All I wanted was to find a class that would kill two birds with one stone: fulfill a humanities credit requirement and give me a three-day weekend. I was exhausted from working the graveyard shift as a waitress during the week and scrubbing pots at a soup shop on weekends. I was paying for school on my own while supporting myself so having no class on Fridays was just what I needed. Luckily, I found a class called Art History 200. I had no idea what “art history” was but this class would give me what I was looking for, so I signed up. This class bombarded me with dozens of slides, complex information and lofty words I had never heard before. There were innumerable names and dates to memorize and little by little the class material helped me make sense of the world around me. It inspired me to be curious about the stories, the movements and the artists we were learning about. For the first time, I felt like I had tools to question and analyze art, culture and ideas in a critical way. No other class had ever had that kind of impact on me. It was my first year of college and it was at this time that I began to study with the Jehovahs Witnesses as a “grown-up”. I had recently graduated high school, an experience that had been a turbulent time for me. I moved to the United Stated by myself when I was 17. I didn’t know anyone in the U.S. except for an aunt who lived near Seattle. I asked my aunt if I could live with her for a year. My goal was to graduate from high school and learn English so I could apply to university. She said yes and I moved from Mexico to Seattle on my own, so happy to have the chance to go to high school. When I arrived, I found out my aunt didn’t really have a place. She never told me she was living in her boyfriend’s house. I also didn’t realize that my aunt’s motivation for having me there was so that she could get welfare money from me and keep it for herself. She drove me to the Department of Human Services office and forced me to apply for welfare benefits. Once she learned my welfare application had been denied, she kicked me out of her boyfriend’s house. I had nowhere to go, I had made a huge mistake. It was August, 2008 and the school year was about to start. Desperate, I knocked on a neighbor’s door and a woman came out, “could I please use your phone, I really need help”. I called my mom and as I cried I told her I wanted to go back to Mexico.
Long story short, I soon moved in with an American lady who worked at Seattle’s airport. My mom had met her years ago when she was on vacation in Mexico and my mom had kept her business card. She called her and explained what had happened. This lady took me in, and I moved to her house in Maple Valley which is about 40 min away from Seattle. I lived with her for about a year before moving in with another family for a few weeks and then onto another. I would sleep and live anywhere anyone who would take me in because all I wanted was to graduate from high school and learn English so I could get into a university.
I remember one particular family who took me in. The mom, Marie Jay* worked at the Starbucks headquarters in Seattle, the dad was a fire fighter and their daughter was into gymnastics. When I met them, I was frail and scared. I had been through some things living with previous families in Maple Valley that I was just so nervous to meet them. I offered them to do cook, clean, do all their chores, whatever they needed as long as I could stay while I finished my last year of high school. The mom, Marie Jay* is a devout Christian and one of the kindest individuals I have ever met. She took me in and refused my offers of me serving her family. She bought me my first winter coat and winter boots, she gave me a cake on my birthday and would accompany me to practice my parallel parking technique so I could pass my driving test. I will always be endlessly grateful for everything Marie Jay* did for me and for treating me with dignity and respect. I will always love and consider her like my second mom.
Marie Jay* had only one requirement, she expected me to go to youth group and to church on Sundays with her family. Attending the church was always complicated for me. I had been so out of touch with religion that it felt strange suddenly being in an environment that felt so foreign to me.
I remember people being so enthusiastic as they sang with their arms raised, eyes closed: “Oh, happy day! happy day, you washed my sin away!”. I did not feel the same fervor to sing like that or shout “Amen!” I thought something must be wrong with me or I just didn’t really know Jesus the same way the churchgoers did. The only religion I had known was the Jehovah’s Witnesses and attending the Presbyterian church made me feel uncomfortable. There was no way around it for me, I had to comply with attending church every week. I didn’t want to disappoint Marie Jay* and didn’t want to risk being kicked out again without a place to go. Marie Jay* never tried to impose any of her beliefs on me, I think she mainly wanted me to experience something she cares so much about. The way she talked about god was inspiring and she once walked me through a prayer so I could accept Jesus as my savior. Her faith is so strong and mine was so non-existent that I think she was just worried about me. I graduated high school and moved into the dorms at the University of Washington.
When I started college, I was on my own. No more staying with families no more hopping from place to place. However, I still felt that I wanted to have a more spiritual lifestyle. I felt something was wrong with me for not feeling the same way Marie Jay* felt about god. I wanted to know if I could also feel the way she did. I wanted to find out if the almighty Jesus, god, the Universe or whatever had my back. So instead of going to another Presbyterian church, I went to what was familiar to me, which is the Jehovah’s Witnesses religion. I filled out a form on their website requesting a free bible study session. This is how I began to study with Kerrie* and Carland*, a married couple in their late 20’s. I began studying the bible once a week and attending the Jehovahs Witnesses meetings (the equivalent of a church service) with them.
In the Jehovah’s Witnesses religion, the ideal way things should progress looks generally like this: first you study the bible with the Jehovah’s Witnesses for a period of time (the length of time varies from person to person), then you become an un-baptized publisher which means you can start going out in “field service” a.k.a going out preaching door to door without being baptized. By this point you should have a strong relationship with god, your congregation and should be putting spiritual interests first which means you live, breathe, think “the truth” (the religion). By now, you should be avoiding hanging out with people who don’t love god a.k.a. all non-Jehovah’s Witnesses, unless it is for the purposes of preaching to them. You should also be in good standing in the organization which means, you don’t do, have, or practice anything in your life that goes against god’s standards. In short you have made “the truth” your own. Then, you would dedicate your life to god by getting baptized. This is a very important step for once you are baptized things can go well for you in the organization if you keep up with your spiritual growth or they can go horribly wrong and you stand to face dire consequences. For instance, it is only if you are baptized and if you happen to be involved in a serious sin (adultery, drugs, pornography, etc.) and refuse to get back on track that you can be disfellowshipped from the organization. This is a serious thing since being shunned from your family and friends can have a huge mental and emotional impact. It is something that is exercised as a way to make a person realize that they have hit “rock-bottom” and there’s a lot to lose. This can be seen as something horrendous on one hand but could also be seen as a last resort to help the person in question change their ways. This is in part, why people abide so strongly to the organization and to bible teachings. They want people who will be an asset to the congregation and not spoil or negatively influence others. They aspire to “eternal life” and therefore they try really hard to “save their lives” and their “spirituality” with a strong discipline.
Going out in service (preaching) is imperative to be in good standing within the organization. You may have encountered Jehovahs Witnesses knocking at your door or seen them standing with carts in certain areas of your city. All of that is part of the preaching or “service” work. Every minute of service, even if they don’t talk to anyone counts towards certain hour goals many people pursue. These individuals are called “pioneers” because they invest up to 150 hours (sometimes more) of service every month. These hours are documented via a sheet that is turned in to the congregation leaders every month.
As I became a regular at the kingdom hall, I began to notice how there was constant discouragement for young people to pursue higher education or any ambition that was not spiritually related. I also noticed how much emphasis there is on marriage and on getting ready for married life. There were the constant references describing women as the “weaker vessel” and so much emphasis on how women must be submissive to their husbands. Things like that always made me cringe. Men in the organization, have leadership positions and responsibilities that are absent for women. Men can slowly move up the ladder and go from being “ministerial servants” to eventually becoming an “elder” (an important and influential position within the congregation). This depends on how invested men are in their spirituality and in the congregation. Since no significant leadership positions exist for women in the congregation, the closest would be to be married to someone who does.
Everything should progress more or less like that. There is an order that is emphasized a lot, every meeting, every time-sheet every time you study, the dynamic is always orderly. This is because of the idea that god is a god of order and if there was no order then people would just do what they wanted which would cause them to get into trouble. That is what happened to me. I was an un-baptized publisher, slowly discovering how things worked in the Jehovah’s Witnesses organization. At the same time, I was learning through my art history class, how to analyze things in a critical way. I wanted to share what I was learning in class so I began posting art-related pictures on Facebook. I posted an image of Caroleen Schneeman’s Interior Scroll piece, an important piece in performance art history. The image shows the moment the artist pulls a paper scroll from her vagina. A day after I posted the image, an elder from my congregation, commented angrily on my post, saying that such a thing was not art and that it was disgraceful and I should take it down. This was the first red flag, the first boundary that was crossed. An elder who had never talked to me in person, who didn’t even know anything about the amazing art history class I was taking or bothered to ask about the context of the image. He had recently added me on Facebook (big mistake on my part for accepting his Facebook friend request!) and I was upset for what he had done so I did not respond and chose not to delete the image. I simply posted a Banksy quote that said “art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable” and left it at that. The next day I find out that a guy in the same congregation started ganging up on me on Facebook. He was throwing shade at me for not showing respect to the congregation “elder” who commented on my post!
Here were two grown-ass men, supposedly spiritually strong people ganging up on a 19 year old who didn’t even know enough about spiritual matters, but knew enough to realize that what they were doing was shitty. I was a relatively new attendee to their congregation and their action marked the beginning of me feeling unwelcome in the religion. Kerrie* and Carland* told me such incident happened because satan was trying to dissuade me from continuing in the religion. In short I needed to be aware that satan was angry that I was in the “truth” and needed to rely on god even more and not let that be a stumbling block.
The second time I got in trouble was for attending the congregation wearing above the knee skirts. In the congregation, women are expected to wear modest skirts or dresses. No business casual pants, slacks, dress pants etc. Only skirts or dresses. Men are expected to dress in a suit and tie and carry a brief case. Also beards are not deemed appropriate. The idea behind this dress code is that we should look our best for god and be modest….umm?? pants for women apparently cannot be modest?
I don’t know what it is with the organization and pants but take tights pants as an example. Here are some things you would hear from an elder giving a sermon during a meeting: “tight pants are immodest, yoga pants are disgraceful even if you are jogging it is inappropriate to wear such a thing”. Also, “tight pants are made by homosexuals and they are the ones who want you wearing them, not Christian people”. I wish I was making this up, but those statements happened in a JW assembly in 2014.
I understand if someone chooses not to go to church wearing leggings, yoga pants or tight dress pants. But that’s the thing, when you hear the opinions of elders over and over, stressing how much they dislike a certain style of clothing by labeling it inappropriate and immodest then is as if you really don’t have much of a choice. You have to obey or else you can get in trouble. I always felt that to impose a personal view on a garment and go to such an extent as to say that “the homosexuals” are the ones who want you wearing tight dress pants is simply, ridiculous.
The elders had told Kerrie* and Carland* that they needed to go over the bible’s view on modesty, so that I would no longer wear above the knee skirts. For the record, I always wore leggings or thick tights under my skirts, but apparently I was too immodest. The skirt situation is one of the many unspoken rules that are part of the Jehovahs Witnesses culture. Nowhere in the bible does it say that women must only and exclusively wear skirts/dresses and that pants are forbidden. I confronted Kerrie* and Carland* about this, and they told me it that it boils down to showing respect to the congregation and wanting to be modest. Their answers were too weak for me. I realized it was not a biblical thing, it was more a cultural unspoken rule within the religion. I’d like to share one of the passages I remember reading form the jw.org website back when I was researching this topic, trying to wrap my head around the “women must wear skirts/dresses only”. I found information on the JW.org website from an Awake magazine in 1977 that stated:
“As to the prohibition about a person’s wearing clothing specifically designed for the opposite sex, this preserved the natural distinction between the sexes. The customary thing is for men to want to look like men, and for women to want to look like women. A violation of this internal sense as respects attire could have led to homosexuality.”
To me, such an antiquated view on fashion was just beyond insane. In short, you should not question things. You should just accept and wear a skirt or dress even though there’s nothing inherently wrong with wearing something like business casual pants or dress-pants, cause well… you must not wear male clothing in any JW environment. Not even if there are women’s pants because pants belong in the realm of men’s fashion and you should not wear men things or else you could become gay or something.
I felt like everything I did was being scrutinized by Kerrie* and Carland*. I was concerned that other people in the congregation might tell if I did something they deemed “inappropriate”. Kerrie* once called me out for “liking” Planned Parenthood’s Facebook page and said that god does not approve of abortion and therefore people who love Jehovah should not “like” pro-choice organizations of any kind. One day, I invited Kerrie* and Carland* to go to the Tacoma Art Museum because a mentor of mine was having an event and I wanted to go and support. “If you have time to go to the museum today, then you have time to go preaching”. I started feeling suffocated from all of this. From the things I wore, the books I read to the people I associated, my Facebook posts and social media “likes”...anything could be used be used against me.
The truth is that I've always have identified as pro-choice and I don’t want to feel obliged to wear skirts and dresses to a place of worship and I actually dreaded feeling pressured to go out preaching. I loved studying and learning things about the history and ideas of the bible and all the interesting things Jesus went through but I never felt like myself in that environment.
For 3.5 years I tolerated this, trying to ignore how annoyed it made to comply with such unspoken rules because I genuinely wanted to find out more about god but was challenged by the fact that I could not be who I really am. Little by little I sunk deeper into trying to fit in, trying to make Kerrie* and Carland* proud of me, and my progress but I just could not keep up. I could not pretend to be someone I am not and I was only hurting myself to the point of almost dying in an accident that left scars that will take a long time to heal.
To be continued.