It’s probably safe to say that almost everyone, at one time or another, has encountered a few suit-wearing, briefcase-toting, “religious zealots,” determined to spread the good news of God’s Kingdom. They are usually eager to inform anyone willing to listen and learn about the prospect of inheriting eternal life on a Paradise Earth. Sound familiar? If so, maybe you are one who has chosen to listen to this astounding message. It’s also possible you may have just been too busy to devote the necessary time needed to engage in such a conversation. Or, like many others, you may have simply chose to ignore or avoid the conversation altogether. Perhaps you already have your own religion. Maybe religion in general, or those who attempt to discuss their religious beliefs with others, simply deters you from hearing what they have to say.
The “end of this system of things,” the purpose of God’s Kingdom, and how that Kingdom will transform the earth into a Paradise is a message most commonly heard in the door-to-door ministry conducted by Jehovah’s Witnesses. But who are Jehovah’s Witnesses? What exactly do they believe? And what compels them to preach their beliefs from door-to-door?
Growing up, I often asked myself similar questions each time I encountered Jehovah’s Witnesses at our doorstep. I must have been no older than thirteen the last time I remember speaking with a Witness who was out in service. Unlike many who generally consider it best to avoid the awkwardness of theological dialogue with strangers, I always made a genuine attempt to converse with those engaged in the door-to-door ministry. Even though I grew up believing in God and (most of) the tenets of Christianity, I always found it interesting that Christendom contained numerous denominations and sects. According to ReligiousTolerance.org, more than 1,500 different “Christian” faith groups exist in the United States, each with their own sets of beliefs and practices. If Christianity really is the “one true religion,” why are there so many differing belief systems? Why do some groups adhere to practices and rituals that others simply ignore? How many variations of the “truth” can there possibly be?
Puzzled by the paradoxical complexities of Christendom, my inherent want of knowledge and truth compelled me to listen to what Jehovah’s Witnesses had to offer. They would often begin by introducing themselves and handing me a tract (pamphlet) or other article of Witness literature, such as a Watchtower or Awake! magazine. Instead of preaching incessantly about their beliefs, they asked questions about my own religious beliefs and personal understanding of the Bible, while explaining the content of the material they had provided me. Some would even offer to conduct a free personal Bible study right in my own home, while others would simply use the provided literature to present a few theological points for consideration before moving on to the next house.
Like many people, I typically viewed Jehovah’s Witnesses as an off-the-wall sect of Christianity, almost cult-like in nature. But there was something refreshingly different about Witnesses compared to members of other Christian groups. Jehovah’s Witnesses always seemed like an altruistic bunch; incredibly selfless, and always treating complete strangers like old friends. They were enjoyable to talk to, openly discussing their religious beliefs with great conviction, while remaining compassionate and non-judgmental. Every Witness I had ever encountered was willing to tackle any questions asked of them, never taking offense, and always providing scriptural references to support their answers (which, if one truly believes the Bible to be the inspired Word of God, is quite convincing in itself.) Above all, however, they enthusiastically extended an open-invitation to anyone who was interested in joining them for Bible study. Anyone.
These weren’t exactly cult-like characteristics, were they? Cult members are cautious about who they associate with, never divulging too much information to those on the outside. They meet in secretive unmarked buildings, requiring a code-word or some sort of secret handshake before anyone can gain entry. They definitely do not make their meetings open to the public.
I began to ask myself a few questions: What exactly is it that makes Jehovah’s Witnesses different from other Christians? Do they truly possess the “Truth,” or are Jehovah’s Witnesses really the “brainwashed” social pariahs that many view them to be? In other words: Are Jehovah’s Witnesses really an eccentric religious cult, or do they truly possess a more accurate understanding of the Holy Scriptures? Interestingly enough, I would eventually (years later) have the opportunity to explore this question first-hand.
“Chance is perhaps the pseudonym of God when he does not wish to sign his work.”
- Anatole France
In January of 2010, I had a chance conversation online with a girl named Renee. Although we had been familiar with each other since elementary school, we had never officially been introduced. Eventually, Renee and I decided to formally meet in person. I picked her up one Saturday afternoon and we went for a few drinks at a local Irish pub. Renee seemed very funny, witty, kind-hearted, smart, and, overall, very likable and respectable (not to mention absolutely gorgeous); basically everything I had imagined her to be, judging solely by our online chats. On the way to our destination, she nervously began speed-talking about herself and her life, which was pretty amusing. I could hardly keep up, when she suddenly asked a question I was neither expecting, nor knew exactly how to respond to: “You know I’m a Jehovah’s Witness, right?”
Something clicked inside my head at that moment, as I vaguely recalled knowing from our grade school years that Renee was a Witness (She was the girl who never recited the Pledge of Allegiance and didn’t believe in celebrating Christmas!) I can’t say it was a total surprise. It didn’t matter anyway, because as soon as she had asked the question, she had already moved on to the next topic.
Following that initial meeting, I gradually began to notice exactly how important Renee’s religion and faith were to her, although at that point in our relationship we had rarely discussed spiritual matters. One afternoon (about a week later, and again, seemingly out of the blue), she made it known that she could not be in a relationship with anyone who considered themself an atheist. Now, as a child, I considered myself to be a pretty spiritual, faithful “Christian,” even though my church attendance was not always regular. I had always maintained an unwavering faith in God. I did my best to put into practice Biblical teachings and principles and live my life in a Christianly way. However, over the years my faith and trust in organized religion slowly began to deteriorate, and although I never became atheistic, I gradually began leaning toward agnosticism.
Growing up, I attended at least three churches of differing denominations. The first church, of which I have very little recollection, was Davis Memorial Christian Church, where I attended preschool and Sunday school. I don’t remember much of the religious aspect of the church (that is, the non-preschool parts), other than the delicious smelling glue sticks we used making arts and crafts during Sunday school, and the borderline eerie looking portrait of Christ that always greeted you upon entering the building. Oh, and receiving the privilege of ringing the church bell one evening. That would be the last memory I have of Davis Memorial as a child. In recent years, however, I have revisited the church on only two occasions: my cousin’s wedding, and more recently, the funeral luncheon for my Great-Uncle Jim which was held in the church hall. Guess whose solemn face was still the first to greet me at the door?
The next church I attended was a Methodist church, starting when I was in 3rd grade. Every Wednesday after school, I would attend the church’s youth group, Kids For Christ (or “KFC”). My brother and I would catch a ride from school to church with a friend of his, whose mother just so happened to be the youth group leader. My dad worked the night shift as a correctional officer, meaning he slept most of the day and was sometimes late (or very late) picking me up from school. Looking back, I’m convinced my attendance at these youth groups had less to do with my spiritual development and more to do with my father’s ability to nab some extra rest in the afternoon. Again, memories attending “KFC” are vague, although I do recall watching “Angels In The Outfield” (the one starring Danny Glover and Christopher Lloyd) and getting to play pool whenever we wanted. We attended Sunday morning services at the church only once in a great while, but our most regular attendance was the yearly midnight Christmas Eve service. However, one of my most vivid memories of attending the Methodist church was the excitement I felt when I was able to experience the “Second Coming.” That’s right. On Sunday, March 19, 1995, Michael Jordan played in his first game back with the Chicago Bulls since coming out of retirement, and we were all gathered around the radio in the church basement to experience it. The prodigal son had returned.
After entering junior high I decided to take confirmation classes to become a member of the church. I felt I was at an age where I wanted to start taking God and religion seriously. The problem was, even though I found religion to be fascinating (I occasionally read the Bible in my spare time), church had a way of making it seem not so fascinating. Other students in the class didn’t seem to take anything seriously and unfortunately I allowed their careless attitudes to influence me. In the end, I completed the class and was baptized in front of the entire congregation, thus becoming a member of the church. After that, I never gave it much thought. After all, how was I expected to care about my baptism when our family was leaving for Disney World right after church?!
To this day I have not stepped foot inside the Methodist church since becoming a member. Oddly enough, from that day forward, religion (at least of the organized variety) had little impact on my life. I still had my Bible(s). I still prayed to God (on occasion). I still (for the most part) lived my life in a way that I thought would be pleasing to God. It wasn’t always at the forefront of my mind, but I never completely stopped making the effort. I may have questioned religion, but I never questioned my faith.
Around the same time, I began experiencing an extreme case of generalized anxiety disorder and depression. During junior high and the majority of my high school years, I felt both emotionally and socially crippled. I tried my best to hide it, but I knew the way I felt was not normal, and I was too embarrassed or ashamed to admit my problems or seek help. However, I knew I needed to do something, and I began to turn my focus back to God. I began attending meetings in high school for Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) and made a few friends in the process. Immediately following my first FCA meeting, I was invited to attend a youth group meeting at an evangelical church that a few of my newly acquired friends attended. Feeling like the odd outsider, I initially declined, but at their constant urging (and the promise of a chicken dinner) I conceded to their request.
This new youth group was completely different from any I had previously experienced. We played a ‘game’ popular among the group called ‘maul ball’ (in which two teams, on their knees, scrambled for and passed around a small foam Nerf ball. Whoever was in possession of the ball was fair game to be tackled, or ‘mauled.’) To this day I am still trying to understand the biblical connection of such a game, and would like to know who determined rug burns on the knees and elbows was an enjoyable experience. Following ‘maul ball,’ our planned Bible study was postponed because the Chicago Cubs were playing Game 5 of the National League Championship Series and were on the brink of defeating the Florida Marlins and heading to the World Series. Now keep in mind, the Cubs haven’t been to the World Series since 1945, so this was a HUGE deal. God understood.
Needless to say, I left the church that night feeling less than satisfied, and it had nothing to do with the Cubs failing to clinch the Pennant. Or that the promise of a chicken dinner went unfulfilled.
Although I possessed a vast amount of faith and love for God and Jesus, I eventually became bored and almost disappointed with the idea of church and organized religion, even more so than before. I began to notice inconsistencies with some of the teachings, as well as certain practices and rituals that weren’t exactly mentioned in the Bible. For the first time, I had questions. Questions that the clergy did not (or could not) answer. One of my most memorable experiences with Christendom occurred one Sunday morning after church service, when I posed a serious theological question to the youth minister of the evangelical church, only to hear the response, “That’s just what we believe.”
No attempt at rational thinking or Scriptural reasoning was presented to convince me that what I was being told was really the truth. It was impossible to receive a satisfactory answer or explanation whenever I stumbled upon something I could not understand. Questioning religious doctrine, I found, was a difficult and often futile endeavor.
At the time I met Renee I considered myself to be an ‘agnostic.’ That is, I believed there was some universal force greater than ourselves that no human being could fully comprehend. I just wasn’t exactly sure what, or who, that universal force was. And if I, being a mere human being, couldn’t find the answer, then I was convinced no other mortal man could possibly know the truth either.
I had been to college (three of them, actually), and I found the academic institutions to be almost as irritating and discouraging as the religious ones. At each of the schools I enrolled in some philosophy courses as well as a few devoted to the study of the world’s major religions. Most of the focus was on Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism; any mention of Christianity was usually brief and typically focused on the Catholic Church. During my time at one school, I even had the privilege of meeting a group of Tibetan Buddhist monks from the Drepung Loseling Monastery in Tibet who, despite the language barrier, shared with me many interesting beliefs and lessons. I still have (somewhere) a handmade Tibetan mala bracelet that was given to me as a gift (malas are wooden prayer beads used while reciting mantras during meditation; similar to the Catholic rosary.) Fascinated by the generosity and peacefulness demonstrated by the monks, I was inspired to donate a few bucks to the Drepung Monastery for a Free Tibet t-shirt. (In 1949, Tibet was invaded by Chinese troops and has been under their control ever since; over the years, millions of Tibetans have been murdered and thousands of their monasteries have been destroyed.) Of course, this doesn’t mean I am a Buddhist.
I had read the Bible, the Quran (or at least bits and pieces of the Quran), the Dhammapada, the Upanishads, and the Bhagavad Gita. They all offer valuable lessons from which everyone can learn. There has to be a bit of truth in all of them, right? Why must there be only one right answer? On the other hand, there has been so much violence, bloodshed, and death in this world in the name of religion; who would really want to devote themselves to any of these ideologies?
I began studying philosophy of all sorts: Nietzsche and nihilism, Sartre and existentialism, Kierkegaard and Christian existentialism, Immanuel Kant and transcendental idealism. Unfortunately with philosophy, just like with religion, no matter how interesting it was for me to gain a new perspective on life, I never came across one set of beliefs or ideas that I agreed with entirely. I could find what I believed to be truths and falsehoods in everything. I was beginning to think that maybe there was no such thing as absolute “Truth.” But as someone who asks a lot of questions and insists on knowing all the facts, this was, in a way, troublesome for me to accept. There just had to be a reason why this world, this universe, and we as a people exist. The Truth was out there, I was convinced. I just hadn’t discovered it yet.
We were sitting in a booth at a sandwich shop one evening eating dinner, staring out the window at the overcast sky waiting for the storm to roll in, when Renee began to discuss the “last days” prophecy described in the Book of Revelation. Although I listened to everything she had to say, I eventually let her know (months later, of course) how odd and somewhat overwhelming it was that she would bring up such a topic, again out of the blue. I believe that was when I first understood how important her religion, her faith, and her relationship with God were to her. I cannot say I wasn’t impressed with the amount of spiritual conviction she possessed. She had something I lacked; something I had for so long been desperately searching for.
I remembered back to those times when I was a child, when Jehovah’s Witnesses would knock on my parents’ door. I remembered the brief discussions we had, and the magazines and literature they offered me. Most of all, I remembered their selflessness, their enthusiasm, and, above all, their kindness. Maybe there was a reason why I always felt compelled to talk to them; a reason why, after all these years, I still kept their magazines in a shoebox. And maybe there was a reason why I ended up marrying Renee.