Some of the stereotypes associated with Jehovah’s Witnesses are well justified. From being smartly dressed to appearing on the doorstep, Witnesses are one of Cornwall’s more conspicious religious groups. Yet despite their public prescence very little is known of the religion. Surf & City takes a look at life in Cornwall’s as a Jehovah’s Witness
Words: Paul Scott Photography: Hein Wolmarans
Silent Witness: Fran & Mike Hall
ike and Fran Hall hold hands. His crisp suit appears as new as the day it was bought, her top, a vibrant shade of purple, brings life to the ageing, dying couch upon which they sit. Mikes’ other hand rests on a copy of the bible which sits precariously on his knee. “The first time I had contact with Witnesses was when I was at my parents house. There was a knock at the door, I opened it to find two ladies standing there,” says Mike. “We got chatting and they presented me with two magazines, read a brief scripture and left. Then I met Fran.” Mike and Fran are Jehovah’s Witnesses, two of an estimated 1,600 in Cornwall. There are Kingdom Halls and congregations in every major town in the county. For some, Witnesses are harmless, quietly going about their business while for others they are nothing more than a religious cult. Yet despite the large number of Witnesses in Cornwall little is known beyond the common stereotypes of being smartly dressed and tenacious doorknockers “Witnesses are well known for going door-to-door and bothering people,” says Mike. “We go doorto-door simply to try and discuss the bible, we’re not saying ‘Oh, come and join us – you must do this, you must do that’. It’s primarily to draw people to a bible, to read it, to understand it better, that is what our main aim is.” The presenting of biblical material door-to-door, known to Witnesses as public ministry, is often met with a negative response and a closed door. Many people, travelling salesmen aside, would be daunted at the prospect of strolling onto somebody else’s property, turning up unannounced to voice an opinion or a belief. Truro-born Fran, Mike’s wife of just over a year, has been involved with Jehovah’s Witnesses from an early age. “It has its challenges,” she says. “It can be daunting, scary, difficult but then on the other hand it can be faith-strengthening, encouraging and always rewarding because we feel that, no matter how it has gone, we are doing the right thing.”
Fran’s belief in doing the right thing is unwavering, despite the majority of people encountered on public ministry showing little, or no, interest in the religion. “Some people are pleasant and respectful but the majority are not interested in what we have to say. We just have to say Jehovah’s name and the door is closed,” she says. “It’s very sad that they have preconceived ideas that we are going to preach at them, yet we are taught to listen and be respectful of other beliefs.” Mike currently juggles employment with a commitment to fifty hours a month of public ministry. A task made even more difficult by some of the reaction he gets on appearing at people’s doorsteps “It hurts you a bit, but you just have to be as nice as you can to them,” he says. “We’re going to the door saying love-thy-neighbour so if you start having a go at them that’s very contradictory to what the message we are trying to say.”
“I used to be very much into horror movies” The religion was founded in the United States of America in the late 1800s under the guidance of Charles Taze Russell. Despite being a Christian based religion, Witness interpretation of the bible varies greatly from that of mainstream Christians. Dan Hoyle is a ministerial servant at the Kingdom Hall, Penryn, the congregation to which Fran and Mike belong. “The main teaching of the bible is God’s Kingdom, that is the fundamental message of the bible,” he says. “We believe that God is going to take control of the world and bring back the original purpose for a theocracy in which God rules over man rather than men ruling themselves. God will intervene, we call that Armageddon.” To Mike six years ago Armageddon would have invoked images of Bruce Willis and not Jehovah. He admits that he felt the need to dispose of some of the more gory elements of his DVD
collection as his assimilation into the religion continued. “I used to be very much into horror movies. Trying not to watch and not be interested in them was hard at first. Now I don’t watch them at all,” he says. Fran interjects: “No one told him to do it. Suddenly one day he said that he’s going to go through his DVDs and he basically had five or six bin bags full of DVDs that he chucked away,” she says. Mike’s commitment to the religion is impressive, initially however, things were rather different. “I wanted to impress Fran because I liked her,” he says. “So I went along to some meetings but didn’t really understand it that much. I was more interested in Fran at the time, then gradually over time I became interested in it.” With an opposing upbringing to that of Fran, Mike initially kept his new-found religious beliefs from his family. “I didn’t tell my family, I kind of kept it a secret. They knew that I went with Fran but they thought that I was just trying to impress her,” he says. “Eventually I told them that I was studying and then I got baptised.” Mike’s family, despite not being overtly religious have continued to support him. “They’ve been supportive, they’re not interested in it but they’ll come to the meetings occasionally. They are not against it, but of course they have their questions,” he says. Life growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness presented various difficulties for Fran, particularly in the classroom. “We kind of stick out like a sore thumb in school because most Witnesses don’t associate with their peers and act quite differently,” she says. “I had it tough in primary school with having to refuse to participate in some religious studies lessons, not singing hymns, refusing to chant a prayer at meal times and not participating in any Easter, Christmas or birthday celebrations.” Perhaps surprisingly it was Fran’s teachers, and not her peers, that had the most difficulty in accepting her religion. “I felt I was treated as ‘a special case’, I remember refusing to go into an assembly of the ‘festival
“I didn’t tell my family, I kind of kept it a secret” Mike Hall
Silent Witness: Fran & Mike Hall
Love-thyneighbour? Disfellowshipping, or shunning, is one of the more controversial practices of the Jehovah’s Witness community. Surf & City talks to an ex-communicated Witness to investigate some of the causes and consequences of being shunned. Words: Paul Scott
Silent Witness: Fran & Mike Hall of lights’ and I had to argue with them why I could not join in,” she says. “As a result I was forced to sit on the floor on my own writing lines for the whole afternoon, and at nine years old that’s quite daunting.” From the classroom to the global scale Witnesses have suffered persecution on many levels. Dan Hoyle explains that in wartime Germany, Witnesses were some of the first imprisoned in concentration camps. “Hitler hated the Witnesses,” he says. “Being German they were given the opportunity to renounce their religion and were one of the few groups that could get themselves
out of the camps.” Many did not compromise and were killed as a result. Yet despite the varying levels of persecution Witnesses will avoid
“The young ones can be wise even when they’re young” acts of retaliation and violence. “No leadership will get us to kill somebody else or be involved in acts of war. We just won’t do it,” says Dan. In a contemporary society the
largest threat to the moral values and beliefs of a Jehovah’s Witness comes in improved technology. The rise of the internet and the proliferation of social networking has enabled younger sections of the community to increase their awareness of other religions, and other ways of living. “It’s a battle,” says Dan. “The young ones have to go against what everyone else in the world is doing, but they do get a lot of help and a lot of care. The young ones can be wise even when they are young.” Fran admits adhering to the religion’s teachings in a modern society can be difficult but
ultimately the rewards are worth the effort. “It not easy to feel the need to be different from everyone else, the world is so driven by wealth and is full of immorality that it’s very hard to exist and not be influenced in some way or another, almost impossible. Technology and wealth can be used as a good thing, so long as we’re not driven by these things,” she says. “As with everything it’s important to have moderation and to put things that really matter first and foremost,” Fran says, while still holding Mike’s hand.
t is thought that there are more than 7million baptised Jehovah’s Witnesses globally, spread throughout 236 countries. Witnesses attract criticism in some countries and are illegal in others. One particular practice in particular could be considered contrasting to the love-thyneighbour doctrine preached in Kingdom Halls throughout Cornwall and beyond. That practice is the act of disfellowship. “The key factor here would be repentance,” says Dan Hoyle, ministerial servant at the Kingdom Hall, Penryn. “If somebody did something seriously wrong like commit adultery or murder somebody, or they’re a drunkard or they steal the elders would meet with the person to try to restore them. If somebody wasn’t repentant they would be disfellowshipped. Disfellowshipping means that the Witness is expelled from the congregation and shunned by other members, including friends and family. “We view it that they have chosen to put themselves out of the community by their actions. It’s a position that they have chosen, so we shun them,” says Dan. Ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses Moxie is one of those that has experienced both the act, and effects of being disfellowshipped. “Personally I chose to leave the religion because I no longer believed it. I tried to fade or slowly distance myself from the organization. “After several months, Elders in the congregation tried to get me to meet with them to discuss my problems, of which I had no
intention of discussing with them,” she says. “As a result of my polite refusal to meet with them, I was notified over a voicemail that I was disfellowshipped and that it
“I changed my name to protect my family” would be announced at their next congregation meeting.” That was 11 years ago. “Since that day I have had little to no contact with my brother, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends that I grew up with,” she says. “The wounds inflicted by the Jehovah’s Witnesses run deep and rarely heal. When an organization holds all your loved ones hostage because you do not share the same ideology, there is no love in that.” The results of Moxie being disfellowshipped were widereaching. “I changed my name to protect my family from internal persecution from other Witnesses within their community. Since my father held a position of some authority within the congregation, if it became common knowledge that one of his children was a very outspoken “apostate” or activist, others within the Jehovah’s Witness community would likely think less of him,” she says. “They may potentially call into question his suitability to lead the congregation if he failed so miserably with his child.” For Moxie the act of disfellowship is an unnecessarily cruel practice, yet there remains no acceptable way to leave the religion
without being shunned as a result. “I feel tremendous compassion for the members, many of whom are very well-meaning, good hearted people and yet I am torn between their good intentions and the destructive consequences of their actions such as shunning,” she says. Witnesses respond by stating that anyone who disfellowshipped is welcomed back to a congregation if they demonstrate genuine remorse at their action.
“The pain of it never really goes away” Yet for those, like Moxie, that decide to leave of their own accord there appears to be no way back. “I had very good relationships with both my parents but at 18 years of age, when I decided to leave the religion, I lost essentially all contact with them,” she says. “For a young woman to lose her mother and father and nearly all her extended family and friends at that age was beyond devastating.” By choosing no longer to accept the beliefs of a Jehovah’s Witness , Moxie anticipated being excommunicated by her congregation. She did not expect the level that the shunning reached. “I honestly feel fortunate to have survived. Literally. I personally have known others who have not. The pain of it never really goes away,” she says. The love-thy-neighbour doctrine of Jehovah’s Witnesses could be considered more of stratagem when the act of disfellowship is taken into consideration. “The wound is reopened constantly and for many of us, our only solace is in finding support from others who have shared circumstances,” says Moxie. Disfellowshipping is a practice that leaves many excluded from not only the love of the congregation, and the neighbour, but more importantly, that of the family.
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