Background: /

December 19, 2016

 

My mother converted to Jehovah’s Witnesses (JW) when I was two years old after someone came to her door offering Watchtower literature. My father never became a believer. My mother had three aunts who were very dedicated Jehovah’s Witnesses, and her grandfather also studied with the International Bible Students (the predecessor organization to the JW).

When I was young, my father traveled a lot, so my mother indoctrinated my older brother and me in the teachings of the Watchtower Society. We attended meetings three times per week and prepared beforehand for the public study of Watchtower literature.

When I was 12, I was baptized as a Jehovah’s Witness. Soon after that, I began the obligatory door-to-door ministry behind my father’s back. In my early teens, I lost interest, while cars, sports, and girls drew my attention.

When I was 17, I met a charismatic couple who had previously been hippies and illegal drug users. They had cleaned up and become full-time JW Pioneers. (Pioneers commit to going door-to-door for 100 hours per month to try to convert non-Witnesses.) They rekindled my interest in the faith and I became a full-time Pioneer during my senior year of high school. In addition, I was several times selected to appear on stage at Circuit Assembly and District Assembly gatherings. (Circuit Assemblies occur twice per year; each is attended by about 3,000 Witnesses. They consist of two days of lectures and short plays. District Assemblies are annual, four-day events attended by roughly 10,000 Witnesses. The content of the program is similar to Circuit Assemblies.)

By age 20, I was accepted to serve at the international headquarters in New York City, known as Brooklyn Bethel. When I arrived in June 1980, my older brother had already been serving there for some time. Bethel was a complex of buildings in Brooklyn that housed the headquarters of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (the legal organization behind Jehovah’s Witnesses; it is often referred to as the Watchtower Society). The primary work at Bethel was the producing and printing of books and the magazines Watchtower and Awake. I worked in the kitchens, which fed the 2,000 Bethel residents three meals per day.

By coincidence, I arrived at Bethel shortly after an apostasy scare involving Raymond Franz and a few dozen of his friends. Ray and his friends had been gathering to study Bible commentaries not authored by Jehovah’s Witnesses. Ray, his wife, and about 30 of their friends were “disfellowshipped” and forced to leave Bethel. (Disfellowshipping means that one is no longer a member of Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Witnesses are to have no contact with them.) Ray had been a very popular man at Bethel. He was a member of the Governing Body, and his uncle, Fred Franz, was serving as President at the time. The atmosphere was oppressive, and we were repeatedly told not to read any literature not authored by the Watchtower Society.

At Bethel, I met all kinds of people, but very few of them seemed to be sincerely interested in finding a humble path to serving God. There was a lot of striving for status: who could appear to be more holy than everyone else. I began to be disillusioned. One Bethel worker told me he liked to go to the roof over the apartment of Fred Franz to pray. He insisted that the Holy Spirit must be stronger there. That is an extreme example, but there were certainly many people there who had strange ideas.

After reading the essay On Thinking as a Hobby by William Golding, I began to apply basic rules of reason and argumentation to Watchtower literature, and it quickly unraveled for me. There was no way to get from premise A to conclusion B based on the teachings we were told to believe. We were required to attend a weekly study of a recently published Watchtower magazine article. These were long, involved articles on a specific Bible topic. After one meeting ended, without revealing that I was having doubts about the teachings, I asked a well-educated Witness how the writer had reached his conclusion. He admitted that he didn’t know. We were taught that the Watchtower Society was God’s only anointed servant on earth, that we could only trust their teachings and should never question them. Yet, their teachings defied reason.

Jehovah’s Witnesses are fundamentalists who take every word of the Bible literally. So, humans have only existed for 6,000 to 7,000 years, regardless of all of the scientific evidence to the contrary. They believed that the end of the world was coming soon, and it would be marked by the persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses across the world, because we were the only ones who held “the truth.” All non-believers would then be killed in the battle of Armageddon. Only 144,000 special humans would go to heaven (a number taken from the book of Revelation). All remaining Witnesses would live forever in a paradise on earth. All of these things I had been taught since I was a young child. Now here I was at the headquarters and having regular interaction with the leaders, who were supposed to be God’s anointed ones and who alone could be trusted to interpret God’s word, and I was not impressed. Their teaching authority crumbled. The whole belief system seemed like a series of random statements drawn from the Bible and assembled into a “faith.” Only it wasn’t based on sound reasoning. It wasn’t coherent. It lacked internal consistency.

I decided to leave Jehovah’s Witnesses regardless of the consequences. One year after my entry into Brooklyn Bethel, I departed and went home. I told my mother that I was no longer going to participate in her religion. She reacted by telling me that she could have handled my death more easily than this decision. After elders from the local congregation visited me repeatedly in an attempt to change my mind, I wrote a letter to the headquarters in New York, telling them that I no longer wanted to be associated with their organization in any way. This letter was read aloud at my mother’s congregation a few weeks later. After that, my mother and brother and all of my Witness friends shunned me and refused to have contact with me. It was the most difficult period of my life.

Having only a high school diploma, I found work doing physical labor at a rate just above the minimum wage. This convinced me that I needed to go to college. I entered college at the age of 22, studied hard, and graduated cum laude four years later. I was recruited by a software company and worked for 13 years in various roles in software engineering. I was, in most ways, a secular humanist, but I decided on my own around age 30 that abortion was immoral. I became pro-life without any religious influence.

In 1999, my company asked me to go to the Philippines to open a branch office. I began traveling often between the U.S. and the Philippines and while overseas came into contact with sincere Catholics who were very open about their beliefs. I was also attracted to the strong family bonds of the people I worked with. In the Philippines, I met the woman who would become my wife; she was Catholic. She came to the U.S., where we got married and started going to Sunday Mass. I was impressed by the atmosphere, which was very different from my childhood experience and the many negative things I had been taught about the Catholic Church. Jehovah’s Witnesses detest most things about mainstream Christian religions. They teach that the cross is an ancient pagan symbol adopted by the Church. Christmas and Easter are really pagan celebrations. All of the splendor of the Vatican and ornate churches are just manifestations of how far Christendom had strayed from the early Church.

Soon we had a beautiful daughter, and she was baptized in the Church. About that time, my company asked me to transfer to the Philippines, and I agreed. We arrived in May 2002. My religious inclinations were put on hold while I adapted to a new country and a new way of life.

Later, at one point, I approached the priest at our local parish and said I was interested in conversion. He told me to buy a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church, and after I finished reading it, he would talk to me about conversion. That was a slap in the face that I didn’t expect, and it set things back for years.

Eventually, I met a business contact who was a member of Opus Dei. He introduced me to an Opus Dei priest from Spain. This priest agreed to teach me the faith in one-on-one sessions. I agreed, on the stipulation that if I did not believe, I would not convert. He shook my hand with a smile.

During this period, I read the autobiography of St. Therese of Lisieux and God’s Fool about the life of St. Francis of Assisi. They only convinced me that saints are crazy. I read Rome Sweet Rome by Scott Hahn and found we had many things in common. I read Introduction to Christianity by Joseph Ratzinger, who about this time became Pope and started to move closer to the Church.

On a short trip to the U.S. in November of 2009, I read A History of God by Karen Armstrong. I was disturbed to learn that the Hebrews had borrowed some beliefs and customs from “pagan” peoples they interacted with. Examples would be the practice of circumcision and the design of some items within the Temple. I felt that if the Hebrews had not been truly special, then maybe Christianity had no firm foundation. I concluded that I was too logical, too secular, and I would never really believe, so I was preparing to tell my priest friend and my Opus Dei friends that I would not become Catholic after all. Then my friend invited me to Mass on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception.

At that Mass, I had an experience that I cannot explain. All of my doubts were wiped out in a matter of seconds. My heart exploded, and I knew I was home.

This was not a rational conversion. I was not struggling with any Catholic doctrines. Rather, it was the entire enterprise of “religion” that had been an obstacle for me. But now my doubts had suddenly disappeared and all of my reservations were swept away.

I was baptized the following April at the Easter Vigil. Shortly after that, my wife and I were married in the Church after 10 years of civil marriage. We moved our two daughters to Catholic school. Seventeen months after my baptism, we welcomed our third daughter into the world. She is a delight and has recently started kindergarten at a Catholic school.


Steve Divers

  • JoyInTheLord

    I am wondering if Steve pursued his line of thinking anent Karen Armstrong’s assertion that the Hebrews were copycats. That ‘unexplainable’ moment of conversion must be a special grace —- one of the many that Our Lady is wont to give to any honest soul on her special feast day.

    • FB

      As a matter of fact, after my conversion I read “The Bible and the Ancient Near East” by Gordon and Rendsburg. It makes similar assertions about relatively insignificant ideas borrowed from neighboring peoples. This has not proven to be an obstacle for me. I think this *is* evidence of a “special grace” and also a softening of my expectations regarding the ability to live in the world without influence from the world.

      The JWs are classified as a sect which is less extreme than a cult, but they do a great deal to discourage members from interacting with the world around them. One should not have friends who are not JWs and marrying a non-believer is a major problem. These themes are reflected in the OT to a degree, but the ideal is not always possible to achieve.

      • JoyInTheLord

        Welcome home! It is a joy to welcome you into the Father’s House on this great feast day of our Lady.

  • imalsopeabody

    Thank you for sharing this story.

  • Suzanne Phillips

    I really must read that book – on thinking as a hobby. I liked the part about the Holy Spirit being stronger over Fred Franz’s apartment, so funny….:)

  • A. Friend

    I appreciate you sharing what is contemporarily called your “faith journey”. What struck me, as a Christian, is the lack of mention of our Lord Jesus. I don’t discount you had an experience. But, if you don’t know Him, or rather aren’t known by Him, then… well, what He said, recorded in Matthew 7:21-23

    • tobatz

      The problem with you is, you just want to show how knowledgeable you are about the bible and Jesus. He was just telling his conversion in the shortest way he could, the events that had happened. Actually he told nothing about any other things. Just sufficient to say that he was disillusioned in many things along the way. He did not write it to teach about Jesus or Mary.

      Welcome home, bother Steve!