Growing up as a Jehovah’s Witness we knew what it meant to be called into the back room by the elders of the congregation. It meant we had done something wrong and the elders were going to let us know about it. In many respects it mattered not if the accusations were true or not. What mattered was that there were accusations made against us and that this reflected poorly on the Jehovah’s Witness organization.
The Organization of the Back Room
In fact, Jehovah’s Witnesses are encouraged to spy on one another and to report inappropriate behavior to the elders so that these back-room visits can be used to keep the Jehovah’s Witness organization “clean.”
The most severe discipline meted out by the Jehovah’s Witness elders to the accused JW after these back-room visits was and still is shunning. The elders read an announcement to the congregation that “so and so” is no longer a Jehovah’s Witness and the rest of the congregation knows that they are to shun this person. This means that this person is to be treated as if he or she is dead and that even close family members who are still JWs in good standing are to limit their association with the person to only necessary family matters. Because of this back-room practice and the punishment of shunning I know of several former JWs who have not spoken to their JW relatives in decades, and there are numerous examples of people shunned by the JWs who have committed suicide and have experienced severe psychological damage because of this practice.
Most of my life I lived in fear of being called into the back room by the elders. After years of living in this atmosphere, and also years of prayer and study, I realized that this practice of the back room had nothing to do with the ministry of reconciliation that St. Paul spoke of back in the first century. In fact, it had nothing to do with God and reconciliation at all, but more to do with manipulation, control, and abuse of power.
The Church That Was Missing Something
After years as a Jehovah’s Witness, my wife and I found the authentic Jesus in the Lutheran Church. We learned about God’s unconditional love for us from our Lutheran brothers.
However, in time I realized that there was something missing in the Lutheran Church. We believed that there were only two sacraments. These two sacraments that we believed in as Lutherans were baptism and the Lord’s supper. We believed that God came to us through these sacraments and that we received His grace to lead a Christian life through these sacraments.
However, one day as I was channel surfing I found a program on which this Catholic nun named Mother Angelica kept saying that “We are all called to be great saints, don’t miss the opportunity.” By God’s grace, that was my desire to become a great saint and I really did not want to miss this opportunity. I was still struggling with numerous sins in spite of the fact that I had received the sacrament of baptism and was regularly going to the Lutheran Church every Sunday and participating in their Lord’s Supper celebration.
Through the ministry of EWTN, I learned about this other sacrament that had been instituted by Christ known as the sacrament of reconciliation or confession, and that in this sacrament the priest, working in the person of Christ, absolves us of our sins. This practice was not encouraged by my Lutheran brothers and sisters and furthermore it was not considered a sacrament or a “means of grace.” The more I heard about the graces that Catholics receive through the sacrament of reconciliation, the more envious I became of my Catholic brothers and sisters who could receive this great grace from Almighty God, and the more I wanted to become Catholic.
God Wants to Have a Meeting with You
Eventually I began RCIA and my desire to receive the sacrament of confession was so strong that I literally begged the priest to hear my confession. At first he refused because I had not received the sacrament of confirmation. Since I am rather stubborn and like St. Therese of Lisieux I want to “receive everything the Lord wishes to give me,” I went home that night and did an examination of conscience for the last 35 years from the time of my Lutheran baptism till the present. I wrote it all down in the form of a letter that was some eight-plus pages long. I told the priest that even if he could not hear my confession at this time that I knew he could at least pray that God would forgive me for all of my sins.
Two weeks later, the priest told me that he needed to speak with me and that it had to do with the letter that I sent him. Yes, I was being called to the back room, but the circumstances were different. You see, I wanted to go to this back room. For me this back room was the reconciliation room. It was my opportunity to be truly reconciled to Christ and to His Church. Yes, there would be penance involved as there should be, but mostly there was to be mercy. The priest said to me that I certainly knew how to examine my conscience and then he asked me if I truly knew what the sacrament of confession meant. I told him that it was my chance to receive unconditional love and mercy from God for the ways in which I had sinned and to receive the graces to reform my life so as to become one of His saints. I viewed it has a way to clean my soul prior to receiving the gift of His Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity when I would be confirmed in the coming months. By the grace of God, the priest who led me through RCIA agreed to hear my confession, and since that day I try to make it to confession at least once a month.
It is ironic that for most of my life as a JW, I would have done anything to stay out of the back room. Today, I beg the Lord to meet me in that back room of the Catholic Church with the sign on it that says “Reconciliation Room.” The ministry of reconciliation through Christ’s Holy Catholic Church has given me great spiritual gifts and has freed me from many sinful habits, and the Lord is continuing to train me through this beautiful sacrament. To this day it is a mystery to me why the lines at confession on Saturday are not longer and why some Catholics refer to and treat this great sacrament as the “forgotten” sacrament when such great graces are received from our Lord in that back room.
“All this is from God, Who through Christ reconciled us to Himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5:18).
This Lent, let’s take every opportunity to meet our Lord in the back room and know that His purpose is not to condemn us but to redeem us there (Jn 8:11).
© Copyright 2006 Catholic Exchange
Jeffery M. Schwehm is a former member of the Jehovah's Witnesses' Headquarters Staff in Brooklyn, New York, and a former Lutheran. He is an Assistant Professor of Biochemistry at Lakeland College in Sheboygan, WI and a member of St. John the Evangelist Parish in Kohler, WI. He is also the President of The Fellowship of Catholic Ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses (www.catholicxjw.com), a Catholic apostolate to assist Jehovah’s Witnesses into the Catholic Church.