show in the embedded video below or by going here (it is #004 from 6/11/11): http://www.ustream.tv/user/MadSweeney/videos
To hear a more in-depth discussion of the Menlo Park situation, listen to show #003 from May 28,2011 at the same address.
Editor’s Note: “Mad Sweeney” is a frequent poster on Jehovahs-Witness.net, a very popular Jehovah’s Witness discussion forum. He has also contributed an article entitled “Watchtower’s Pecking Order” here at Ex-JW.com. Sweeney can always be counted on to come up a humorous, but well researched discussion on almost any subject relating to the Watchtower religious corporation. We thank him again for allowing us to adapt one of his original posts for this article. You can read our interview with “Sweeney” by clicking here. You can read a group discussion of this subject here on JWN.