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Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Education of Alex Silva, a Former Bethelite

Contributed by Christian Sparlock Freedom
The Beginning …

My story with the Watchtower Society of Jehovah's Witnesses began towards the end of 1975 when some dear friends of our family converted to the Jehovah’s Witness cult back in our home country of Colombia.  This is a very ironic year to have become involved with the cult, if you ask me.  I was three years old, at the time and, since we lived in New York, my grandparents, who lived in Colombia, asked my father to pay a visit to Watchtower Headquarters in Brooklyn, colloquially known as “Bethel.”  They wanted to know more about what this “new” religion was all about.

My father visited Watchtower Headquarters and, to our detriment, he was quite impressed with the cleanliness and order.  It sparked his interest and he promptly got in contact with the local congregation.  Soon, my parents were getting home indoctrination sessions called a “home bible study” with a book titled “The Truth That Leads to Everlasting Life," a very ironic title to say the least.   In less than a year, my previously non-fanatical Catholic parents were baptized into the cult.

As you can well imagine, this was the end of birthdays, national holidays, Mother’s and Father’s Day, Christmas, Easter and New Year’s Day.  I do have an extremely vague memory of one Christmas and one birthday. These festivities were replaced by three meetings a week, street and door-to-door proselytizing and seemingly endless assemblies and conventions, things that were a torture for a young child, who’d rather be playing.  I even have a picture, wherein I was five or six years old, sleeping with my head on my mother’s lap at an assembly!  My parents also lost many friends, due to the cult-induced fanaticism.

My father was appointed as an elder in less than five years.  He’s still an elder to this day and is a fair, decent, honest and somewhat overly serious man, who’s something of an introvert, and not a big fan of favoritism. Due to my father’s personality and the fact that our congregation, not unlike many, had many cliques that centered on some of the more popular elders, my father and we, as a family, were made into outcasts.  I gradually became aware of my father being treated unfairly by the other elders and his not being held in the same regard by many in the congregation, as were the other elders. However, this perceived disrespect towards my father did not weaken my faith in the cult.  Rather, it partially gave me the motivation to excel in the cult and to early on, set out the long term goal of one day becoming an elder.

Cult Fanaticism and the Teenage years …

The other elders were good speakers, particularly one elder that was especially unkind to my father.  My immature teenage reaction to this was to work hard at becoming the best speaker that I could be.  I wanted to show that we, meaning our family, were also capable of being great speakers.   I wanted to show them up.  

I then became really serious in the cult and was baptized at age fifteen years.  I worked hard on developing my talks, giving them all I had.   I loved the reaction that I received when I gave my talks.  From the very beginning, the facial expressions on everyone’s face said something like… ‘Who is this kid!’  Even the elder, who was the meanest towards my father, congratulated me on my talks, which to my immature mind was a vindication.   I had become the “spiritual son,” the son that all the adults admired and the other sons loved to hate.  Children of Jehovah's Witnesses are normally outcasts in school, but, I was an outcast among the other children in my congregation!

I also became very busy with proselytizing.  Just six months after my baptism, I was appointed a “regular pioneer.”  This was back when the hours for “regular pioneer” were set at 1000 hours a year, which roughly came to just under 90 hours a month.   Every day after school, rain, shine, snow, 100 degrees or 0 degrees (40c or -20c), I’d take my school clothes off, put on my suit and tie, take my briefcase filled with Watchtower propaganda and out the door I went to proselytize on the streets of my neighborhood, many times by myself. I’d do that until 5:00 PM, after which I'd meet up with my evening “field service” group and proselytize for another hour or so.  On meeting nights, I’d go directly to the “Kingdom Hall” after street proselytizing and meet my parents there.   I was a true Watchtower fanatic, or as a JW would have it, “strong in the truth”. “The Truth.”  Isn’t that on oxymoron!

A Difficult Thought Provoking Question…

On one such afternoon of street proselytizing I was asked a real good question by a gentleman I had approached. Back then there was no “table witnessing”, rather we were expected to approached people and proselytize to them.   That week our topic was on the reasons for believing in the bible god with a tract to go along with it.  The gentleman stopped my sales pitch midway and asked me, “Okay, let’s say there is a creator; how do you know your god is the creator?” I was never about winning arguments and fast rebuttals, I was about truth and honest answers to life’s questions and I didn’t have an honest solid answer for this question.  I ignored the question, “left it up to Jehovah”, but I never forgot it.

This question was very important to me.  It was essential for me to be able to have and show solid evidence for the existence of the bible’s god, that the bible is his inspired word and that my faith was in the true interpretation of said word.  For me, the existence of said god was not a question of faith or emotions.  It was rather something I thought was provable and, for which there was ample evidence.  From very early on, I understood that the burden of proof was on me.  This question threatened the very foundation of my religious beliefs. This is not to say that as a JW I didn’t have faith.  I had faith, I had faith that god would bring the “new world”, faith that god helps us, faith in the resurrection, but I didn’t have faith in the existence of my god. I rather thought I knew he existed and that it was provable.

At the top of my “game”…

I was appointed Ministerial Servant at age 18 and shortly afterward, I was also appointed “Book Study” conductor. Back then there were three meetings, the Public Talk and Watchtower Study, the Ministerial School and Service Meeting and the Congregational Book Study which was held in the homes of some congregation members.  I also was assigned all talks that Ministerial Servants were allowed to give, including Public talks.   One of my Public talks was on the “evidence” for the existence of the bible god, which was a rundown of the Watchtower’s creationist arguments.  I came to be a very good speaker and I really liked giving them. It made me feel like I was actually doing god’s work.

At age nineteen years, I was accepted as a Watchtower volunteer commonly known as a “Bethelite.”  I was a commuter bethelite.  Back then the Watchtower didn’t readily take in New Yorkers as regular live-in bethelites but rather had us live outside of “Bethel,” providing absolutely no help with living expenses.  To be accepted as live-in bethelites they had us serve for four years as commuters.  Our monthly stipend was just about $40 more than the live-in bethelites, which barely covered transportation expenses.  This “loving” arrangement was a double win for the Watchtower because not only did they get the free labor from us, our families had to provide us with room and board.  I volunteered at Headquarters for a year, a year in which I saw just how human the “organization” really is.  I entered Bethel thinking it was some holy place and left realizing it’s a place with regular people and their flaws.  

In retrospect, I’m glad the Watchtower had the commuter bethelite arrangement because had I been accepted as a regular bethelite, it would have been more difficult for me to leave the cult.  Even though my Bethel experience brought the Watchtower and its governing body down a notch, it didn’t make me question that I was in the so-called “truth.”

First “apostate” thought…

I left Bethel and restarted my “regular pioneer” activity.  Shortly after this, the Watchtower had a “new light”, or rather a change in edict, on higher education.  For many years prior, the Watchtower Society strongly discouraged any type of education beyond high school.  Being a good JW, I never considered a “secular” career.   I had done well in high school, this despite the fact that I didn’t even try to do well because my cult activity took so much of my after school time.  Matter of fact, my high school chemistry teacher asked me shortly before my graduation about my plans for college.  I told him that I wasn’t planning on college and he just looked at me, shook his head and said, “Wow Alex, what a waste!”  Now with the “new light,” they said that it was advisable that young JWs get some type of post-high school training or consider short degrees.  A year after this “new light” and without any real good job prospects, I started to ponder this “new light.”  I thought to myself, 'What the Watchtower taught on higher education must not have been good for everyone, or else they wouldn’t have changed it.  Maybe for some, like me, it would have been best to go to college.  I have to make my own decisions.  One size can’t fit all.  I cannot let the Watchtower make decisions for me.'  I had had my first “apostate” thought!

College and awakening…

I started college, four years late.  That first year, I went to school close to home.  I remained active as a JW, but not with the same intensity as before, since college is not high school and you do have to work at it and it did take time that otherwise I would have used for cult activities.  The following year, I transferred to another college, a school that was better known for my field of interest, Computer Science.  This school was in the suburbs or outskirts of New York.  Growing up in a city like NYC, you get really spoiled with the municipal transportation system… trains and buses.  You simply don’t need a car to get around.  Well, this is not so in the suburbs.  If you don’t have a car in the suburbs, you just cannot get around.  Public transportation is very limited and taxis are way above the average college student’s budget.  Fortunately, I didn’t figure this into the equation and once I was at this suburban school and without a car, I started to skip meetings!

Once I was away from the meetings, away from the constant mind-numbing indoctrination from the Watchtower and fellow JWs, and began taking classes that required intense analytical and abstract thinking, something changed in me.  I started to think critically about all I had been led to believe as a JW.  Many of the questions and doubts that I had “left to Jehovah” came back to haunt me.  I began to see through the fallacies that I had once fallen for.  One such doubt or unresolved issue that I had had since childhood was on the topic of theodicy, in other words, on the answer to why the bible god allows suffering and evil.  The Watchtower’s answer is that the bible god allows suffering and evil to vindicate his sovereignty and to show to all creation that humanity was incapable of governing itself without god’s guidance.  They figure this from their magic interpretation of the temptation of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden.  But in this case, if it were that this god wanted to test humanity, why not test humanity in a state of perfection and free from Satan’s dominion?  What is proven by the failure of imperfect humanity’s self-governance, a self-governance that is influenced by Satan’s evil power?  I’d say it proves nothing at all and leaves the issue of theodicy wide open and without an answer.  The answers from other denominations I found to be equally flawed cop outs.   

During this period in my life, I remembered that question from the gentleman on the street… “How do you know your god is the creator?”  Man, I wish I could meet that man today, shake his hand and buy him a drink or two!  I began to view myself as an Ex-JW.

Around this time, in late 1995, the Watchtower came up with something that gave me a new meaning to the term “new light”, which became the last straw for me.  The Watchtower came up with a new interpretation of the generation mentioned in Matthew 24:34, which states in their New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, “Truly I say to you that this generation will by no means pass away until all these things happen.”  For many years prior to this new interpretation, the Watchtower had claimed that Matthew 24:34 referred to the generation alive in 1914 and that some of them would survive to see Armageddon.  They claimed that this was biblical prophecy.  While I was growing up, this doctrine was pivotal, absolutely next in importance to their timeline concerning 607/1914/1919.  This “new light” set the generation of Matthew 24:34 to mean “anyone who sees the sign of the end and does nothing about it.”  

That was the straw that broke the camel’s back for me.   It was just absolute rubbish. It was no different from stating that the world would survive until the end of the world.  It was like a personal letter from the Watchtower assuring me that I had made the right decision in leaving the cult.

Sometime after that, I read Ray Franz’s book, Crisis of Conscience.  While growing up, I had always heard of Ray Franz as the great apostate!  Even though by that time, I had serious doubts about the Watchtower, I remember how nervous I was when I was going to pick the book up at the local book store.  My hands shook when I first opened it.  Despite the fact that I was breaking free from the Watchtower‘s grip, I still felt the guilt trip by having this book in my possession.  

Crisis of Conscience was a true eye-opener.  Every page of this book punched the daylights out of the cognitive dissonance over the Jehovah's Witness beliefs in me. The most riveting for me was learning that the 607 BC date for Jerusalem’s destruction was dead wrong.  I understood the implications right away, because I was one of those that could explain Daniel, Ch 4’s seven times, 607BC, 2520 years and 1914 in one breath!  Wow, they were wrong on 1914 and they had not been appointed as Faithful and Discreet Slave in 1919!  The governing body had no solid argument for their claim to authority and thus were void of any such authority!  This was genuinely ground breaking for me.  I felt they had lied to me.

I then read another book that I had seen a while back, a book written by a Spanish journalist, Pepe Rodriguez, called Las Mentiras Fundamentales de la Iglesia Catolica, which means “The fundamental lies of the Catholic Church.”  In a nutshell, the book is a rundown of who wrote the bible and why and who cherry-picked the books that would make it into the Christian bible.  Just like Franz’s book tortured the JW in me, this book karate-kicked the believer in me.  Most shocking to me was that more than one person wrote the Pentateuch, none of them being the so-called Moses, and that there are two, not one, stories of creation in Genesis, written by different people.  This brought me to my knees.  I cried when I thought of the implication!  

Sometime after this, I prayed for the last time.  This time I didn’t pray to Jehovah, I didn’t even pray to the bible god, I prayed to whatever higher power creator being(s) was out there.  With tears in my eyes, I prayed to see the evidence, the logical arguments, the logically undeniable conclusion that she/he/it/they existed.  I begged to believe not by faith but to believe because of solid evidence.  This prayer was the last gasp of Alex the JW, of Alex the believer and the birth cry of Alex the atheist.

Normal Ex-JW life…

I quickly found employment after college in my chosen career.  Although my parents were greatly hurt by my decision to leave the Watchtower Society, they never did shun me.  Since I was never disfellowshipped, nor did I disassociate myself but just faded, I fell into a Watchtower loophole where my parents were able to still talk to me.  Since by that time, my parents had moved back to Colombia and their elders didn’t know me, they were never pressured into shunning me.  We were able to maintain a normal parents-child relationship.   Occasionally they would manifest a preachy zeal brought on by some article or assembly talk.  But I would always be able to change the subject and that was usually the end of that.  

I eventually married an non-JW. For many years I lived a “normal” life after the cult.  It was long enough that I began to think of myself, not as an Ex-JW but rather a non-JW.  I knew very well that I had been extremely fortunate as an Ex-JW, unlike so many I had not been shunned and had not been hurt by the Watchtower nor by my congregation, but this feeling of having escaped the Watchtower’s grip unscathed was thoroughly and utterly crushed in May 2014.

My Mother’s last days and her ultimate sacrifice to the cult…

On a crisp beautiful day in May 2014, I received a phone call from my father.  My 80-something years old mother had fallen and broken her hip.  A week went by and yet my mother had not had her surgery.  Finally, my father told me that the doctors had not authorized the surgery because her blood count was too low.  At that instant, I knew what was happening, my mother’s surgery was being delayed because of the Watchtower’s damned blood transfusion prohibition.  The doctors warned my parents that my mother had to go to surgery as soon as possible or else her health would deteriorate precipitously.  

By the second week my non-JW relatives gave me the "skinny" (inside information) on the seriousness of the situation.  Just like the doctors had warned, my mother’s condition went from bad to critical in a matter of weeks.  They also told me that my father had his hopes upon the Watchtower’s “recommended” treatment of Erythropoietin, also known as EPO.  This is a hormone involved in the production of red blood cells.  The hospital liaison committee was pushing my father to request this treatment from the doctors.  

The problem with treating my mother with EPO was two-fold.  First, it takes weeks in a healthy person on a good diet for it to be effective and my mother was not a healthy person.  She was not eating well, given her now painful bedridden existence and she didn’t have enough time.  She needed the surgery ASAP (as soon as possible).  Second, EPO treatment increases the risk of blood clots and my mother, given her age, the fact that she was now bedridden and her untreated internally bleeding fracture, was already at an elevated risk of clots.  There was no way the doctors were going to authorize this treatment.  

My father moved her to two other hospitals in a futile attempt to seek the Watchtower’s approved treatment. 
I flew down to Colombia.  There was a possibility that, given my parents’ age, I could authorize the transfusion, but there was no way they could legally do it without her or my father knowing.  

In the most respectful and loving way I knew how, I confronted my father.   I knew that if I just forced the transfusion, my elderly parents would feel extremely guilty.  If my mother died anyway, despite the transfusion and the surgery, which, at this late stage, was a real possibility, my father would think that my mother’s resurrection hope was minimal.  I understand this may not fall in line with Watchtower Society's official doctrine, but I understood what my father was thinking.  So I tried to reason with my father, to see if I could somehow take the guilt from him and put it on me.  He cried and said that he was extremely hurt that his son was thinking of forcing the transfusion, that even if I gave the go ahead she would not be resurrected if she received the transfusion.   I knew my mother would see it the same way.  Either way the Watchtower’s doctrine was going to kill her, either literally or psychologically.  On more than one occasion, my non-JW relatives asked my mother to reconsider getting the transfusion and her surgery, and my mother, in the midst of her agony answered every time, “No, Jehovah’s will comes first.”  

There was no reasoning with them.  Given my parents’ severe cult indoctrination, my mother’s critical condition at that point and their age, both in their 80s, I decided to not force my will.  Did I do the right thing?  I don’t know and no one can give me the answer to that question.  I’ll have to take that question to the grave.  One thing is for sure, the only guilty party in this case is the Watchtower Society and its governing body.  The Watchtower, with its immoral blood transfusion policy, had sentenced my mother to death and me to live with a moral dilemma for the rest of my life.

I stayed a few more days in Colombia.  In every one of those days, my mother’s condition got worse.  Every time I was with her and she was conscious, I’d tell her that I loved her with a big smile all the while holding back tears.  Every time I said, "I love you," she’d look at me, hold my hand and say, “I love you,” back to me.  Unbeknownst to her, it was my way of saying good bye to her.  Every time I said, “I love you,” and that I was happy to see her, I was really saying good-bye, trying to make sure that her last image of me would be that of a loving, smiling son.

One time as I was walked towards my mother’s bed, I saw my father crying over her and my mother moaning in agony.  Seeing that was more than what I could take.  All I saw was two poor victims of this despicable cult.  My parents were victims and the victimizer was the Watchtower Society cult.  At that moment, I felt a sadness I had never felt before, an indescribable sadness that stabbed me to the core, and the most intense, vile and burning hatred, disgust and contempt for the Watchtower.  I cried bitterly, like I had never cried before.  My father saw me eventually and tried to console me, but all I could do was bite my tongue and not curse the damn Watchtower.

On the eve of my trip back home, I said good-bye to my now unconscious mother.  “Good-bye Mom, thank you for being the best mother I could have ever hoped for; thank you for giving so much of yourself for me; I will be forever grateful for having you for a mother.”  I took one last look at her, cried and left.  

My father was waiting to say good-bye to me in the lobby.  We hugged, cried and I told him how much I loved them.  In the middle of this emotional moment, the cult indoctrination reared its ugly head.  My father begged me, “Son, please give your mother the joy of seeing you back in the organization.”  My father, with the utmost sincerity, was asking me to rejoin the very cult that was killing my mother!

I went back home and a week later my mother passed away, just one day before my birthday.  My mother had given her life to the cult.  The Watchtower and the governing body had my mother’s blood on their hands.  I ran back to Colombia for the funeral.  

At the funeral, there were many of my non-JW relatives and some JWs. The JWs took this as an opportunity to proselytize to some of my relatives.  I was at the funeral talk for the sake of my father.  It was the most unbearable Watchtower talk I had ever listened to, even though I had been to several JW funerals before.  My mother had died because of this damned cult and here was a cult sales pitch passing for a funeral service being given at her very funeral.  As expected, despite almost 40 years of service to the cult and my mother giving up her life for it, my mother’s name was only mentioned twice and always in relation to the Watchtower’s doctrines.  No mention was made of the fact that she had died because of the teachings of the cult.

Now my mother is dead and my father has lost his partner of over 50 years.  I know my father misses her intensely and suffers every day without her.  All I wish now for my father is that he never finds out the truth about the so-called “truth.”  I rather he keeps his hope in the Watchtower’s fantasy.

The hatred and contempt for the Watchtower is still very strong and burning inside of me.  I will never forgive the Watchtower for making my mother deny herself timely medical treatment.   How ironic that that “spiritual” son, that great young speaker, the pioneer and commuter bethelite would some day come to loathe the Watchtower with such intensity! 

From now on I have made a personal resolution to donate blood in her memory every time I’m able to do so.  I know in life she would have never approved of this, but I also know that had she known the truth about the Watchtower she would have felt proud of me and honored.

I did escape the Watchtower but certainly not unscathed.
Thank you for reading.
Contributed by Christian Sparlock Freedom