Issues surrounding the Jehovah’s Witness religion are getting increasing media exposure. Recently we have seen films, books, newspaper articles and documentaries, even video games. They have covered every topic imaginable from shunning, to the experience of growing up in the religion, to child abuse and more. Now, a team of filmmakers has a project underway that takes a new lens to an aspect of Jehovah’s Witness life that does not always get much of a spotlight, namely this:
How amazing life is once you leave.
The film is called XJW: Coming Out Of The Jehovah’s Witness Religion, and on the project’s crowdsourcing webpage the filmmakers describe the project as follows:
Ex-JW filmmakers and musicians have come together to capture the unique exit experiences of former members from around the world. Their stories focus on present life philosophies, personal growth and strength on the outside as they reflect on their past.
Director Scott Homan was able to set aside some time to chat with me about the origins and goals of the project, as well as his own journey out of the Witness faith.
From Need Greater To Film Maker
Scott grew up in the Jehovah’s Witnesses. He recounts that in many ways he actually had a very relaxed upbringing when compared to usual Witness standards, citing his parents as being fairly relaxed about the faith. He tells me that, for example, after the Revelation book study he and a few friends would get together for wine and beer, and chat about which parts of the study they did and didn’t believe.
As a result he became very comfortable talking about belief and disbelief, and was already eyeing the faith with a certain sceptical eye. However, he also started hearing the experiences of Witnesses who had travelled from the US to preach in much poorer parts of the world.
Listening to these “Need Greater’s” (a phrase Witnesses use for those who go to preach where the “need is greater” stoked his already burning desire for travel and adventure, especially since none of the other JW career paths such as Bethel or Circuit Work really appealed to him. He went out to Ecuador to be a part of the “Need Greater” work.
Yet far from strengthening his faith, the experience only intensified his doubts and concerns.
He relates how he found the attitudes of some of the other Need Greater’s towards the local population profoundly distasteful. For one thing, the Need Greater’s typically came from rich countries and lived very comfortable, fun lives in Ecuador with lots of toys and gadgets, and seemed to be basically on an extended holiday.
Meanwhile the local congregations were very poor, having to work very long hours simply to make ends meet and provide for their families, and had often sacrificed family and material prosperity to become Witnesses. Yet it was the Need Greater’s who got the prominent tasks in the congregations, and all of the privileges and leadership positions. The locals were not allowed to take the lead or ownership of their own faith.
Scott was disturbed at how many of his fellow Need Greater’s had a contemptuous view of the Ecuadorian Witnesses. He was very interested in other cultures, languages and foods, and says; “The whole point of going abroad is to immerse yourself in, and learn about, another culture. But many of the Need Greater’s looked down on the local Witnesses with contempt.”
The attitude seemed to be that the local culture needed to be overwritten by the Western culture of the Need Greater’s to better allow the locals to serve God. Additionally, Scott relates that the Need Greater’s would hide the alcohol they drank from the local population, for fear that the local Evangelical Christian Missionaries (who were teetotal) might use it against them, which Scott found profoundly hypocritical.
Scott returned from Ecuador, left the faith, and pursued his interest in film making.
During this time, the idea that led to the XJW project was conceived whilst speaking with his friend Soren. Soren is gay, and had also left his religion. As a result, he likes to say that he “came out twice.” This made Scott realise that in some ways, leaving the JW religion held similar risks and experiences to coming out as LGBT. ExJW’s can lose their family and friends, be thrown out of homes, even lose employment if their employers are Witnesses.
“It took a couple of years to capture the concept,” says Scott. “I didn’t want it to be about drama or the things Watchtower says or does – I don’t ever want to read another goddamn thing from Watchtower or the Bible. I wanted to frame it around a positive upbuilding concept – not a dark downbeat version. People who leave the religion are strong and I wanted to show that, to let people say YES, I’m one of those people!”
“ExJW’s leave the religion and then they make this this amazing impact in the world. They are so open and free spirited because they were oppressed for so long. Watchtower controlled how they danced, what movies they watched, what bars they went to, what drugs they took. They were forbidden from being intimate with people. Now they are no longer controlled and are exploring life. Most of all, I want to show how amazing life is. You don’t have to suffer and die under Watchtower control to get happiness in some far off paradise. You can find happiness right here and now.”
ExJW’s supporting XJW
Scott’s team are also ExJW’s and have a longstanding link with him.
His dialogue editor, Cassie, was in Scott’s old congregation and has known him since 2008. “She’s part of my chosen family,” says Scott. Cassie saw some of the early material Scott was working on, and was very enthusiastic about it. In the end, Scott and Cassie ended up working together throughout the Christmas week of 2017 to get the trailer for the project assembled.
Also in the team are Eric and Cindy, who are providing the music for the project. Again, Scott also met them during his JW days; when Eric was big in the local Witness music production scene, working with a group called Nuclear Gopher…
…which, as I can’t resist telling Scott, is possibly the best name for a music group I’ve ever heard!
Additional support for the project has come from various other activists and members of the exJW community.
Four separate online activists (EvelynDelOmbre@Evelyndelombre, Stephenie@Apostate Chick, Jennifer@Towersfall and Caleb&Sophia’sMom@jwmom1914) ran a Twitter take-over of the project’s Twitter account xjwdoc@xjwdoc.
The Brighter Light Podcast has also supported the project by contributing B-roll footage for an interview, and Brenton Wildman, another former JW from Scott’s days as a Witness, is also helping with location filming and will be gathering footage in his local area.
Additionally, Jennifer@towersfall is currently running a “Shunned” campaign on Instagram with the XJWdoc Instagram account, where people being shunned can submit a photograph of themselves and a bio of their experience.
But this project needs your help.
XJW: How YOU can help!
Firstly, there are a number of ways you can help for free.
You can also follow the project on its funding page here. This requires no money on your part and takes only thirty seconds of your time. Simply go to the project’s funding page and click on the follow button, then enter your email address. If the project gets 1000 followers and also reaches 80% of it’s funding goal, it will be eligible for significant extra funding grants that will substantially increase the ability of the team to widen the scope and scale of the project.
The project is also looking for funding and has a crowdsource funding page here. The project needs $9000 total to proceed and needs to get 80% of that total before Friday 12th of April or it will not get any funding at all. At the time of writing it has 34% of its funding goal which is a great start but clearly more is needed.
There are some fantastic rewards for various levels of sponsorship, including access to the project’s musical soundtrack, a hilarious exJW themed card game inspired by the famous Cards Against Humanity (the cards are actually compatible with CAH so you can even give your CAH game an ExJW makeover if you want!). There is even a bit of a loophole in the rewards system, which Scott tells me about;
“If you support the project at the level that gets you either the soundtrack or the card game, those rewards are granted to you instantly. So even if we don’t hit our 80% funding goal you still get your reward, so you might end up getting those rewards for free!”
Personally, I think that Scott and his team have a wonderful vision for this film project; a way of showing a fantastic and positive message to all those who have left the Jehovah’s Witnesses and those who are thinking of leaving. It also helps those who were never JW’s to understand the strong spirit and yearning for freedom that many exJW’s possess, and to understand why so many leave the religion.
So please consider financially supporting this project if you are able to, and please take five minutes to follow the project on its funding page and on social media, which will cost you nothing.
The world needs more projects like this. Let’s make this one happen!
Follow me on Twitter @covertfade