“Why did you leave?” The question hangs thick in the ensuing silence. What do I say? How do I answer without harming their faith in the place I left? How do I speak the truth with love and grace? I take a breath and tell the truth.
I have only been asked this question twice in the last decade. It’s understandable given our “unwritten” practice of shunning. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are at least honest enough to admit they shun/dis fellowship people while we insisted shunning was not our custom. We simply referred to Jesus’s parables about the lost sheep. “The good shepherd left the 99 behind to find the 1. The 99 did not leave the fold to find the 1”. Therefore, someone who left would be lost and they would only be found by the pastor or Jesus. The saints were not to reach out to one who left. They say it was to protect the sheep but I think it was to protect the wolves.
When I left, I knew that there would be no one reaching out to find me. There would be no calls of “Hey sister, can I take you to coffee? Why are you not coming to service?” Except someone did reach out to me. They called me and they asked to come to my house. And they told me to be honest. And so I was. I realize that was Abba’s mercy. Every Friday morning we would drink tea at my dining room table and talk about our lives, the church and Jesus. The more we talked the more I realized I left for a purpose. They were leaving for a purpose.
It was not easy. My husband, who did not grow up in the church, could not believe that leaving was the answer. Yes, he read the Bible and he knew things didn’t add up. Yes, he heard the stories of spiritual, emotional and mental abuse that happened on a frequent basis in the pastor’s office. Yes, he knew the horrible stories young people were telling. And even he admitted the paper we were required to sign so our son could attend the school crossed the line. But he remembered the good years when he arrived and he just couldn’t face the truth.
So, I left and he stayed. And he would take our son, because he was required, but I fought him on our girls. Eventually we compromised on Sunday afternoon service. Every Sunday I would curl their hair and put them in the dresses and I would silently pray over them. “Jesus, please protect them. Protect their souls and hearts and minds.” I waited at home while they were in church. After a couple months he let the girls stay home because keeping them quiet for 3 hours when they wanted to go play outside or get treats from the Plaid Pantry or run to the water fountain every three minutes was a lot of work. (Trust me, I KNEW what he felt!)
Despite fear I would lose my husband and children, I continued to avoid going to church. The husband continued to attend services but his resolve began to fade. He could not reconcile his wife was “out of order” while he watched her grow and have a peace he had never seen before. And he continued to be bothered by the inconsistencies between the Bible he read constantly and the words he heard every service. Still, he would come home exhausted from work, put on a suit and tie, pick up his briefcase and head to church.
One evening he was home late from work and rushed in to change. He had plans to meet with someone after church and I insisted that he not take our son. He left alone and I began to clean the dishes. Within about 10 minutes he was back. He silently walked into the door and headed to our bedroom. I stood there a little puzzled but walked to the room. “Why are you home? Did you forget something?” I noticed he was changing. “Um, why are you changing?” The husband looked at me. “Because I vomited all over the car and myself before I could get there.” I didn’t laugh. At least out loud. “Are you sick?” He just looked at me. “No. I’m not sick.” I stood there in disbelief. “Maybe God is trying to talk to you. Maybe he doesn’t want you to go to church.”
Now, if you told me even 6 months before this that I would ever say those words to my husband, I would have thought you insane. But there I was, suggesting that God was asking him to not to church. I didn’t expect him to say I was right but I wanted him to think about it. Despite my questions, he put on a new suit and new tie and told me he “had” to go. I watched him get in the car and drive away. It was probably one of the funniest but saddest moments of our marriage. As I stood there I heard Jesus say, “He’ll be back. I have him.”
Time went by and the church began plans for the General Meeting. A general meeting is a gathering of all the churches across the country and we hosted it every other year. Every meeting we would offer a room in our house for those who could not afford a hotel. Every meeting there would be some reason why they would not put someone in our house. But this year, for the first time since we were married, they decided to actually have someone stay in our house during the meeting. And of course they chose a minister. I have NO idea why they decided it was a good idea to place a minister in our house, but I definitely took note. It caused me to realize there was a greater fight for my husband’s soul than I believed. So I began to pray he would make the decision to leave and join his wife OR to leave his wife and stay with the church. I knew we could not handle being “unequally yoked”. We were not that strong of a couple.
Finally the husband and I reached one mind on the matter. On a Friday night in June of 2008, we wrote goodbye letters and as a family we attended our last service. I walked into that place, alone, at the age of 16 and I left there at age 32 holding the hand of my husband and our children. It was no longer a place that had given me inspiration to leave my family at age 16. It was no longer a place where I heard the voice of Jesus. It was no longer a place where I felt the Spirit moving. It was no longer a place I felt safe to take my children. It was no longer a safe place for me. And eventually it was no longer a safe place for my husband.
So, what compelled me to leave the “safety of the fold”? Where did I feel the freedom to say NO MORE and walk away? What could possibly lead me to declare I no longer would be owned by a man on the platform in defiance of a father who sold my soul at three-years-old so he could play the piano and have a ministry? I only have one answer and his name is Jesus. It took me almost 6 years to finally come face-to-face with who Jesus is but in those early days his voice was my constant comfort and the reason I would not go back. Jesus is still my answer.
Recently I found my “manifesto”, the 10-page document I wrote to explain to my husband why I was leaving. The seeds for my decision at age 32 were sown at age 5. As I read this document, 11+ years later, I’m amazed by what I knew to be true then and also amazed at how long it took me to live in that truth. But, that’s how bondage works. You can set a prisoner free from prison but it may take a lifetime for a prisoner to live free from prison.
I can write today free of the prison that bound me. And in my freedom, I will speak boldly of the voice that called me out 11 years ago. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke a decade before I took my first breath… “Free at last. Free at Last. Thank God Almighty I’m free at last”.