What is it like for you when you run into someone from your happy days growing up in the Kingdom Hall?
It happened to me recently, and it brought out a flood of memories about R, an old friend and mentor.
It is a service day; as we drive along Route 6 in R’s gray four door Rambler Ambassador, we pass a Baptist church. It is a Thursday afternoon, sunny and warm, and R and I are on our way to the territory to make calls. It is my last year of high school; I had earned enough credits in my earlier years so that I could temporary pioneer in my senior year. I remember the look on my counselors’ faces when I tell them my plans; not interested in college, I tell them. (Why go to college when the end is so near? We will need farming skills, this is what I tell them.)
As we pass the red brick Baptist church, he taps me on the arm with the back of his hand and says, J, they had elders years ago!
He gives up a small laugh and we continue on. I am silent, not knowing what to say. It is 1971 and the Society has just announced the elder arrangement in the congregations. The old way was for each ‘unit’ to have a congregation servant, an assistant and other men running the departments, Watchtower conductor, literature, etc. The look on his face wasn’t the breathless excitement most witnesses have at ‘new light’; R had been the congregation servant for years.
I realize looking back that R must have been taken aback at the change; he was the congregation servant, he must have felt a bit betrayed. I would later hear his wife say that they took his congregation away from him.
R is one of my oldest mentors in the truth. I don’t think it would seem like we were good friends. R is not someone who knows your secrets, at least not in the way friends do. I have seen R only at conventions and funerals in the last 20 years; he is twenty something years older than me.
But of all the people I have known in the group known as Jehovah’s Witnesses, he was the most influential in my life and of those closest to me.
When I was a child, R was there on the platform, giving talks; he is there on stage, his face set, announcing the disfellowshipping of a young woman I knew who was sitting 2 rows ahead of me. She is obviously surprised by the announcement; her jaw drops and she gets up and storms out. I am 12 years old; I can’t understand what is happening.
R is at the lectern discussing the building of a new hall, and asking for pledges. An older brother, the Watchtower conductor, asks to come onto the platform; R thinks for a moment, and says yes. The older brother questions whether or not we really need a new hall. R thanks him for his input, but would later humiliate him in a servants meeting, telling him he made the servants look disunified; don’t do it again, he tells him. The older brother moved to California a year later.
Others would later say about R that he brought a lot of people into the truth, and stumbled almost as many out. A father of a good friend of mine quit the meetings for 25 years after R chewed him out. I never knew what spurred the event.
R studied with two young men who I would be friends with in my mid-teens; we all absorb R’s way of seeing things, black and white, no compromise. He also studies with my older brother, and the four of us, my two friends, my brother and me, become the four musketeers. (We make up a tiny clique in an already small group; we see things clearly, we have the inside track, we are not slackers. We are awake, the rest of the brothers seem to be sleeping. What are they doing?? To get married now in this system would be selfish, we say; we talk about learning Spanish and moving to South America.)
R is there when there is trouble in my family; I see him at the front door on a rainy night with 2 others from the Kingdom Hall, rain dripping from the brims of their hats. They are there to find out from my brother the extent of some wrongdoing I still know nothing about. Their faces are grim.
R is the elder who goes over the questions with me before being baptized, and asks many questions about the Society that are not in the book; my mother later says it must mean they are grooming me for being used in the hall. R makes a point of asking me if someone can be disfellowshipped for stealing 50 cents; I don’t want to answer this question. I grew up poor; I also am remembering shoplifting for kicks when I was younger. Finally, R looks back at the yellow Lamp book, disappointment showing on his face and says, well yes, you can be disfellowshipped for 50 cents. I remember wondering if he has done this, thrown someone out for stealing 50 cents.
R and I spend hundreds of hours together working on the new Kingdom Hall, built the old way, over a year and a half. I am there with him when the hole is dug by a fringe Witness with an ancient bulldozer, and later when the basement needs to be dug out deeper, by hand, there we are, R and I, with shovel and a pick ax, digging up the hard clay.
I nearly kill him one day at the building site; we are setting the heavy joists by hand, walking them across the block walls. I am 14; as I tire out, I falter and walk him off the edge of the wall. He falls to the dirt floor below, somehow missing the 1x12’s bracing the block wall. He jumps up quickly; I hear “I am OK! I am OK!” He knows I must think he is hurt.
We are there when the last piece of trim goes on, and later again the dedication talk is given.
I silently berate R during summer the first Sunday meetings in that hall, beads of sweat slowly making their way from the top of my head to my earlobes. R felt (a soft way of putting it; R was unyielding about it, and so that is what happened) that installing air conditioning in the new Kingdom Hall would be extravagant and might offend the neighbors. (2 years later air conditioning is installed, at double the cost.)
And we spend countless hours together in the door to door work. I full time pioneer, the goal of all good witnesses, for one year after high school; by then, he has quit his manager’s position at the bank, taken his pension as a cash payment and is also pioneering.
Though I can’t remember talking about it, I know we must have, maybe walking along taking doors together; we will pioneer out the last days of the old system, we will get a head start on the new system. I am doing janitorial work at night, some work in the trades during the day, and R is living off his cash.
Less than a year later, I will be married and spending less time with R, and more time with my smart ass witness friends who are not pioneering, who have taken decent jobs and share my party spirit. I begin full time work in the trades, our congregation is split and R and I are now in different congregations. R eventually runs out of money and goes to work painting houses full time.
I am writing about R because I saw him again recently, at a funeral.
He has long since retired and is still an elder, but not actively used. He is forgetful and had a stroke last year. He still seems vital, not much gray hair even though he is 80, and shows no after effects from the stroke.
His wife saw me at the funeral, and told me that R wants to talk to me, be sure to talk to him.
More about what R says to me in the next post.