I received the phone call on Friday night. I was expecting it. My mother-in-law had been approached at the kingdom hall by my “coordinator” (chairman of the local elders), who told her he would be phoning me.
She could tell from his sullen demeanor that it wouldn’t be to talk about the weather. The elders wanted to meet with me.
And so I had plenty of time to brace myself for the inevitable. I knew this was likely to be about my website.
Though I’ve been running JWsurvey for more than two years, it has only been within the past two months that I have shown my face and stepped out, as it were. I knew it was only a matter of time before confrontation with the local elders would ensue.
I will refer to my coordinator as Bob.*
Bob is a likeable guy who has risen through the ranks rapidly since his baptism. When I first met him in 2006 on my first trip to Croatia he had only been baptized a couple of years before. Now he was my local coordinator, which (with all due respect to Bob) epitomizes the shortage of male Witnesses eligible to assume oversight in Croatia. Bob would probably still be handling the microphones by now if he were a Witness in Britain or the States, no matter how capable he may be.
What Bob lacks in charisma and experience he makes up for in kindness and positivity – always wearing a smile on his face. This time, however, I could tell he wasn’t smiling.
“We know about your website,” Bob said in a melancholy voice, after an awkward introduction partly in Croatian, partly in his broken English. At that point, I knew this was finally it. I had been discovered.
“I see,” I replied.
“Could you come to meet with us at the kingdom hall on Sunday night, six o’clock?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said. “But on one condition…”
I explained to Bob that I seriously disliked two of our elders, and I didn’t want either of them involved in my judicial committee. One elder, Tom, had pulled my wife into the backroom at a meeting without me being present, and interrogated her about me and our private life. The other, Dean, had used information he gleaned from inviting us round for dinner to theorize, entirely mistakenly, about our motives for becoming inactive.
I wanted neither of these men involved in the final act of my 23 years as a Witness. And this still left at least two elders for Bob to choose from to make up the three needed for a judicial committee.
Bob agreed to my condition regarding Dean and Tom. He also agreed that, because I am English with a weak command of Croatian, the meeting would be held in English to the extent possible. It was for this reason, apparently, that an elder from the Branch Office in Zagreb would be attending. I later learned that the branch representative was also invited at least partly due to the fact that Sisak elders had no experience in dealing with apostasy, so they needed some guidance from higher up the chain.
When Sunday evening finally rolled round, I felt reasonably in control. I knew this was basically a formality. Some of my Ex-JW friends were suggesting I take along a lawyer, but I couldn’t imagine how this would be necessary. After all, both parties wanted the same thing – a parting of the ways between me and the organization.
Others suggested I record the meeting for uploading to YouTube as others had done. My wife and I discussed this and both reached the same conclusion. Not only would it be unkind to Bob and the other elders to push them into the limelight without their permission, it would also potentially compromise my integrity.
I would almost certainly be asked not to record the meeting, or whether I was carrying any recording equipment. I wanted to go into the meeting confident, with nothing to hide. I also wasn’t comfortable with lying on tape as to whether I was recording or not. Not recording the meeting and simply writing about it seemed the best course of action to take.
In the hours leading up to my judicial I was bombarded with messages of support and solidarity from others who had been through the same thing. Emails, Facebook messages and tweets came flooding in, giving me great confidence. One tweet, which I found particularly heartwarming, simply said…
@cedarsjwsurvey all the best for your trial. Don’t forget: you’ve already won <3 greetings from vienna.
— Misha Anouk (@mishaanouk) December 29, 2013
Misha was right, I HAD already won. These guys had no power over me. They were simply oblivious spectators in my ongoing struggle with a cruel authoritarian cult that threatens my family. In fact, were it not for my desire to protect my family, I wouldn’t be going at all. I needed to let the organization know what would happen if my local elders made things worse for me than they needed to.
A last-minute email
Moments before I was due to get in the car I received an email. It was from Dad. I had emailed him two days ago to tell him about my judicial committee, inviting him to call me but only if it wasn’t too much for him to handle. His reply read as follows…
You’re right, it is too much, heartbreaking I think for us both. The happiest and most rewarding times of my life as well as the darkest convince me of my beliefs. I am so sad that that has not been you experience. The hardest thing for a parent is to let go when you feel they are making a bad choice. It’s yours to take and I must respect that.
We both must stand the consequences of our determination. You soon will become a parent yourself you will do your best I am sure to give her what you believe to be the best, that’s all your mum and I wanted for you.
I will never give up my hope for you despite your making it clear that if you are put outside you will never return.
I do not know how I will bear it if you reject the way I have chosen to walk, but despite how you feel about my sincerity I cannot put into words the love I feel for you, [your wife], and my prospective grandchild.
I was stunned. My mind had already been grappling with my impending face-off with the organization, and now I had Dad’s email to think about. He had wrongly assumed that I doubted his sincerity.
I knew why he had said this. I also knew that in my reply I would need to put his mind at ease, at least on that score. I don’t question my Dad’s sincerity at all – merely his unbending allegiance to a corrupt organization and refusal to look at the other side of the argument considering what is at stake.
Dad had also pointed out a fundamental difference between us. For him, the times of happiness and sadness in life are the driving force behind his beliefs. For me, periods of good and bad fortune and emotional responses to the same mean nothing when it comes to affirming religious convictions. There is no room for such sentimentality, especially if family ties are in the balance. What is of overriding importance to me is what is true, and what isn’t.
Sadly, Dad cannot see things that way. He cannot see that, in putting trust in an organization that makes him feel good, he is doing nothing different from the billions of followers of other religions across the globe.
It was this contradiction that was highlighted in our last face-to-face encounter. I had been left speechless and sobbing by his seeming indifference to the fact that his logic could lead him to be a follower of ANY religion.
When he came to console me, I shrugged him away. “Don’t you dare pretend to love me!” I yelled in the heat of the moment. That confrontation had clearly left both of us bruised.
Now he was letting me know that “we both must stand the consequences of our determination” – his way of saying, “I will shun you because you no longer share my beliefs, because that’s what my religion tells me to do and I must be obedient.”
It wasn’t unexpected, but it rattled me all the same. I tried to put it to the back of my mind. If anything, this was further proof that I was doing the right thing. No son should ever have to receive that sort of email from his father. My progeny would certainly not see me abandon my relationship with them for ANY reason, let alone personal beliefs. The line would need to be drawn, and it would be drawn tonight.
The trial begins
I parked round the corner from the kingdom hall by the River Kupa, which flows through Sisak, my home town. After filming a quick video in my car, I walked the short distance through the rain to the kingdom hall. The gates to the car park were open. The lights were on, and there were two cars in the car park.
I stepped inside and was greeted by Bob. I entered the auditorium and two other elders greeted me in perfect English, neither of whom I recognized.
One, named Davor, was from the Croatian branch office. He must have been in his forties, schoolteacher-like in appearance. The other elder from Zagreb (about my age or perhaps younger) was called Dean. He seemed jolly and likeable. Bob joked that this was not the same Dean I had specified, so he assumed it was okay to invite him. I said that was fine by me.
We sat down facing each other over a small table that seemed to serve mostly as Davor’s desk. It quickly became obvious that Davor would be chairing the meeting.
I was asked whether it would be okay to conduct at least part of the meeting in Croatian. I said this might be a problem since my Croatian is extremely poor, so if the meeting is to benefit me I would appreciate if they could use English as much as possible, but I wouldn’t mind if I heard the occasional Croatian. They were fine with this.
They asked if it was okay for them to open in prayer, to which I said “yes.” All bowed their heads and Bob said a prayer in Croatian, none of which I could follow – not that I was really trying. I had too much on my mind. I went along with the prayer and said a loud “amen” at the end, just to put their minds at ease more than anything.
I was told that this was a judicial committee, formed on the basis that I was accused of apostasy. Did I understand this? “Yes,” I said.
For the sake of my own privacy, this meeting would not be recorded, and it would be appreciated if I did not record the meeting. I found this logic strange, since I had no concerns over privacy and would have been only too happy for it to be recorded, but this was clearly the Watchtower way of saying “we don’t want you to record this meeting.”
I assured them I wasn’t recording it, and that it was important to me that they understood that I wasn’t recording it. This seemed to put them at ease.
Davor explained that the purpose of the meeting was two-fold. They wished to “offer help” to me spiritually. I found this amusing, not least because it was later explained that doctrine was NOT to be discussed. How could they help me spiritually without discussing doctrine, since the reason I was there was due to my disagreement WITH doctrine? This alone highlighted, for me, how pointless the meeting was.
I had to interject.
“Respectfully, no – I am NOT free to leave this religion. I won’t have any of you tell me that. If I wasn’t being faced with repercussions for leaving, THEN you could say that I am free to leave. But I’ve had an email only this evening from my father telling me that he will shun me once I’ve left. My family is being used by Watchtower as a weapon against me. So you can say whatever you like, but I won’t have it said that I am free to leave this religion. Is that absolutely clear?”
There was awkward silence, begrudging acknowledgment, and the meeting continued.
The second purpose of the meeting, it was explained, was to protect the congregation. Two scriptures in the book of Galatians were read out, as follows…
“Brothers, even if a man takes a false step before he is aware of it, you who have spiritual qualifications try to readjust such a man in a spirit of mildness.” – Galatians 6:1, New World Translation (2013 revision)
“A little leaven ferments the whole batch of dough.” – Galatians 5:9, New World Translation (2013 revision)
The latter scripture made me chuckle to myself. Were they aware that they were insulting me by referring to me as leaven that could corrupt others? Apparently not. I was to take it as a given that I was no better than a lump of yeast in their eyes. And again, how were they hoping to “readjust” me with a “spirit of mildness” while refusing to discuss my issues with the organization? It was plain crazy.
With the scriptural pretext to the meeting out of the way, conversation turned to my apostasy. Davor explained that they had found out about my website. A stapled print-out of one of the articles was produced and placed on Davor’s table, facing him. I was asked if these were my words. I strained from my position to see which article it was, being as it was facing away from me. Davor noticed that I couldn’t see and turned the print-out so I could see it. I saw that it was my “coming out” article – The Story of Cedars – A Prisoner No More. I could see that certain sentences had been highlighted in pink.
I was asked, “did you write these words, and do you stand by them?”
“Absolutely,” I responded. “I would also add that there is a promise on my website that if there is anything wrong, or incorrect, or misleading, I will change or remove it if it is brought to my attention. I have never had a serious email asking me to make changes in reference to this promise – only the occasional angry email from a Witness who stumbles on my site and complains about some point or other because they don’t know as much about the organization as I do.”
Again, my words received begrudging acknowledgment. Davor continued.
“Do you still consider yourself as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses?”
“No, I do not.” I replied.
Davor then brought up that I had mentioned in my article about my wife and I preparing letters of disassociation. I was asked if I had brought these letters with me. I said that yes, I had.
“In that case, the matter is settled,” said Davor. “You are no longer one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Do you have anything to add?”
I replied that yes, I did have a few things to say. First, I would appreciate being told how they came to learn about the website.
Davor looked at Bob, and Bob said that it was a sister in Croatia who had found the website and emailed him about it. Apparently this sister was not in our congregation.
I was slightly disappointed. I had hoped for a more romantic story involving frenzied phone calls from Brooklyn etc., but it seemed it was a simple case of a local snitch. Apparently the circumstances surrounding this woman’s discovery of my website, and precisely what she had been doing on it, were of no pressing concern. She had reported to her superiors like a good loyal Witness, and that was good enough for them.
Threatening my aggressors
I then explained that my main reason for being there was my family. My parents in-law, who live under the same roof, are both heavily reliant on my wife and I for a number of reasons. We had reached an agreement with them that religious matters, and particularly our objections to Watchtower, were not open for discussion in our household.
Like my Dad, my wife’s parents simply refuse to look at evidence. Not discussing our issues, and not making any attempts to awaken them, was the easiest and least distressing solution for all concerned.
I was also mindful of the need on my part not to pursue other members of the congregation, or Witnesses elsewhere in Croatia, for the purpose of enlightening them. This too would distress my parents in-law, and put strain on a relationship on which we are mutually dependent.
As I explained to Davor, my wife and I are happy with the status quo. I am happy with my work on the internet being limited to English-speaking countries and not to the country I live in if this is the price I must pay for caring for my family.
If, however, my parents in-law were to be coerced into not speaking to us, things could change very quickly. I would no longer have any reason NOT to turn my attentions to Croatia, with its modest 5,000-or-so publishers. Newspapers would be contacted. Television and radio appearances would be made. Websites would be set up, leaflets would be distributed, and respectful demonstrations outside conventions could be expected.
The choice was therefore theirs. They could let me leave and allow my parents-in-law to deal with the situation in their own way without coercion, or they could make things harder for us and thus remove any reason I have not to create havoc for the organization in Croatia.
The elders looked at each other.
“We can only tell your parents-in-law, if they approach us, what it instructs them to do in the Bible,” said Davor. The others nodded.
I could feel myself losing my calm. They hadn’t grasped my threat.
“So you’re saying that you will tell my parents to shun us, even though this will create problems for them and for you?”
“We can only tell them what it says in the Bible. The Bible is our only authority.” An air of confidence swept across Davor’s face. My frustration mounted.
Fortunately, as the mood of the meeting darkened, I managed to gather my thoughts and find the route around what they were saying. This was one of two occasions during the meeting when my feelings got the better of me and I struggled but somehow managed to regain composure.
“Ah, if you’re saying that you will tell them to do what it says in the Bible that is fine by me,” I said, “because nowhere in the Bible does it say family members should shun each other. In fact, it says the opposite.”
There was a nervous silence.
“In the parable of the prodigal son, which I’m sure you’re all familiar with, the son only returns to his father for… I forget the exact phrase… insincere reasons. He did not show true repentance according to the organization’s rules by rejecting his course of conduct.” (Luke 15:17-20)
I struggled to remember the organizational phrase “worldly sadness,” which is the term used for when someone only returns to the congregation for improper motives rather than a sincere determination to cease wrongdoing, but it escaped me in the moment.
“The son goes away and has sex with prostitutes. He lives a life of sin and debauchery. And what is the only reason that he decides to return to his father?”
I paused, waiting for Davor or one of the other elders to answer. There was silence.
“We know the answer to your question,” he said coolly.
“Great, if you know the answer to my question, then what is it?” I asked.
“We don’t need to answer your question,” Davor replied sternly.
“What do you mean you don’t need to answer my question? It’s a simple answer, what is it?”
“None of us need to answer your scriptural question. We know what it is. We don’t need to answer any scriptural questions,” Davor asserted. His eyes seemed vacant. It was as though the friendly schoolteacher had evaporated, replaced by a cold Watchtower interface.
“That’s very interesting. Very interesting indeed,” I said. “I have asked you a simple scriptural question, in much the same way as Jesus would have asked the Pharisees a scriptural question, and you have refused to answer it. That tells me a lot.”
I lingered for just a moment to allow the awkward silence to drive home my point.
“The reason why the prodigal son returned to his father is…” I paused, and placed my hands on my stomach, “because he was hungry. He only came back to his father because he was hungry, not because of any real repentance. And how did his father respond?” I gestured with my arms, spreading them as if to receive the son in a warm embrace.
My point was made. The family bond surpasses everything, including perceived wrongdoing. The elders looked at each other and offered no reply.
“There is just something I’m not sure about,” Dean interjected. The other two elders looked at him. Dean had been mostly silent throughout, following what I was saying intently. I was beginning to warm to him, and was intrigued as to what he would say.
“You seem like a really nice man,” he said. “What I don’t understand is why would a nice man like you threaten us? It doesn’t make sense to me. It’s like…” Dean struggled to find the proper word to complete his question in English. A brief discussion ensued in Croatian as the other two tried to help him. I waited for them to quieten down before answering.
“That’s a very good question Dean. All I would say is this. You can take a lot of things from a man. You can take his house. You can take his money. You can take his car. You can take his pet. All of these things a man can cope with losing. But if you take a man’s family away from him, you will find he is capable of doing a lot of things. And building a website is the least of the things you need to worry about. You have to understand, from MY perspective Watchtower is the aggressor here. I am the one being threatened, and I am only telling you all that will happen if you remove my reasons for not doing anything.”
Dean seemed bewildered. Perhaps he was feigning disapproval in front of the others, or maybe what I said was lost in translation. All the same, when I look back I don’t think I could have explained myself better. Watchtower were the bullies in this scenario, not me.
A letter not accepted
“Right,” said Davor, “well I think that brings things to a conclusion. I just need to see the letters of disassociation.”
“Of course,” I said, reaching for my folder and handing over a piece of paper containing handwritten, signed statements from both my wife and I. The end was in sight.
Davor placed the paper in front of him and began reading it aloud, beginning with my wife’s message in Croatian. My wife had written it rather hurriedly as I had been making my way out the door. She had offered to read it to me, but I told her she could tell me what it said when I got back. I was therefore in the dark as to what the letter said.
Davor finished reading the letter and muttered something in Croatian to the other two, who nodded. He then read my letter aloud, which simply read as follows…
To whom it may concern,
From henceforth, let it be known that I, [my real name], am no longer one of Jehovah’s Witnesses – nor do I have or seek any affiliation with the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society.
Yours sincerely, [signed].
I confess, I enjoyed hearing them read this out loud! But there was a setback in store.
“We can accept your letter,” said Davor. “It’s very clear and unequivocal. However, we cannot accept your wife’s letter. She doesn’t quite make it clear enough that she no longer wants to be a Witness.”
I couldn’t believe it. All sorts of thoughts began flying through my head. Up until now the meeting had gone almost entirely according to plan. Now it seemed my wife hadn’t been clear enough in her letter? I couldn’t imagine how that could be.
“Why, what does she say?” I asked.
“It says that she no longer feels like she is a Witness. It isn’t clear enough.” said Davor.
This actually made sense. My wife is the ultimate peacemaker and hates upsetting or offending people. It wouldn’t surprise me if, in her efforts to be diplomatic, she had failed to be quite as forceful in her statement as a judicial committee requires.
“No problem,” I said. “I don’t have credit on my phone but I see you have a phone there. Do you mind if I use it to call my wife and have her speak to you? I’m sure we can sort this out.”
“No, that won’t be necessary,” said Davor.
“Please, it won’t take a moment.”
“No,” said Davor, “that wouldn’t be appropriate.”
“Listen, one way or another this ends tonight,” I said, growing in frustration. “Do you want me to go and drive her here through the pouring rain so she can tell you how she feels herself?”
“No, it would be too stressful for her,” said Davor, “we will arrange a separate meeting just for her.”
“Look, there’s absolutely no way my wife will meet with you,” I said. “Bob can tell you what she was like when he called me the other day to arrange this meeting. She refused to even come to the phone to translate for him. She just can’t handle anything like that.”
Bob nodded in agreement.
“You must understand,” said Davor, “we are meeting to discuss you, not your wife. We will need to arrange to meet with her separately so that we can find out how she feels and offer spiritual help.”
I could feel my anger swelling. My protective instincts began to kick in.
“Are you seriously telling me that you can’t accept her letter, even though she says she no longer feels like a Jehovah’s Witness?” I said.
“So let me get this straight. You’re saying that even if my wife had written exactly the same words that I had written, you wouldn’t have accepted it because this meeting is about me and not her?”
“Yes, that’s correct.” said Davor.
“So why did you even read her letter if this meeting is only about me?” I asked.
“She wrote us a letter, and we wanted to see what she said!” he replied smugly.
“I feel as though you’ve tricked me. Right at the beginning you asked if we BOTH had letters. You made it sound as though you were ready to receive statements of disassociation from both of us.”
“John, you know how this works,” said Davor. “You’ve been an elder. You know we need to follow procedures handed to us, and the procedures clearly state that we need to meet with your wife separately.”
At that moment, as had happened over the shunning issue, the fog in my mind suddenly lifted. From somewhere I regained my “elder head” and was able to find another way around the problem.
“Okay this is very simple,” I said. “All my wife needs to do is write the same letter that I have written and make sure Bob gets it, and then you will have to accept it as her letter of disassociation.”
Davor’s smug demeanor vanished. I had rumbled him.
“Er, we would not want to encourage you or your wife to do that,” he spluttered.
“No problem,” I said, calmness restored. “That’s precisely what we’ll do. I’ll tell my wife to send Bob a letter as soon as possible. Not that I want you thinking I’m telling her what to do – this is her decision.”
And with that, the meeting was concluded. There was no final prayer. All four of us rose from our seats.
“Can I shake your hands?” I asked Davor.
“Yes,” he said.
I shook the hands of all three enthusiastically, lingering a moment with Dean as he stifled an unexpected sneeze.
I thanked all three and headed for the exit. Bob watched to see me leave before returning to be with the others as I walked out the door.
The rain had stopped falling. I was finally free.
All conversations in the above article have been paraphrased to the best of my recollection. It should not be assumed that I have rendered a verbatim account of everything said, or the exact order.
Special thanks to Vincent Deporter for contributing artwork to this article.
* Out of respect for their privacy, I have slightly altered the names of the elders involved apart from Davor, who I refer to by first name only.
# I have since learned from my wife that a more accurate translation of the relevant part of her letter was: “I do not consider myself as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses.” She has today sent an email to Bob telling him that she wants to be announced as disassociated on the same night as me, and doesn’t wish to be pursued on the matter.
Article translations: Polish | …