By “Shadow Elder, Jr.”
A few weeks ago, my father and I were out working together in the door-to-door preaching work. That morning only four of us showed up at the Kingdom Hall –my dad and I, and a married brother and sister. The other couple announced that they only had a little over an hour available for service and had some return calls to make. They would go off on their own while my dad and I would visit a territory a few miles away in a more rural area.
I am the youngest in my family. I was born into the Jehovah’s Witnesses, as was my father, and his father before him. Dad would not allow any of us to be baptized until we were at least sixteen years old, just to make sure that we truly wanted to dedicate our lives to Jehovah’s service. My oldest brother was baptized when he turned seventeen. My other brothers have not been baptized, although they do go to meetings and occasionally take part in field service. I was baptized the summer before I went to high school.
But back to my story…
My father silently chewed on his lower lip as we drove toward the territory. I could tell that something was definitely on his mind and he seemed troubled. I asked if he was feeling OK. I suggested that he might want to stop and get a cup of coffee before we started knocking on doors. He denied that anything was wrong, but agreed that a cup of coffee might do him some good.
One of our favorite little coffee shops was on the way. I’m not much of a coffee drinker. And when I do have a cup, I put so much sugar and creamers in it that I can barely taste the coffee itself. Then I find myself totally “wired” all day. But for some reason, I felt today was definitely a day when a coffee break was needed.
We sat at a little table off in a corner while we had our coffee and shared a cinnamon roll. Dad looked at me and then surprised me with “What do you think about going back to school? You always got decent grades in high school, and…” he paused, “I was wondering if you had any plans about going to college?”
“Gee, I don’t know, Dad,” I answered. “I haven’t really thought too much about it because I know the Society frowns on anyone going to college – especially a 4-year school. I don’t want to get into any trouble at the Kingdom Hall. After all, you’re an elder – I don’t want you to get into trouble either.”
Dad was deep in thought as he gazed over my head, watching people pass by the window of the coffee shop. He’d start to say something, but failed to form any words. I worried that he was going to tell me he had cancer or that my mother had some terrible disease. “Dad – what is wrong? Are you OK? Is everything OK?”
That’s when he told me that he was in mental turmoil. As an elder, he should have a strong faith in Jehovah and the Society, and set a good example as a faithful Witness. “Look, son – I’m having some doubts about things – mostly Watchtower teachings. I guess you know what that means and the problems that could cause our family, right?”
I was shocked. My dad having doubts? My dad? I had no idea. I sat silent as he tried to find ways to tell me how he felt and what exactly was bothering him.
“I’m not sure that the Governing Body and the rest of the Society are right about everything. I sometimes find it hard to believe that they are really being guided by Jehovah’s Holy Spirit. I have real problems with a few things they are doing and teaching right now.”
“Why are you telling me this now? How long have you felt this way?” I asked.
“Actually, I’ve been troubled in mind and spirit for quite a while. Sometimes I feel like a total hypocrite – feeling this way and still being an elder. I’m not sure that I should even be telling you this. But you are my son, and I trust you to keep this between us. If you don’t, you could destroy our family.”
Dad was becoming emotional. His normally robust voice was choked and he was blinking away tears. I knew at that very moment he was being totally honest with me.
“Look. I’ve been thinking. With the economy so bad right now, I’m thinking this might be a good time for you to go back to school and work toward getting a degree. You could continue living at home and your mom and I would provide for you. At least until you were able to get out on your own. I worry that you’ll miss the opportunity to go to school now while you still can – thinking that Jehovah will judge you harshly. But, you know, I just don’t believe it. I don’t think Jehovah wants his people to be uneducated. After all, I wouldn’t have the job I’ve got if I hadn’t gotten a degree. I went to night school all those years. I’d still be driving a truck or working in a warehouse somewhere if I hadn’t.”
Anyway, “to make a long story short,” that morning my dad and I never went to a single door. We just sat in that coffee shop and talked. We occupied that table for so long we had to order lunch to keep the waitresses from chasing us away.
That was the day I got to know my dad for real. In Jehovah’s Witness families, fathers are so totally into being “head of the household,” or “spiritual leader and example to the family,” that they will be very distant, cold, and often cruel to their kids. Even my dad could be that way at times – but I think he felt he had to act that way, even though his heart wasn’t in it. I sometimes feared my dad, but I always knew that he loved me – at least a little.
For a long time, my dad was really into being an “elder.” He was even a primary overseer for a while. But he asked to be relieved of that level of responsibility because of long hours at his job due to a promotion he got a few years back. I did notice that he seemed to have lost enthusiasm for going to meetings and in field service, but he’d force himself to go door-to-door at least once a week. He never turned down any assignments that he was given as an elder. I also knew that he really hated being on a “judicial committee.” I remember him coming home and locking himself in his bedroom – and then throwing up – after having to disfellowship a young JW sister earlier that day.
Now I knew that my dad was entering a new phase in his life as a Jehovah’s Witness. I found out that he turned the corner when he told me he had written an article on the Internet. “Yeah,” he said, “and it’s on an apostate’s web page!”
You could have knocked me over with a whisper. My dad? Writing an article for an apostate website? No freaking way! It was true, he said, but he thought it actually might do some good for other people who were also having doubts. “If they know that someone like me, a lifelong JW who’s an elder, has questions and concerns about the Truth, then maybe they will feel better about their own doubts and fears,” he told me.
“I doubt that anyone around here will figure out who I am, or what Kingdom Hall I go to, but you never know,” he said. “The guy who runs the web page promised to keep my identity private and to delete any of my emails after he reads them. I believe him and think he will protect my identity.”
“So exactly what did you write, Dad? I want to know!”
“I wrote about a lot of things. I wished I could have done more, but I think I touched on the main issues that were bothering me. I guess my number one issue is the fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses, even elders like me, can’t ask too many questions. We can’t challenge anything the Watchtower leaders tell us. I can’t sit down and have a talk like this with another brother, even someone who has been a close friend all my life, without fearing that he will blab it all over the Kingdom Hall, creating gossip and dissension. I might even be disfellowshipped. How would I deal with your mother and the rest of our JW family members if that happened? I’m not ready for any of that – not as long as you’re still in school.”
“Does Mom know?” I asked. “Does she have any idea how you feel and that you have doubts? Does she know about the article you wrote?”
“No. No, and no,” he replied. “I don’t think your mom is ready to deal with any of this yet. I think that if I asserted my ‘husbandly authority’ over her, she would give in eventually. But right now? No. She’s not ready.”
We finally left the coffee shop and drove to a branch library nearby to use a computer they had available to the public. My dad logged into www.Jehovahs-Witness.net and showed me that they had thousands of visitors who wrote articles and comments about the Watchtower and about JW life. “I’ve learned more from that bulletin board than I ever did reading any Watchtower books. Here, let me show you my article.”
Then he logged into www.Ex-JW.com, typed “shadow elder” in the search box, and suddenly a link to an article appeared on the screen. “Look, the guy who runs it even put in a little picture of a shadow guy with a brief case walking in front of the factory in Brooklyn. I guess that’s supposed to be me. Hah! Now go ahead and read the article and tell me what you think.”
As my dad sat beside me and looked over my shoulder, I read through the article from top to bottom. In his story he covered a lot of subjects that included how the Governing Body makes decisions, what it’s like to go to a Witness funeral, and his feelings about how some apostates – and even Jehovah’s Witnesses – appear to outsiders. “Yes,” he said, “I’m afraid that some of the younger and angrier apostate writers might actually ‘stumble’ people INTO the Organization – instead of out of it – just because of the way they present themselves. Some of them are very angry. It shows in the way they write.”
He told me that he’d read comments about his article on www.Jehovahs-Witness.net. “Yeah, a lot of people on that bulletin board thought I was a fake or that I was being unfair to apostates, and even to many Jehovah’s Witnesses who write poorly. They felt I was really full of myself and was being hateful to others. One person even called me a ‘typical JW elder’ because of my attitude. I think they missed my point, but I’m OK with their criticism. I have to admit that it hurt a little, but I think they meant well. At least I hope so.”
It was getting late. Mom called us on Dad’s cell phone. She was wondering where we were and what we were up to. Dad just told her that we were just enjoying the day together and would be home soon. For me, it was probably the most fun I’d ever had alone with my dad. That day I discovered he was very different than I’d imagined. He was still my dad – but for me he became my very special friend and confidant that day.
Dad and I still keep our little secret – at least for now. I am now going to the library at the junior college and checking out some of the “apostate web sites.” Dad was right – you really learn a lot of secret truth about the real story of Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Watchtower Society. I try to read as much as I can – every chance I get.
A few weeks later I signed up for some classes in English, Spanish and Accounting at the community college. My dad got in a little hot water over that at the Kingdom Hall, but he just told the other elders that I was studying to become a “bookkeeper” and had to take those other classes as well. I’m not sure how I can go to a 4-year college without getting myself and my dad in trouble at the Kingdom Hall, but hopefully I will eventually find a way.
One thing changed for the better: Now I love going with my dad in the door-to-door preaching work. My mother has noticed my apparent enthusiasm for the preaching work – and so far hasn’t guessed the truth about what my dad and I are up to.
Another thing has changed as well: I’ve never been as close to another human being than I am now with Dad. I know that I will follow his lead, no matter where it takes us. If we stay in the Truth, then I guess that’s what we’ll do. But if Dad decides to disassociate and leave the “Christian Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses,” then that’s what I will do as well.
Deep down – that’s what I’m hoping our final decision will be. I look forward to the day “I can be free to be me!” and escape the control of the Watchtower Society. I think that’s what my father wants as well – but only when the right time comes for us to make our move.
Editor’s Notes: Eighteen months ago, I received an article submission [“An Elder shares his honest opinions”] from an active JW in the general area of New York City. He said he had to be vague about his location and would disguise his identity with some misleading information. He wrote, “I am real. I do live within 30 minutes of New York City. I am legit and what I write about is the truth. But I have been active and well-known for many years and unless I misidentify myself somewhat, I’m sure that someone in my area will figure out who I am and expose me. I’m not ready for that just yet. That time will come, I’m sure. But it will be on my schedule – not the Watchtower’s. He recently wrote me and asked if I would publish an article by one of his sons. The young man wanted to describe what happened when his father revealed his secret for the first time. “What Dad told me changed my life forever. My mind is free, even though my body is not. Now I can see the truth and think for myself.” He’s hoping that his story will influence young JWs to investigate the facts for themselves. “Maybe their parents would like to get out too, but they are afraid of the damage to their families. Like my Dad, they just live with it for as long as they can, hoping that their kids make a break for freedom on their own, allowing the parents to follow them out.”