Former Jaffrey woman recounts experiences with, being shunned from Jehovah’s Witnesses

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript/September 07, 2017

By Nicholas Handy

Over the past 10 months, Elizabeth Sauer has been doing her best to reclaim her life, learning how to live without the friends and religion that she says shunned her last November.

Sauer, 57, says she was “shunned” and later “disfellowshipped” from the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a religion she devoted more than 30 years of her life to, after she developed a romantic relationship with a non-member with no intentions of marrying him.

Her strong connection to the faith may be gone – Sauer said Friday that she is still determining her next steps from a religious perspective after realizing she no longer believes in the practices and teachings of the Jehovah’s Witnesses – but she is disappointed and sad that friends and other local Witnesses will no longer speak to or associate with her.

“I lost a friend that I had for more than 30 years,” said Sauer, who said she has reached out to all of her closest friends, but has yet to get a response. “We used to talk weekly, and now she wouldn’t even say hi to me if we saw each other at a grocery store.”

Sauer provided the Ledger-Transcript with contact information for two of her closest friends with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Neither returned a voicemail left on Tuesday.

Finding the Witnesses

Becoming a Witness was not Sauer’s first religious experience, nor was it the first time she struggled with her faith.

Sauer spent her formative years in a Catholic school, but she says she never really “bought in” to the faith.

“I think Catholicism teaches a lot of good values, and I think I got a great, fundamental education, but I found that the religious classes weren’t making a lot of sense,” said Sauer. “It was really mystical to me. The nuns always complained that I asked too many questions.”

Sauer was about 8 years old when she was first exposed to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Living in Somerville, Massachusetts, Sauer would come across a neighbor who was studying and asked if she could sit in.

“It all sounded great. They used Bible verses to back everything up,” said Sauer, who has lived in Swanzey since January after spending almost 20 years in Jaffrey.

Joining the Witnesses was quickly pushed out of her mind after a conversation with her mother – who said Sauer couldn’t join until she was 18. But she found her way back to the religion as a young adult.

“I wanted to join for quite a while, but I pretty much pushed it out of my mind,” said Sauer. “But then when I was about 20, someone had come to my door and it had a ring to it again.”

Sauer said she asked a number of tough questions that day – including asking what the purpose of life was – and found every answer prompt and satisfying.

“She took out a little red book from her pocket that had the answer [to the purpose of life,]” said Sauer, who was baptized in 1981. “It blew my mind. I was at the hall the next week.”

Beliefs of the Jehovah’s Witnesses

There are over 8.3 million Jehovah’s Witnesses worldwide, according to a 2016 service year report on the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ website, jw.org.

The modern-day organization of Jehovah’s Witnesses began at the end of the 19th century when a small group of Bible students in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, area began a “systematic analysis” of the Bible, according to jw.org.

While Charles Taze Russell took the lead of the group in Bible education work, Jesus is considered the founder of the religion, according to the website.

Witnesses believe a number of things, including but not limited to: the worshipping of one God named Jehovah; Jesus is the son of God but is not worshipped as the Almighty God; there is no torment in Hell; Earth was created to be mankind’s eternal home; and that “deliverance from sin and death is possible through the ransom sacrifice of Jesus.”

The website says that Witnesses are not automatically “disfellowshipped” for committing a “serious sin,” but someone will be “shunned” or “disfellowshipped” if they do not repent after breaking the Bible’s moral code. Disfellowshipped individuals are still free to attend religious services, and can receive spiritual counsel from congregation elders.

Trials and tribulations

Sauer’s faith was tested within the first year of studying to be a Witness, as she once again began to “ask too many questions.” Sauer eventually agreed to continue her studying after some deep thought.

Sauer admits that she had to clean her life up a bit to conform with the faith. Her largest two struggles upon joining were giving up the occasional cigarette and to stop celebrating holidays. Sauer also said she had to clean up her language.

Being a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses would help Sauer through a number of troubling times throughout her life, namely when it came to her two divorces. Sauer was married from 1977 to 1990 and again from 1995 to 2010.

“[Being a Witness] may have had some part in [the divorce from my first husband,] but he had some other issues,” said Sauer, who didn’t delve deeper into the reasons for either divorce. “I was really committed to both of my husbands, but they were both challenging marriages.”

While the divorces in and of themselves were tough, Sauer said her friends and other Witnesses were supportive in her times of need.

“Some people gave me gifts and some told me not to worry about it. I think they felt really bad for me,” said Sauer.

The final straw

As it would turn out, the final straw for Sauer’s involvement as a Witness would come in the form of housework.

Sauer had hired a local man to do some minor plumbing, painting, and other paid work. That quickly developed into a friendship, and later a romantic relationship.

The problem with such a relationship, according to Sauer, is that Witnesses cannot date non-Witnesses and are expected to marry those they date.

“It was all so gradual and perfectly innocent,” said Sauer, of the formation of the relationship. “People would ask why we weren’t getting married. I have no interest in marriage at this point.”

Sauer said that she struggled with the relationship in relation to her faith, to the point that she broke off the relationship at one point. But after she needed more work done to the house, the relationship quickly started back up.

Sauer eventually turned to the elders of her hall in Keene to speak about the relationship, which is when she said she was disfellowshipped from the church.

“Part of me felt like I deserved it,” said Sauer, of being disfellowshipped from the Witnesses on Nov. 29, 2016.

The Ledger-Transcript left a voicemail at the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Keene, but did not hear back from anyone by press time.

Turning the page

Sauer said her future at this point isn’t exactly clear, especially from a religious standpoint, but she is ready to turn to the next chapter of her life.

Sauer no longer believes in the teachings and practices of the Jehovah’s Witnesses but does still believe in creationism and a “loving God.” Sauer said she has visited a few churches, but has yet to commit to anything.

“I still read the Bible… I want to believe that God loves everyone,” said Sauer. “Jesus dined with sinners, after all.”

Sauer said she has no ill will toward the friends and other Witnesses who no longer associate with her, as she understands that they are simply following the tenets of the religion they believe in.

Sauer has learned many great lessons from the Witnesses – not to be materialistic, happiness isn’t status, and many lessons surrounding morality, she said – but she also said she could no longer live in a constant state of fear.

“What bothered me after I left was that I realized I was in fear all the time,” said Sauer, who said many of the lessons taught revolved around the end times. “After I left, I felt so free. I could finally make my own decisions.”

And while she may have lost friends she built over the past 30-plus years, Sauer has been spending much more time with family.

“I can’t remember the last time she was this happy,” said older brother Gerald Barclay. “We rarely saw her when she first became involved, but now she comes to every family event.”

Sauer said she is grateful for the lessons learned and the friendships developed, even if it is unlikely that she ever talks with one of her Witness friends ever again.

“I don’t view any of my life as a mistake,” said Sauer. “It’s all a journey and I’m a very blessed woman. It’s a new phase of my life, the next and maybe final chapter.”

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