Former's Bethel Experience
My family has always been religious to a degree. At six years old I found out that there was no Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, etc. from some friends at school. I asked my parents about each of these in turn, and somewhere in the list included God. They affirmed that Santa Claus was fictional, but God they assured me was real. I've not been so sure ever since. At about eight years old we stopped attending church. My parents had realized that no matter which denomination they tried, nowhere was anyone faithfully teaching the bible's message without their own additions or subtractions. Who should happen by our home a few months later but a middle-aged woman with a bag full of religious literature.
When 16 years old I met a girl at a congregation meeting. That year was agonizing; I stayed up late at night trying to work out a proof for or against God. Later I searched the Internet for any helpful information and discovered the book Crisis of Conscience by Raymond Franz, which I dismissed as a bitter man's justification for his mistakes. I found the task of sorting all this out too challenging for my teenage mind and gave it up, deciding that since I could prove nothing either way I might as well do whatever I wanted. At 17 I was baptized.
I soon found that bible study was calming, enlightening and I was good at debating scripture. I began helping to operate the sound equipment at congregation meetings and would read the lessons when we studied literature in smaller groups. At 18 I met a young man a few years older than myself named Jacob who had just returned from the world headquarters of Jehovah's Witnesses and was consumed with excitement for the organization's work. He urged me to get an application to preach full-time. I moved my full-time job to part-time and did just that. He and I became friends, and he would compare us to Jonathan and David. I had a sense that my life was moving forward and things were looking up. I was enjoying myself and I had found the approval of my parents and community for the first time.
I began taking on whatever responsibilities were allowed me and began ordering and organizing the literature supply for the congregation. At the same time, more questions were surfacing that were harder to ignore. I went through cycles of intense study and giving up again. Once in a car group there was a discussion about the Governing Body and how it came to decisions, and in the midst of all sorts of nonsensical guesses involving inspiration I blurted out, "Do you honestly think these dudes are magic?" Nonetheless I loved the congregation and enjoyed helping those with whom I studied the Bible to improve their lives. I believe that I was also attempting to counter my lack of conviction by doing more for the organization, feeling that the doubts might go away if I immersed myself more in the work. After attending an intensive two-week study course for full-time preachers, I began making plans to travel to a foreign country to serve where the need was greater. By this time I was 20 years old.
In the middle of this personal crisis I was approached by Jacob's uncle, Mark. He told me that he needed my help: he had 70 bible students that he was caring for himself. There was a group of immigrants known as the Karen who had been relocated from refugee camps in Burma (Myanmar) to the United States by means of the United Nations. They were intensely interested in the bible and incredibly friendly, strangers physically pulling us into their homes on sight though they spoke little English and we very little Karen. I was persuaded to place my plans for international peaching on hold and take a prominent role in the organizing of this foreign-language effort.
I received an invitation to live at the Watchtower Educational Center in Patterson, New York. I did some real considering and decided that since this was an invitation-only opportunity I ought to take it, if only temporarily. I lived and worked there, helping to produce educational videos that chronicled the early history of Jehovah's Witnesses, one of which has already been released at the last District Convention. This is where the real difficulty started.
As the work progressed, it became increasingly difficult to ignore that the history we were presenting in the films was a "sanitized" version. Important events were skipped over or conveniently worded so as to misrepresent the facts. I spent my nights in the Family Library searching through C.T. Russell's Studies in the Scriptures, issues of Zions's Watchtower and Herald of Christ's Presence from 1879 onward, and the two historical volumes Jehovah's Witnesses in the Divine Purpose and Jehovah's Witnesses: Proclaimers of God's Kingdom, all published by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society. I began to notice that there was a clear progression from the oldest publications forward: the organization's history was morphing slowly into a generic inspirational tale.
I spoke to the overseers who worked directly with the Teaching Committee of the Governing Body and raised some of these concerns. I was told that these things were not important, and that the real focus should be on what great strides the organization has made since these early times. I could scarcely believe what was happening. I felt like Raymond Franz.
This was the point at which my outlook changed dramatically. Teaching the bible was one thing, willful fabrication was another. When asked if I would stay at Bethel permanently I declined, and in January of 2010 I returned home. I was appointed as a Ministerial Servant immediately. Talks became difficult to write as I was no longer willing to give the benefit of the doubt to the Governing Body and teach things I didn't have a basis for myself. I approached the congregation elders and brought them up to speed. The circuit overseer's visit happened to be right then, and we spent Saturday discussing all of this. My favorite thing he said: "It's true that the evidence for Jehovah is all circumstantial."
My last meeting was in May 2010.