I had just landed in my home county of San Luis Obispo, California, after a disorganized, hysterical flight from my new home of New York City. My father had passed away unexpectedly ― right before visiting me in New York for the first time ― and I was inconsolable.
My then-girlfriend, now-wife Brenna and I were staying at my sister’s house ― which was filled all the next day with friends and relations: men in crew cuts, women in long skirts. I was in my band-guy uniform of a black button-up, distressed jeans and long bangs; Brenna wore tattoos and a bolt of purple in her ponytail. To say we stuck out like sore thumbs would be an understatement. Especially since everyone around us was a Jehovah’s Witness.
My father was a devout Jehovah’s Witness from the 1980s until May 5, 2017, when he died without warning. I knew all the people coming in and out with cakes and flowers; I had grown up with them for my entire childhood, and they were like a second family.
Originating in the mid-19th century as a branch of the Bible Student movement near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Jehovah’s Witnesses are Christians most famous for their door-to-door ministry. They’re also known for their abstention from blood transfusions, which is based on a variety of Bible scriptures regarding the sanctity of blood. Jehovah’s Witnesses maintain political neutrality and refuse to vote or go to war, partly because of Jesus’ exhortation in the Gospels to “be no part of the world.”
It’s easy to accidentally misspeak about them, because they avoid nearly all terminology common in mainstream Protestantism, like “church,” “hymn” or “cross.” They reject the Trinity doctrine and hellfire. They don’t celebrate Christmas, Halloween or Easter, citing pagan origins. Same goes for birthday celebrations — partly because of the origins of the candles and wishes, but also because they see birthdays as evoked in a negative light in the Bible. They limit their contact with nonbelievers; it’s rare for someone unrelated to a member to be invited over for dinner. All of this is in an effort to keep their spiritual health unstained and their standing with God intact. Worship takes place in functional buildings called Kingdom Halls, which can be found in nearly every country in the world.
I was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness until I was a teenager. I never got baptized, which officially integrates you as a member, but I was fully integrated into the daily goings-on. I attended three “meetings” a week, which are less church sermon than class discussion. I couldn’t see school friends outside of school; my social group was limited to Witness kids.
Because of the sheer scope of ages and backgrounds in the congregation, which was like a gigantic family, every year was a parade of weddings, anniversaries, funerals and ’80s-themed parties, all with consistent biblical overtones. Not celebrating holidays or birthdays could be tough, but I didn’t know what the other side of that was like, and my father showered my sister and me with presents in the offseason.
Still, it had the effect of making me feel somewhat unmoored from traditions held by the majority of Western society. Given that the music, movies and TV I could consume were also pretty heavily curated, it was a bit like being in a bubble.
I felt different from day one; I understood all the lessons we were learning, but I lacked the capacity for spiritual feelings that seemed to come so naturally to other Witness kids.
Based on their interpretation of biblical chronology, Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that a divine new world order is literally right around the corner, maybe even in single-digit years from now. At a young age, I remember having panic attacks at school when there’d be a severe thunderstorm or even a louder-than-usual truck delivery booming in the distance. This is it!
Around age four, I began giving public Bible readings at the podium, craning my neck with my feet on a stool to reach the mic. I also became involved in door-to-door ministering, in which Jehovah’s Witnesses distribute the latest issues of their magazines, the Watchtower and Awake, from house to house. The stated goal is “Bible education,” not “conversion.”
Nowadays, a Witness presentation is much more simplified, mostly a quick invitation to check out their website. Back in the 1990s, it was much more involved, with a series of memorized lines for any kind of person you’d run into — Catholic, Hindu, atheist or Jain.
For some boys in the more popular Witness crowd, going door-to-door was a raucous bro-down, piling in the car together, all gelled hair and shined shoes and slaps on the back. I couldn’t hang very well. Door-to-door ministering made me feel awkward and embarrassed. I was paranoid I’d knock on the door of a school friend and have to stammer an explanation of a belief system I didn’t pick myself.
I felt different from day one; I understood all the lessons we were learning, but I lacked the capacity for spiritual feelings that seemed to come so naturally to other Witness kids. I couldn’t accept some Bible stories as historical events. I didn’t want to be the guy who was seen as believing something wacky or ahistorical. Praying felt like talking to a wall. The big regional conventions, where multiple congregations gathered together for three days of talks, felt like a long, interminable drone.
As a teen, my displacement boiled over into anger as I got into rock ’n roll and grew my hair past my ears — to the chagrin of some Witness adults. I formed a garage band with some Witness kids my age and stoked the fires with our Black Flag and Ramones covers. I had some issues with kids in the congregation and their parents, and eventually stopped participating in JW activities and declined to get baptized. My parents handled it pretty well, although their devastation was evident on their faces.
I kept working for my dad, who was a furniture sales rep on the road. In fact, 99% of the Witnesses I knew worked modest, working-class jobs, regardless of their socioeconomic background.
There’s a reason for that. Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t outright ban going to university, but it’s not recommended. From their point of view, you don’t have the time to attend many meetings, nor go door-to-door, while writing your doctoral thesis. My sister and I didn’t attend university; my non-JW cousins attended Yale and NYU. This led to a sometimes prickly divide between value systems at family functions. As long-term goals go, the chasm was pretty undeniable.
Today, I still make music while working as a music journalist. I didn’t go to journalism school; any success I’ve had has been through luck, willpower and a willingness to learn. If I had stayed with Jehovah’s Witnesses, I’d be a full-time minister and a furniture sales representative, no question.
I was pretty angry about my upbringing for a while. As the years went on, though, my feelings began to change. Later in life, I would catch a stranger or a hack comedian talking down on Witnesses and feel a jolt of annoyance. They’re working long, unpaid and often unrespected hours to try to do the right thing. Why be so sneery and dismissive about that?
I was pretty angry about my upbringing for a while. As the years went on, though, my feelings began to change.
My wife and I just moved from New York to our new home in Hackensack, New Jersey. The other day, we slid into a booth at a goofy pancake joint down the street and chatted for over an hour about our upbringings — mine as a JW, hers adjacent to Judaism. We talked about how our personal beliefs are just that: personal. Hard to pin down. Sometimes mysterious even to ourselves. But it’s important to both of us to be honest about our roots and where we came from.
My mind returns to that horrible week after my dad passed away. Despite the fact that my wife and I had given the throng of Witnesses a lot of ammunition with our ragged look and out-of-towner vibe, we were received with love and understanding, not judgment. Brenna was shocked; her only real run-ins with Christianity had been Bible-thumping high school classmates and the sanctimonious, condemnatory mother of an ex-boyfriend.
Whether due to the doctrine or the selection of people, growing up around Jehovah’s Witnesses gave me a lot of things I like about my personality. It taught me to be gracious and to listen when someone more experienced than me is talking. It instilled in me a healthy distrust of human authority. An appreciation of natural beauty as a gift to humans rather than a meaningless accident. The jaw-dropping notion of a grand, invisible context to the world.
No matter where I end up in life, I grew up primarily around Witnesses, and they made an indelible mark on who I am.