“Just another guy with a blog.  No big whoop.”

July 7, 2009

What About Our Boys?

A day before New York Rep. Peter King called Michael Jackson a “pervert” unworthy of nonstop media coverage, the aunt of a U.S. soldier killed in Afghanistan on the same day Jackson died asked why her nephew's death went virtually unnoticed while the King of Pop got memorial shrines across the country.

"Mr. Jackson received days of wall-to-wall coverage in the media," Martha Gillis wrote to the Washington Post. "Where was the coverage of my nephew or the other soldiers who died that week?"

How to Become a Jehovah's Witness

Here they come, walkin' down the street. They get the funniest looks from everyone they meet. Hey, hey, it's the Watchtower, and they're not monkeyin' around. They're too busy preaching to put any body down.

Oh, wait. Come to think of it, Jehovah's Witnesses do put down the Catholic Church pretty darn hard. In fact, their whole theology is grounded upon the notion that the Catholic Church is the spawn of Satan. This former Jehovah's Witness takes you inside the local JW Kingdom haul and explains how the world's most effective door-to-door conversion machine is targeting you.

— By Kenneth Guindon, Envoy Magazine, 1997 —

It's early 1956, and I'm seated in a long, narrow building in Venice, California, that used to be a laundromat. It still looks like one. The walls are bare of decorations, painted some nondescript pastel color. Small windows near the ceiling let in some sunlight, but the main light comes from the rows of fluorescent lights that hum and flicker above my head. A podium is perched front and center on the stage at the far end of the room. It's really just a well-furnished, drab little box of a meeting room, but everyone around me calls it the Kingdom Hall.

That was my first visit to what Jehovah's Witnesses respectfully call "The House of Jehovah." A large banner hung over the stage proclaiming a Scripture text I can no longer remember. Other than that one prop, there was no other evidence that Jehovah had anything to do with the place. Being raised Catholic, I understood "going to church" to mean prayer and worship, so my first visit to the Kingdom Hall was an experience very different from what I was used to. I had been invited to attend the lecture and remain for a "Bible study" using The Watchtower magazine.

The Watchtower, a slickly-produced, full-color magazine, is the official source of the teachings of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society (the official name for the Jehovah's Witness religion). Balancing my Bible, a notepad and a copy of The Watchtower on my knee, I waited expectantly for the meeting to begin.

When we were told to stand for the opening prayer, my ingrained Catholic habits took over. Without thinking, I raised my right hand to my forehead and began making the sign of the Cross. Suddenly, realizing where I was, I sheepishly lowered my arm and looked out the corner of my eye, hoping no one had seen me. A few had, but no one said anything. I kicked myself mentally, reminding myself that I still had a lot of Catholic training to forget.

Compared to the Catholic Mass, my first impression of the meeting at the Kingdom Hall was that it was weird and pretty boring. I was neither expecting, nor comfortable with, the dry question-and-answer-style format. It reminded me too much of school. But in some ways, ironically, it seemed a lot better than the Catholic parish I had attended.

The Traditional Latin Mass I had been raised with was far more outwardly impressive than the stripped-down JW "meeting," but on the negative side, Catholics were aloof. At our Catholic parish, nobody went out of his or her way to greet me, or anyone else for that matter, and why should they have? I was just another kid attending Mass. The Jehovah's Witnesses were anything but aloof. They smothered me with attention and acceptance.

Here I was welcomed by everyone, and I mean everyone. "Mrs. Jones," the lady who brought me to the meeting, introduced me to all her friends and to any young person she spotted. (It seemed odd to hear people call her "sister." She wasn't a nun, just one of the members, but everyone here called each other "brother" or "sister.")

I didn't know it, but Mrs. Jones had already informed most of these folks that I was facing lots of opposition from my parents, who were very antagonistic toward Jehovah's Witnesses. Armed with that knowledge, the congregation overwhelmed me with hearty glad-handing and a very welcoming atmosphere.

I was warmly greeted, politely encouraged, endlessly patted on the back and repeatedly told how very glad everyone was to see me and to hear of my "progress in the truth." JWs constantly use the expressions "in the truth" and "in the world" (cf. John 17:14-19).

The one who is "in the world" or "part of the world" is not "in the truth." One who is in the truth is one who has come out of the world, which means he has become one of Jehovah's Witnesses. At first, the name "Jehovah" was strange to me, but I quickly became accustomed to hearing it and even began using it myself.

Within a short period of time, I wanted very much to become a true worshipper of Jehovah God. In 1956, JWs numbered less than 800,000 worldwide. I was proud and grateful to be part of the faithful few. By becoming a Jehovah's Witness, I had done something very like joining Noah's family just before the Great Flood. I would be among the few survivors of Armageddon. . . .
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The Wanderer Comes Home

I was about as cold as I’d ever been. The Midwest was in the midst of a bitter winter in February, 1959. The wind was punishing, trees were freezing up and snapping, and the little yellow school bus I was riding in with Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper had been breaking down.

After our "Winter Dance Party Tour" appearance in Duluth, Minnesota, our bus broke down again. Buddy had had enough. He talked the club manager into chartering a plane to fly the headliners to our next show in Fargo, North Dakota, and tried to recruit us to get on board.

— By Dion DiMucci, Envoy Magazine, 1999 —

The more people on the plane, he told us, the lower the cost per person. The Big Bopper agreed, as did Ritchie, who had a bad case of the flu. When Buddy came to me, I thought about the $36.00 price. My parents paid $36.00 a month for rent back in the Bronx. I just couldn’t bring myself to spend the same amount on a 45 minute plane ride, so I told him no.

The next day, I stood in the lobby of the hotel in Moorehead, Minnesota. There was a television on the wall, announcing that the plane carrying Buddy, Ritchie and the Big Bopper had gone down in the storm. There were no survivors.

From that moment on, I knew God had a plan for me.

I was born and raised in Bronx, New York City. Mount Carmel Catholic Church, which was the hub of our neighborhood, is where I was baptized and confirmed. Though my parents have many wonderful qualities, I came from a highly dysfunctional family that wasn’t too interested in religion and found the Church unnecessary.

Frances, my mom, has never had a day in her life when she isn’t worrying about something, looking out for someone or taking charge somewhere. She was born to bear responsibility, and the heavier it got, the more long-suffering she got. In most important ways, she held the family together, sewing hats and making ends meet at home.

My dad, on the other hand, was always somewhere else making puppets or down at the local gym lifting weights. My parents would constantly argue about our money shortage, and the need for my father to get a job. Mom would chew him out in front of the family with my uncles helping, and it was her feelings towards him, more than anything I guess, that made me lose respect for my old man. What was there to look up to, I thought, when he lets her treat him that way? In this macho Italian neighborhood, the code of the street was respect, and reputation was everything.

In this environment, Catholicism seemed suited for old women and sissies. Real men didn’t need it. It looked to me, as a kid, like the world was divided into things that were my size and things that were way over my head. God was a million miles away in Mount Carmel church, somewhere up above those stained glass windows. The priests and nuns could give you the fear of God, all right, and the guilt that came from not following the rules, but they couldn’t breathe life into the words and rituals. Still, I remember going to Mass occasionally with friends or relatives on those cold, snowy Christmas nights when our parish seemed to be overflowing with everyone in the Bronx. The choir voices, singing, flickering candles, ringing chimes, the church organ bellowing sounds from the third tier — all this filled me with awe. I guess somewhere in me, the music, the worship, the sense of reverence struck a chord that said there was Someone great up above who cared and we were nestled in His unconditional, loving arms.

At the age of twelve, my uncle purchased a secondhand guitar as a gift for me. I was soon caught up in the music of Hank Williams and some rhythm and blues, which was odd for a city boy in the 1950s. Hank Williams knew what it was like to have folks in the palm of his hand simply through the sound of his voice. It was something I was learning too.

At the age of thirteen, in those vulnerable years when a boy starts making the transition to manhood, the call of the streets, the gangs, being cool and running my own life seemed the way to go. With music, I felt part of something. I felt connected. By the time I was a teenager, I was beginning to realize the limits that were put on me by my family and the neighborhood. After a while, I lost that sense of belonging that carried me through my childhood. Without even realizing it, I started looking for a way out.

Music offered that way. Maybe it could rescue me — maybe my whole family, too. By 15, I was a rebel. Then I met Susan, the most beautiful girl in the world. She’d moved to the Bronx from Vermont. I had no idea they grew anything as gorgeous as Susan up there. She had a clean, country air about her that followed her down the street.

I fell head over heels in love. I approached her like I approached everything else in my life: with a mixture of sheer bravado and quaking fear. I wanted her to love me back, even just a little. But more than that, I wanted her to look up to me, and admiration was something I thought I knew how to get. So I sang. I used to play school dances at the parish hall, where Susan would come to hang out. In doing that, I hoped to catch her attention. . . . (continue reading)

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