It was not that long ago when I came home one day and told my wife, Kathy, that I had fallen in love with another woman. What had begun as a mere flirtation had finally blossomed into an outright love affair. I told my wife that I was still in love with her, but that I needed this other woman known as the Catholic Church.
A Fellowship Born of Need
It was not long before my wife, Kathy, also fell in love with the Church and in the year 2003 both Kathy and I entered the Church.
After we moved to Wisconsin, I was invited to appear on The Journey Home on EWTN. It was not long before Kathy and I were receiving questions from Catholics, Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs) and former Jehovah’s Witnesses from all over the world about our conversion to the Catholic Faith. My contacts in the former Jehovah’s Witness community were shocked at the conversion and wanted to know why we had become Catholic. This gave us the opportunity to tell others about the beauty of the Church that Jesus Christ founded.
In December of 2004, I was contacted by an inactive Jehovah’s Witness who had heard The Journey Home broadcast and was wondering if he and I were the only former Jehovah’s Witnesses ever attracted to the Catholic Faith. I told him no, and set about trying to show him that we were not alone. And so The Fellowship of Catholic Ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses and our website was born.
A Unique Set of Problems
For many people leaving a religious denomination might strain relationships with family and friends, but it does not usually result in being completely disowned. Such is not the case with individuals who leave groups like the JWs and other cultic groups. In most cases, individuals who leave the JWs are shunned by their former friends and even close family. It is not uncommon for marriages to fall apart if one person leaves the JWs while the other remains in the group. It is also not uncommon for someone who leaves the JWs to be forbidden to speak to their own parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, children and grandchildren.
For example, when Arlene McGinley began attending church she describes what happened to her JW family relationships:
My Dad found out that we were attending church. He was very angry and began condemning all the churches and the people in them. I told him that he should not talk that way about something he has never looked into and does not know anything about. He became furious and that was the last day he spoke to me. My JW brothers and sisters stopped speaking to me too.
Arlene’s story is one of many on our website. Another is that of Claude. When he decided to leave the JWs for the Catholic Church, they were so angry that they called the local draft board so that Claude would be drafted, as he relates in his own words:
The Watchtower Society wasted no time contacting my local congregation, the Lafayette, Louisiana West Unit. I refused to appear before a judicial committee and was promptly disfellowshipped for apostasy because I returned to the Catholic Church, from whence I came. Nor did they waste time in notifying the local draft board, but it did not rescind my conscientious objector classification. But that did not shake my resolve, although it meant my aunt and uncle and cousins and Jehovah's Witness friends would no longer have anything to do with me I was shunned.
Many ex-JWs lose their families entirely and are completely ostracized. I know of some ex-JWs who have not spoken to their own parents in over three decades. Many inactive JWs would leave the Watchtower Organization and enter the Catholic Church today, but they are prevented from doing this because of the real fear of shunning and the destruction it causes in families.
Besides the fear of shunning, the JWs have a warped concept of God. It is true that the JWs reject the triune nature of God, but their view of God is even more skewed than that. Most JWs view God as someone who is just waiting to destroy them at any minute for not living up to the expectations He set for them as Jehovah’s Witnesses. There are literally thousands of people who were either raised JWs, or who converted as adults, but have left the group because they could not live up to the many rules and regulations that were placed on them. These people still retain the belief that they were just “not good enough” and that at any moment God will just destroy them.
“Saintless,” a former JW who is now entering the Catholic Church, describes the feeling that a former JW has after leaving the Watchtower, but still carrying around the sense of condemnation:
The JWs accuse all other religions of brainwashing. And it's funny now that I think of it, because that's exactly what they did. When I left, I felt guilty for a long time, and I knew that if I ever were to go back to religion, it would be JWs, since I believed that they were the only ones that could possibly be right. Although somewhere inside me, I knew they could not be. So, over the next couple of years I decided to be agnostic. In the 10 years that have passed since then, I have avoided religion completely. The one good thing the JWs gave me was peace knowing that this world was all there would be for me. Hell is nothingness to them. So, I buried it all, and lived my life as I wanted.
You see how morally crippling it can be for a person to live under a combination of believing that he or she is rejected by God, but that there is no afterlife. Some JWs who are disfellowshipped for breaking the JWs’ rules attempt to go back and beg the JW elders for forgiveness. These individuals are not welcomed back into the congregation until they have been punished through shunning. They are required to sit in the back of the Kingdom Hall and they are ignored by JWs in good standing when they attend the JW meetings. This process may take months, even as long as a year. Denise Wagner, who came back to the Catholic Church after her JW experience, describes the affect this had on her and her view of God:
I dragged myself to go back to the meetings, actually being sick to my stomach hours prior to going. Michael went with me and sat with me holding my hand. I recall one evening sitting with him and wondering how it was that this loving human next to me that I had wronged so deeply could forgive me, but Jehovah God could not. I remembered that at least in the Catholic Church we could go to confession.
As shown above, the JWs are very good at convincing people that all other religions are of Satan and are evil. This works so well that even people who have left the organization still defend the Watchtower Organization and will often attempt to go back even after being treated badly by the JW leaders. It also keeps many JWs and former JWs from looking into the possibility that the Catholic Church might teach authentic Christianity. In fact, the first time I ever entered a Christian church I got physically ill because of the conditioning that all other Christian denominations are of the devil. These thoughts were so well beaten into me as a JW that even after I had intellectually rejected them, they had strange hold on my feelings.
How Can Catholics Help?
As you can imagine, most former JWs need greater assistance in coming to learn about the Catholic Faith than the average RCIA program can provide. That is one of the reasons why my wife and I started the Fellowship of Catholic Ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses. One of the best ways to assist your JW or former JW friend in considering the Catholic Church is to have that person speak with a former JW who is now a faithful Catholic. Our apostolate can help in this regard through our website. If you know of anyone that we can help, feel free to direct him or her to us.
Do not forget or neglect to pray for the conversion of your JW friends or relatives, particularly during visits to the Blessed Sacrament, at Mass, and during Eucharistic Adoration. I have found that prayer is the most powerful tool in assisting in the conversion of a JW friend or relative.
You can also help them by living out your Catholic Faith. Speak about and live out the divine mercy of God in your life. Remember what a vindictive image of God the JW has in mind. Most JWs have never experienced anything close to the unconditional love of the Christ. My own wife, Kathy, says that it was discovering God’s divine love and mercy that brought her back home to the Catholic Church:
This was the first time I realized that the Lord was not just waiting to destroy me for my sins, but was really waiting for me to accept His divine love, unfathomable mercy and forgiveness. This brought me to my knees both literally and figuratively. For the first time in decades, I realized that I could have an intimate relationship with God and that the Lord really wanted me to spend eternity with Him in heaven looking upon Him face to face.
The Lord has truly blessed us in giving us the Catholic Faith. I beg all cradle Catholics, convert Catholics, and former JW Catholics to share our faith with all people. In my own conversion story, I remember the first time I shared in the Eucharistic Feast:
I had the privilege to be sealed through the sacrament of confirmation into God’s universal family, the Church, during Mass at the Feast of the Descent of the Holy Spirit known as Pentecost. As I confessed the faith of the Church that Christ founded through the words of the Nicene Creed during that Mass, I could hear with my ears those same words coming from the people in the pews in the cathedral. I also knew through faith that the angels and saints in heaven were also confessing those words with me. Because you see, for me, whenever I go to Mass, it is a huge family reunion that is beyond the limits of space and time and unites heaven and earth together as we all worship our wonderful Father in Heaven.
Isn’t this just too wonderful to keep to ourselves?
© Copyright 2005 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.