About 10 years ago my life changed forever. Together with my wife and baby girl, I left behind dozens of family members and scores of friends, and moved hastily to a new life in Atlanta, Georgia. Recent events have reminded me that without that move I would never have come close to achieving the accomplishments that define my life today. I am celebrating tonight and reminding you that sometimes, all you need to break out of a miserable situation is the courage to make the first big leap.
The year was 1998 and luckily for me the job market for Java programmers was white-hot! It took only about two weeks from the time I decided to move to secure a new position, even including a short flight down to Atlanta to scout out neighborhoods. Once the wheels were in motion everything moved very quickly. The new company paid for our relocation and we were on our way.
A few days before we actually left, I clearly remember walking up the brick stairs of the hundred-year old house that I grew up in and ringing the doorbell, knowing it would be one of the last times I would do so again. The front door opened and I drew a deep breath as I stepped through the old, creaky-floored foyer and sat down on the sofa. My parents accepted the surprise news sadly, but with a sense of resignation. Did they see it coming or were they just shocked? I had given them no warning and even worse I was taking away their first and only granddaughter.
What many people don’t realize, even many of my close friends and associates, is that the sudden relocation was not just a savvy career move – it was actually an important part of an escape plan. My wife and I had decided to leave, for the sake of our sanity, to put distance not just between our immediate family and us, but more importantly, to gain some breathing room. Freedom beckoned loudly and with great appeal after a lifetime of involuntary servitude. We had been born into, but were about to break free of a cultish organization devilishly determined to undermine our happiness: Jehovah’s Witnesses!
The following will undoubtedly sound harsh to anyone unfamiliar with the machinations of fundamentalist religious institutions, but serves to illustrate the gravity of the situation: My explicit instructions to my mom and dad were clear: “Respect our privacy! If you want to see Taylor or us again, do not tell anyone in the congregation where we’ve moved to or how to get in contact with us.”
At the time, I was particularly concerned that the elders would “come after us”, so to speak. But what could they do? This is still a free country isn’t it? Not against people that wield mind control and spiritual damnation as their weapons. To face the elders would be to risk disfellowshipping for apostasy, excommunication from all of our friends and family still stuck inside the church. You see, willful abandonment of the faith is the absolute worst sin that one of Jehovah’s Witnesses can commit.
Since we were trying to leave the church, wouldn’t excommunication just help us be done with it more conclusively? The thing is, at the time we were alone in our journey out of the cult. Almost all of our immediate family and friends were still in the church – speaking to or associating with someone who is disfellowshipped is also an offense worthy of excommunication – to allow it would introduce a lifetime impediment to open and free communication with most of our friends and family. I assure you that the threat of shunning is a very effective tool for mind-control.
Luckily ten years ago there was a loophole, which may not exist anymore. Just disappear! After temporary confusion, the congregation elders would basically shrug and continue on with their lives. So that’s exactly what we did. We did not play by their rules. We used our intellect, summoned the necessary courage and made our own rules. Importantly, we rejected the will of the faithful and discrete slave, a term that the Watchtower uses to describe the group of old men that govern their religion, based on a perverted translation and interpretation of Matthew 24:14.
In that verse Jesus asks: “Who is that faithful and discreet slave, that took care of his master’s goods until his return? He will be rewarded... blah, blah, blah” (Quote from memory and probably off a bit) According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the governing body of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society is that slave, of course! Because they say that they are! It’s pure, unadulterated circular-reasoning bullshit of the finest vintage, and believe it or not it’s the only text in the bible that the whole farcical JW house of cards is built upon.
That I’m not able to erase that bible verse from my mind, despite years of hardcore atheism is a testament to how often it was drilled forcefully into my unwilling self.
Perhaps today it is easier to fade away from the cult, but ten years ago I was certain that we would face some degree of persecution from the local elders in Georgia, if they could find us. That’s why under a veil of secrecy and nine-hundred miles of interstate later, I began a new life in the sunny south of this country, asked everyone I met to just call me “Obie” and got busy living the rest of my life as a worldly person.
Now the term “worldly person” is what Jehovah’s Witnesses cult members call non-believers and is always used in a derogatory sense. Ironically, to everyone else it means, “experienced and sophisticated”. In that spirit, tonight I raise my cup in a toast to everyone that has had the courage to break free from the shackles of fundamentalist religious belief, of the Jehovah’s Witness variety or otherwise. I salute your courage and resolve and wish you the best of success in all your endeavors.