Who Are These Weird People, Anyway?
It was a dark and stormy night. Actually, it was—very unusual for bone-dry San Diego, California. My husband Nils and I sat nervously at the kitchen table, picking at our supper, and wondering aloud if the weather was some kind of cosmic sign. Did the pouring rain and lashing wind mean we should stay home, or were they, instead, the perfect cover for the night of forbidden and nefarious business we had planned?
“Forget the weather,” Nils said. “I’m going through with it, and I can go alone if I have to, especially if you’re going to have a panic attack or throw up or something.”
With all of the preparations we had made, it seemed to me that it was now or never. Our eight-year-old daughter Ariane was spending the night with my mother in order to protect her from the inevitable fallout if we were discovered. We had decided on our aliases—Neil and Shirley Johnson—and we had marked the circuitous, seventeen-mile route with a bright yellow marker on the map. The die was cast.
Two hours later when we approached our destination, we chose to park at the curb rather than in the parking lot for a fast getaway if that became necessary. The rain had stopped briefly, allowing the glow from a nearby streetlamp to illuminate the sign on the building we were about to enter—PACIFIC BEACH COMMUNITY CHURCH.
To an ordinary American citizen raised with the concept of religious freedom, our choice to attend a lecture on science and the Bible at a church across town would be no big deal. But for a couple of third-generation Jehovah’s Witnesses, such as we were, to be caught voluntarily walking into a church of another religion would mean the end to our life as we knew it. It would mean we apparently had doubts about what we had been taught by the Watchtower Society. It would mean we had allied ourselves with Satan, no less, and his worldwide empire of false religion. It would also mean we deserved to be shunned by all Jehovah’s Witnesses everywhere, including our own families. No wonder we kept looking over our shoulders!
It had taken us ten long years of crying, soul-searching, praying, and Bible reading to get us to the door of this church. We had become convinced that Jehovah’s Witnesses were false prophets and wrong on at least two basic beliefs. Even so, we were ready to run home at the first indication that what the Watchtower had told us about Christendom’s churches was true—the members were shallow and vain, blindly believing false doctrines, and attending church either to show off their worldly wealth or viciously gossip about one another.
Armed with this friendly, positive attitude, we stepped inside. A few people introduced themselves, and we quickly let them know that we were Neil and Shirley Johnson. The speaker was a visiting lecturer. He and Nils interacted often during his presentation because they both agreed with an old-earth interpretation of Genesis Chapter 1. At the conclusion of the program, the speaker approached Nils and said, “We need people like you in our ministry. Why don’t you come back on Sunday, and we can talk some more about it.”
Nils and I were flabbergasted! This man didn’t even know Nils, yet he assumed that Nils was a fellow Christian based on the few comments Nils had made. How could someone be so accepting without asking a myriad of questions first about where Nils worshiped and exactly what he believed?
On the way home, we decided to return on Sunday. I wanted to attend a Bible study they were having before the sermon, and Nils wanted to take Ariane to check out what they were teaching children in Sunday School. Now we would be involving Ariane. How would she react to attending church rather than the meetings at the Kingdom Hall?
Actually, she had given me a little clue about her feelings back when she was four years old. One day, she and I had been discussing promises and how important it is to keep your word. Soon after, I took her to the Thursday night meeting. She sat as still as she could for the first hour and an half. Then she started to fidget and complain about how uncomfortable she was, so I picked her up and took her back to the Ladies’ Room where I firmly spanked her and told her to behave. With that, she looked straight at me, her eyes red and swollen and full of tears.
“I HATE coming to this Kingdom Hall,” she sobbed. “I’m never coming back here again! In fact, I PROMISE I’m never coming back, and if you make me break my promise, you’re in big trouble!” In retrospect, this was not a child who would miss attending meetings.
The three of us turned out to be a really weird group to these kind, Christian people at the Pacific Beach church. First of all, they figured we must be either hard of hearing or severely learning disabled because we kept forgetting our aliases and wouldn’t respond when spoken to. (When we finally admitted what we’d done, they thought we were even weirder.) Other times, we’d have such an extreme reaction to what they considered an innocent comment that they wondered what on earth they’d said—like the time a deacon invited us to his house. We were sitting at his kitchen table when he made the statement that “God died on the cross for us.” Suddenly, all of my Watchtower programming surged through my body, and I knew I had to get out of there. I couldn’t listen to another word. I had proved too many times that God did not die, and especially not on a cross. I would never be able to agree with these people no matter how nice they were.
“Thank you, but we have to go now,” I said, and with that Nils and I both jumped up and walked out, leaving the poor bewildered man standing at his door.
Yet, in spite of the emotional struggle, we kept going back every week. Ariane was a strong influence on us. To her Sunday School was like fine dark chocolate—one taste and she was hooked. Her new mission in life was to make sure we never returned to the Kingdom Hall. Once I realized that my emotional response to attending church was the result of years of negative programming by the Watchtower Society, I decided to view the experience as the equivalent to taking a college class. If I heard something that I didn’t agree with in school, I don’t think I would burst into tears or jump up and run out. I’d simply weigh the evidence and draw my own conclusions.
So finally after months of doctrinal discussions with the preacher and many demonstrations of love toward us from the members of the church, we began to soften up. Then came the tears. By this time, we were bringing my mother and several other disillusioned Witnesses to church with us. Nils always insisted on sitting in the front, so there we sat, taking up a whole row of seats as we listened to sermons about how much Jesus loves us, forgives us, and accepts us. I think the tears streaming down our faces were a kind of catharsis, releasing us from the spiritual burdens we had borne for so long.
By the time we got the phone call inviting us to a committee meeting at the Kingdom Hall, we were already beginning our new life in Christ. Now over twenty years have passed, and we attend a church closer to home where we are part of a loving, supportive church family. But for those of you who think we were exaggerating and dangerously paranoid on that dark and stormy night when our odyssey began, I conclude this account by quoting what was said during the first few minutes of that committee meeting.
Elder—We called you to attend this committee meeting because last Sunday morning you were observed entering a church in Pacific Beach.
Nils—We were “observed?” Who observed us?
Elder—Two elders from this congregation.
Nils—Which two elders?
Elder—I’m not at liberty to say.
Nils—Wait a minute. Let me get this straight. In other words, you spied on us and followed us all the way across town!
Elder (with a sly smile)—Not at all. The elders just happened to be in the neighborhood.