Reaching Out To The Shunned

A Seminar For Those Who Have Moved On 22, 2004
By Frances Grandy Taylor

Joseph Whedbee Jr. used to be an elder in the Jehovah's Witness church, also known as the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society. He went door to door to evangelize and spoke at annual conventions. But, he said, when his doubts led him to formally dissociate from the organization in 1990, he was shunned, even by family members.

"My sister hasn't said hello to me in 10 years," said Whedbee, 56. "I'm willing to speak to her, but she won't speak to me. She would not speak to me at our grandmother's funeral. She just got up and left the room."

Whedbee and Mike LaRue, 55, who has been his friend since their childhood in Waterbury where they both were raised in the faith, are reaching out to others who have left the church.

About six months ago, the two men began meeting regularly with several other former Witnesses to talk about their experiences, including feelings of isolation and loss.

On Saturday, the group, which is so new it doesn't have a name, will host a daylong seminar at the Timexpo Museum in Waterbury. The seminar is called "Learning to Love Again," and will include a panel discussion and talks by former members.

Many people who have left the faith miss not only the closeness of family and loved ones; they also feel estranged from God, said LaRue, 55, who left the church about 20 years ago.

"They're in limbo. ... They've been taught not to attend other churches, and they feel they can't go back [to Jehovah's Witnesses]," LaRue said. "They feel out of the grasp of God's graces."

There are about 6.2 million Jehovah's Witnesses worldwide, including about 14,000 in Connecticut, which has 136 congregations. They believe in God, Jesus and a future paradise on earth, and they emphasize strong marriages and close family relations. The world headquarters, known as Bethel, is on a sprawling campus in Brooklyn, N.Y.

J.R. Brown, a national spokesman, said people who voluntarily withdraw from the church or become inactive are visited a few times a year by elders of their local congregations.

"Sometimes things happen that prevent a person from participating. We check to see if they need help or would be interested in reinstatement," said Brown. "If they do not wish to be contacted further, we respect that."

A member can also be disfellowshipped, a serious and formal procedure that leads to ejection from the church, after a person has committed a sin such as public drunkenness and failed to sincerely repent, Brown said. When a person is disfellowshipped, his or her name is announced during a Kingdom Hall meeting. Family members may have routine and necessary contact with the person, but others outside the household are not supposed to invite the person to their homes or give the person any greeting or acknowledgement. The names of people who have been disfellowshipped are placed on a list, and they are visited once a year by an elder.

"The motive is so the person will be shamed and repent his action," Brown said. "The disfellowshipped are not our enemy. ... Our hearts grieve for someone [for whom] this has become necessary."

Whedbee said he started to have doubts about the faith when he began reading older versions of the Watchtower publication, which the church discourages. The discrepancies troubled him.

He now serves on the board of Biblical Research and Commentary International, a nationwide association of former Jehovah's Witnesses formed in 1983. The group has a website, and a toll-free help line 800-WHY-1914 (800-949-1914).

"We get anonymous calls from people who want to talk about what they are going through," Whedbee said. "When they leave they often have no friends, because every friend they ever had was in Jehovah's Witness."

Whedbee and LaRue have since joined other Christian denominations.

"We're not trying to start another religion," LaRue said. "We just feel that because of our own experiences we have a special obligation, because we know what these people are going through."

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