[This is the true story of my life. I'm posting it in installments. The final installment will include post-script-type thoughts, with acknowledgements to those who've helped me along these last two years, as well as those who've been an inspiration. I hope you enjoy reading. -dp]
Chapter Four: The House of God
[In this chapter, I have omitted various details regarding my Bethel assignment. Some segments have been removed entirely, while some words or phrases have been marked with *******.]
When I first arrived, my brother dropped me off at the lobby where I went in and met the brothers at the front counter. One of them—a friend of my brother—knew I was coming. He handed me a thick manila envelope and gave me the keys to my room, joking that I was getting a nicer one than almost everyone else had. After getting the directions, I slowly walked through the hallways and buildings and into the frigid air outside, examining my new surroundings.
It was surreal. I was finally there, having come so far from everything I knew before. I had, at last, escaped and was in a completely different world. Eventually, I found my room. Everything had a standard look and sterile feel about it, but something about the uniformity appealed to my growing sense of tranquility.
As I unpacked my things I looked around the room: the plain desk and chairs, the cream-colored walls, the beige carpet, the linoleum floor. I knew that another brother lived there, but it sure didn’t feel like it. At around eleven at night I curled up in my new bed, turned out the lights, and stared out the window, watching little specks of ice and snow falling through an otherwise seemingly-clear night sky. Some time after, the door opened and in walked a tall, lanky man of about thirty, dressed smartly in well-fitting slacks and a nice, thick black overcoat stretching down to his ankles. We introduced ourselves and then stayed up a few hours talking about our families, where we were from, and with me asking questions about Bethel, what he did, and how long he had been there. That first conversation was more talking than we did all the rest of our time rooming together combined. He was incredibly dull, and seemed more like a Carthusian monk, in his own world entirely. He lived his own Bethel experience, a separate one from others. He would work overtime every single day, go to dinner (which hardly anyone did except the old folks) and then come back to our room and do more work at his desk. Then he went to bed. No TV, no talking, no games, no playing sports, no outdoor activities whatsoever. If he wasn’t working or sleeping, he was commuting to his congregation and back. At the time, I didn’t understand his way of life, his solitude. But now—having gained an objectivity of living inside and then outside the institution of Bethel—I think I understand. He was doing what he needed to do in order to be happy. He had found his inner peace and associating with others and doing what everyone else did wasn’t what he needed in order to nurture that tranquility. He was a true Bethelite—although in the end, I feel he was living a life that even the Bethel administration didn’t understand or have the intention of encouraging. For him, Bethel was what he needed it to be for his private spiritual development; he was creating his own reality.
My brother and I soon arranged to room together. This was a matter of filling out a special “requisition” form, having it approved, and then waiting for one of our roommates to move into another room with someone else. My brother’s old roommate was already in the process of finding another place, so it wasn’t a long time until I could move in.
I soon fell into the routine of Bethel life. Each morning I would make my bed, get dressed, take a bag of work clothes with me, and walk to the dining room for morning worship. These were some of my best times to meditate on the joy I was now living with. I loved every minute of it. The crystal cool air would chill me to the bone, but the glowing embers I felt within, the love I was cultivating for Jehovah and being at his house, emanated from inside. I enjoyed taking lesser-frequented paths, looking up at the ancient Catskill Mountains glowing red and orange in the sunrise, the granite cliffs of the Shawangunk Ridge jutting up from the green forest.
The dining room was bright and fresh. It had just been constructed, and was in fact still being completed when I arrived. My table rested on bare concrete; the carpet had not yet been installed. I adapted to the routine quickly: passing the food, trying to resist touching my face too much, and meeting everyone around the table. In all, morning worship was my favorite part of the formal aspects of Bethel life. The day hadn’t started yet; and the dining room was mostly silent and empty before everyone started filing in. I sat and read my Bible, waking gradually, sipping coffee.
I could see a distinct and sometimes profound difference among many Bethelites. I realized that some should probably not be there. But this was simply the way of things; we all sorted ourselves out. I was sure I would be at Bethel for a very, very long time. I saw the “lifers” and admired their quiet, shuffling presence and lack of pretension. I looked with disdain on the young, immature ones who displayed an arrogant manner, as if they were entitled to good things. I, however, had the advantage of a brother who gave me lots of good advice, and the fact that I was obviously more intelligent and thoughtful than most young men my age. I knew the keys to a successful Bethel life: you just had to find your own niche, keep up your Bible reading and prayer, and faithfully perform your assignment. Needless to say, this self-righteous attitude went through many tests at Bethel. I hadn’t yet realized I was a hypocrite.
My very first days were spent following pre-laid out orders and procedures, sitting through little meetings, signing papers, filling out more detailed papers about family health history (that was a bit complicated for me), premature death, health insurance, opening new bank accounts, and other necessary formalities. On the third day, all the newly admitted Bethelites (called “newboys”) were summoned to the main lobby where we received our assignments.
Working for eight hours in my assignment wasn’t very pleasant, but the only thing really irritating about the work was a young brother from Tennessee. He seemed top-heavy: his forehead was a large square-shaped thing, and he had blond hair sprouting delightfully but seemingly unnaturally from his scalp, like a golden Chia Pet. He had been at Bethel for a few months longer than I had and that meant I had to do whatever he said. (Willingly and readily doing what others tell you to do is a sign of great virtue at Bethel.)
It was hard to obey someone who clearly demonstrated substandard intelligence. I had to swallow my pride whenever he launched into an oratory about the proper applications of whatever tool he was using. And when he took two hours explaining the complex inner workings of a **********—taking it apart and putting it back together again with his lips screwed up into a knot of flummoxed concentration—all I could do was lean back against the wall and wait for it to end. I suppose he was enjoying himself; he was suddenly not at the bottom of the totem pole with me around, and he never lost an opportunity to take advantage of his new status. Of course, I’m sure he thought he was giving praise to Jehovah by training me so closely. Keeping this in mind held me back from saying or doing things which I probably would have said or done in other circumstances. I gave him trouble occasionally, making sarcastic remarks and expressing other un-Christian things, for which I was reprimanded by my superiors. On the surface of Bethel interactions, it was much more honorable to be dull-witted and to display a shallow sense of humility, than to voice incredulity at stupidity.
I suppose these social experiences were the first signs that my stay at Bethel would be a short one. As long as I worked alone or with those I liked, I was productive, positive, easy going, and happy. But I had a hard time coping when I was forced to work with those I despised because of their arrogance or aloofness. I knew I had to stifle what I found to be an inherent abrasive nature, knowing I found it too easy to engage in confrontation. As a “newboy,” I was aware that had the eyes of several overseers on me. This increased my workplace tension, until eventually I developed methods to get around the things and people that drained my coping ability.
I had come to Bethel amidst some of the biggest changes the institution had undergone in decades. They were expanding Wallkill rapidly, “streamlining” a lot of processes. This meant that a lot of departments were restructured and sometimes even absorbed or eliminated. ********* was eventually to be downsized drastically, although few if any of us knew this at the time. Gradually, the afternoons became lazy as we were left without work to do. We were farmed out to other departments. Most of my workmates found their niches in one of these departments, but it took awhile for me to find mine. I was finally reassigned to another department.
My job was hard, but in the end, fun. I started to volunteer for extra shifts. I found that, even if the work was undesirable, I could at least do my own thing, be my own boss, and feel good about my work. It was a way for me to get a little elbow room and be independent. However, it’s not good to be too independent at Bethel. You have to be able to do anything, anytime, for anyone, and not complain about it. More than that, if you aren’t adapting well to your job it’s taken as a sign of spiritual weakness. This is one of the unwritten policies of Bethel life. I eventually found out who the rogue overseers were who didn’t believe in this nonsense, and clung to them. The problem, though, was that they were few and far between. In fact, most of the overseers seemed more like reluctant followers who had simply found themselves placed in a position of authority. They were not fit for the position of leading and knew it. They could follow instructions of procedure from a binder, but couldn’t manage people on the fly. Some could, and were good at it, but had learned arduously over the course of decades.
My time spent rooming with my brother was memorable; we had a lot of fun. We shared our work experiences, played video games at the end of the day, and often walked to morning worship together, discussing serious and spiritual things. We also commuted to the same congregation; one which I felt was a very warm one. There was one older brother in particular whom I remember fondly. He had gotten pulled into some sort of factory machine at work many decades before and half his body had been mangled. One of his arms was missing, and he needed to be picked up for the meetings. One time I walked into the men’s room to find my brother clipping his fingernails for him. It touched my heart deeply; for this was the kind of person my brother was. Although he could easily pass judgment on a sinner, he wouldn’t knowingly deny anyone brotherly affection.
We both continued to give thoughtful and meaningful talks, reflecting the relative spiritual maturity that our background lent us. I was re-appointed as a ministerial servant, and was soon put on lists of assignments along with twenty other servants. Meanwhile, as my brother had been a servant for longer than I had and had built a solid reputation, he was assigned to give public talks in other congregations. I would travel with him as he was sent off to other kingdom halls in the countryside. This was a great privilege in the congregations near Bethel, since there were so many qualified elders who were older and more experienced than he was. I was very proud to accompany him.
Thus far, one could gather that my Bethel experience is wonderful one. On one end, the work was hard and very repetitive, the hours were long, and I could never get enough sleep. And on the other end, there was something a little disturbing about people who were spending their entire lives there, couples being a particular oddity. Most Bethelite wives had a blank, distant look in their eyes, like they were just watching their lives pass away, missing out on their own children and homes which they would have been raising and taking care of in any other situation. They had to develop a love for their almost rewardless monastic lives of repetition, as opposed to the humanistic gratification of raising a family. I felt a very deep sadness in them. They were praised for their sacrifices, but to me it didn’t make much sense that they were relegated to the housekeeping jobs of their stereotypical counterparts. It was just a leftover tradition of more chauvinistic times, I thought. It also presented a strange irony: housekeepers with no house of their own to keep.
So on both ends of Bethel life, there was the physical, daily hardship and the more disturbing undertone of wasted life and potential, but somewhere in the middle was a strange, inebriating contentedness. The routine is the magic part of it. If you’re not careful, you can happily lose yourself in the routine and only suffer a glancing sadness when you look in the mirror and realize you’ve just spent ten years of your life doing the same thing with no significant change in yourself. The world and everything in it changes around you, but you’re safe inside, insulated from the burden of feeling time pass. At the time, and as long as I recognized it, I admired those who had reached such a state of seeming internal solitude. In retrospect, however, it’s the loss of one’s soul: a fear of change, of exercising your own will, of bucking the trend, of disagreeing, of being original, of making mistakes, of sinning.
And speaking of sinning, no matter how much I tried to exert self-control and mastery over my own body, I could not escape myself. I masturbated furiously and even looked at online pornography. When the regular and inevitable council was given at morning worship, usually by a governing body member, I was mortified and ashamed. Surely, I felt, everyone must know my hands were invisibly stained. Surely, they could see the red in my cheeks, the beads of sweat on my forehead! Brother Losch would glare down at me through the TV screen mounted on the pillar next to my table and scold me directly. I took the council to heart every time, but it was no match for the relentless nature of my horrid habit. I suppose in my heart of hearts I knew that if this were such a common thing among people my age, Jehovah didn’t see it as that bad, and so in the end, it didn’t bother me over much. However, it was one more thing that made me feel that I was just not up to the Bethel life. This feeling came to a head in my second year.
I simply wasn’t meant to work in the ********. My personality was at the opposite end of the spectrum of people who were fit to work in such an intense environment. I started to lose my temper with some of the more irritating newboys and openly argued with them a few times. One in particular, thin as a rail and with fiery red hair, enjoyed singing the kingdom melodies in an operatic tone, loud, for all to hear. If he wasn’t bellowing songs for our benefit, he was waxing on about how much he liked Jim Carrey. This, combined with the din of numerous machines and people talking, stretched my patience to the limits.
He worked on his own time, not in synch with anyone around him, as he poured forth melodious cacophony. It seemed no one had the guts to tell him to quiet down, since he sung the familiar songs of our faith. He would ask you to give him a number, and would then recall the appropriately-numbered song from the song book, bursting anew with forced eloquence. This was one of the main reasons why I had volunteered for more shifts, to get away from this young man with such an irritating personality. He was even more irritating than the oaf I worked with in the ********, having intelligence enough to capitalize on his own abrasiveness. His roommate worked in the personnel department, which meant he had all sorts of inside information regarding the arcane workings of the inner realms of Bethel operations, or so he intimated. In fact, in order to impress on the rest of us how important he was going to be some day, he made a daily ritual of picking up one of the centrally-located telephones, calling his roommate’s office upstairs, and then prancing off to go visit his role model for the rest of the afternoon, under the guise of official business. Eventually, however, he was called out by a younger overseer of ours, and his daily trips ended.
One time, he and I got into a heated argument. Pavarotti couldn’t be bothered do something that we all did to make our work place safer, having infinitely more important things to do. He placed a stack of nasty ******* at the entrance nonchalantly, and then tried to slide away unnoticed. I then walked out into the ******* and called after him, asking why he couldn’t do what everyone else, even the overseers, did. He gave some sort of pathetic and convoluted explanation which I’ve completely forgotten by now, but I do remember it pissed me off tremendously. We stood nose to nose for a few minutes, yelling at each other, until the others noticed and tried to distract us away from the scene we were making. We ignored them, our argument getting more heated. It was almost as if they were watching us descend into a pit of self-inflicted injury, while they shook their heads with pity, looking on helplessly at the demise of perfectly operable newboys.
To get into an open argument with another Bethelite is a thing of poor judgment. Arguing vehemently with someone must mean your spirituality is on its last leg. Where have all your Christ-like qualities gone? It’s easy for an observer to look on with disdain, especially if they’ve been at Bethel longer than five years, having lost most of their individuality and personal pride.
Pencil-head and I kept arguing, and I got more forceful with what I expected of him: he was going to go back into the ******* and place the ******* properly next to my ******* and I was going to watch him do it. Finally, I made the final gesture: I raised my hand in exclamation of a profound point of logic, and brought the back side of my fingers down on his shoulder, making a little thwack. This was a crime at Bethel, being interpreted as physical intimidation. I had crossed an invisible line, and was to soon receive the justifiable wrath and fury of Carrot-head’s righteousness. We finally parted ways and I shoved the ******* over to the other side of the room, creating a bang and a crash. Meanwhile, he sidled over to our overseer and I soon saw Red whispering into his ear with an uncommonly sober look on his face. Right then, I knew the game was up. I had been putting everyone on. I was really a little devil in disguise, with a welling source of anger and madness. I hadn’t wanted to do good, or to display Christian qualities; I had really only wanted to deceive people into thinking I was one of them.
The next day, I was called upstairs where a couple of Bethel elders politely asked me what happened in exact detail. I couldn’t remember all the details, having long since cooled down and half forgotten about it, but I took them through the whole episode as best I could remember, demonstrating the aggressive nature of my gesture on one of the elders. After my hand tapped his shoulder he looked at me blankly, as if that were all. They then read a few scriptures about kindness and forgiveness that made perfect sense to me, and then asked if I would apologize to the other brother. I said yes of course, no problem. I apologized for their inconvenience and my regretful behavior in the matter and left.
I really had no problem with apologizing to my victim, which I did. But some kind of indefinable damage was done. Later that day, when I got home from work, my brother started berating me before I even told him what happened. He said that our home overseer (these were brothers with oversight of the residential buildings) had contacted him and asked him if there were any reason why I may have been engaging in aggressive behavior. He told him that they had visited our room and found books and video games which featured violence, and that perhaps they were influencing me for the worse. My brother blamed himself for the whole thing, saying how he was supposed to set an example for me and that he should have known the games were bad. I gathered up the offending items and discreetly disposed of them in the dumpster downstairs. Even though I did it voluntarily, I realized that it didn’t matter what they were in of themselves, that the important thing was that I get rid of them, that I show my readiness to cut off parts of myself even in the face of an unjust measure of discipline. Even then, I realized that engaging in that sort of twisted, faux-voluntary punishment was meant to ingrain a certain type of emotional reaction. My mother had manipulated me with the same method before. And yet, I forced this thought out of my mind, shunning the initial uprising of my resentment.
After this episode, my feeling of resignation grew over the course of a few months. Others sensed it. I had been given cautious warnings about my behavior by a kind brother who was my peer—someone who had been at Bethel for much longer than I had. He told me in whispers that I was being watched by the “suits upstairs,” meaning the overseers of ******* who worked in the offices above. They would come in with their starched shirts, mill around aimlessly, poke their fingers into holes, and basically stare over your head like they were taking survey of important things. For the most part they were comically disregarded by the honest, hard working brothers who *******. But the important thing was that they had desk jobs, were Bethel elders, and had oversight of my review.
Even with all the drawbacks about Bethel, I still believe it was a privileged life. You must make many personal sacrifices, but if you can find it there is a place of spiritual contentedness that is rare to find among the distractions of “normal” life. Even though its been over seven years since I served there, I still find myself fondly recalled little moments, like meeting for the weekly Monday night Watchtower study. It would be frigid outside, and I would walk inside into the warmth, hang my overcoat up in the coat room off to the side of the auditorium, and find a seat. Many young brothers would sit by their friends, forming long rows of fraternal excitement, ready to settle in for an hour of relaxing study. I, however, would usually sit with just my brother or by myself. If the two of us were together, we would sit directly beside one another, observing others as they walked in, catching up on the day’s events or any number of interesting rumors. The times that I sat alone were the best times, though. I felt like I was becoming who I wanted to be, even with my occasional failings. I began to feel like I was being given a chance by a patient and loving God, refraining from judging me as reactively as most others in my life did.
Serving at Bethel also helped to teach me how to enjoy the little things in life. Since I was so busy, I had to find enjoyment in things that didn’t interfere with my routine. This meant things like running my fingertips along the bumpy wall in the hallway as I walked quickly towards morning worship. Or looking out the long, low window into the whiteness outside, and even better, emerging from the dining room amidst the gently falling snow, feeling the pervading silence and comfort of personal alienation, knowing everyone else was still inside, going about their business in a flurry of warm smiles and greetings.
Despite the undertones of sadness, personal decay, and wasted opportunity, and the overtones of a miniature totalitarian state disguised as an institution of brotherhood, many found inner peace and tranquility. Overall, I do believe it is a place of happiness for those who have found their own grounding centers, and have not suffered illness or other tragedy. For those who have undergone unfortunate circumstances, however, there is only so far Bethel will support them. For the institution’s entire history, and only until some of the most recent developments, there was an understanding that if you fit in and found Bethel life agreeable, you were strongly encouraged to make it your life’s career. My brother spoke of this often, even when I hadn’t brought it up. I think he comforted himself with those words, deriving security from the promise he had, in effect, been given. For all intents and purposes, it was a promise; it was policy. But sadly, this is no longer the case. Those who have outlived their youthful years of physical usefulness are dismissed, even if wanting to stay. Couples who are growing into the years of common medical complications are let go, “reassigned” to full-time service in the field. Bethel is getting rid of its liabilities, and those who have long since handed their hearts over to service in the “house of God” are now faced with embracing the possibility of being forced to leave.
Even throughout my little trials, there came times when I really thought I would be at Bethel for a long time. I couldn’t necessarily see myself there as an old man—I couldn’t envision that future with any vividness—but there was nothing pulling my heart away in any direction. It gave me what I needed. Living at Bethel was like setting adrift on a small boat in a calm lake: the initial push off land is exhilarating and directive, but then you can’t tell when you lose your momentum and when you begin to blissfully drift, floating along with the indiscernible currents. For me, this drifting is encapsulated in little snapshots, little scenes of what at first seem like mundane moments of Bethel life; however, I know the human mind doesn’t remember things with no meaning.
One slow day, as I was working meditatively, the inevitable call rang and I was beckoned up to the office. By this time things had largely smoothed out; I had made more than a few loyal friends, and was appreciated and respected by my co-workers. We all knew what the call meant, but pretended it was just some silly thing of no consequence. I had previously discussed the scenario of being asked to leave with my brother and told him I wasn’t going to fight any decision made. I walked out up into the sloping hallway, and up into the overseer’s offices.
The two brothers meeting me happened to be the ones which seemed the most competent, and the most kind. I liked one of them very much; a large, exuberant man who brimmed over with brotherly affection. The other one was small and wiry; a hard worker who had spent many years at Brooklyn. I sat down and they asked me how I was doing and if I heard anything from back home. I answered, and then a pregnant pause entered in as we all shifted in our seats and resigned ourselves to the real issue. They went into how Bethel required a certain kind of person, which a lot of people come through and realize it just isn’t for them. They recommended I leave, go back to my congregation, and pioneer.
I had told myself—in addition to my brother—that I wasn’t going to fight it. I could have appealed to the personnel department, and asked for the unnamable holy grail of all Bethel requisitions: a job change. It might have even worked. However, I had prayed every step of the way up to the office, telling Jehovah that I would take the word of the brothers as His word, and that I would do as they said. It was my first big test for Him, and I accepted the results.
I asked the brothers if I could take the rest of the day off. They said of course, and I then walked slowly out of the building. About six inches of clean snow was on the ground. I walked out behind the complex to the edge of a clearing where there was a wooden fence near a stand of trees. I brushed the snow off the fence with my hand and bent over, sniffing the cool mustiness of the damp wood. With tears streaming down my face, I stamped my name into the snow with my boots: D-A-N-I-E-L.
It wasn’t long after that that I had to go. A short, formal letter came in my mail (which I still have), thanking me for generously serving at Bethel and informing me of my exit date. It was all happening calmly and collectedly, and I made my arrangements. I dreaded calling my mother to tell her I was coming home, and while I could hear the sadness in her voice, she sounded supportive.
My brother drove me to the airport. It had seemed so far ago when he first picked me up, introducing me into that new and thrilling life. We both said encouraging things, but no words could eliminate our shared feeling of failure. I promised myself that I would not look behind as we drove over the hills with the Farm to our backs, it finally being concealed by the trees.