A Common Bond

Jim's Story

I was born in a small New Jersey town in November 1956, the eldest son of a Presbyterian minister and his wife, an Italian-American Roman Catholic who converted to marry my father. Raised in Philadelphia, my parents separated in 1970 at which time my mother, my two younger brothers, and myself relocated to Sinking Spring, Pennsylvania where I spent my teenage years. Always something of an entrepreneur, I started an after-school business wholesaling jewelry making supplies to jewelers and craft shops. The business occupied so much of my time that I quit High School in the middle of the 11th grade to devote my interests to it full-time. It was during this time (the year was 1974) that I met a man and his wife who lived in a nearby town who were already established in the same business. Eventually he became my primary supplier of goods. What I didn't know at the time was that his wife was one of Jehovah's Witnesses. Although he never became a Witness himself, he encouraged me to sit in on their weekly Bible studies that an elder was holding in their home. I was feeling spiritually unfulfilled at the time, having abandoned the Presbyterian church, primarily because of its condemnation of gays. I have known I am gay from a very early age, and was involved in my first relationship at the tender age of 15 with another boy my age. The elder was a master salesman, and he knew all the right things to say and all the right scriptures to read to convince me that Armageddon was right around the corner. During this period, the Jehovah's Witnesses were convinced that Armageddon was going to occur in September or October of 1975, and they were equally convincing to me that I had just enough time to join. Although I never admitted my sexual orientation to the elder, it was obvious he knew, because during one of our "Bible study" sessions, he told me that in order to guarantee my immortality, all I had to do was to "stop being gay" for a few months, become a baptized Witness, attend the meetings, and engage in the door-to-door preaching work. He said that this would guarantee my survival at Armageddon, where I would be "perfect", so my sexuality wouldn't matter any more. I was sold! I had never had anyone offer me immortality before, and not only was this precious gift being offered to me - I was being handed the opportunity to share this immortality with others. Coming from a religious background, I genuinely believed I had been handed a sacred trust, and there was no time to lose! I had finally found a purpose in life. Of course, in the back of my mind, there was a constant terror of annihilation that the elder had inculcated into me.

So, with both zeal and fear living inside me side by side, I broke up with my boyfriend, telling him that if he didn't change his ways, he'd be destroyed in the Great Tribulation. I never saw him again. The South Congregation in Reading, Pennsylvania was building a new Kingdom Hall and they asked me if I'd like to help, which I of course said yes. I was beginning to feel like a part of the congregation. The hardest thing for me to do in breaking my "worldly" habits was to conform to the strict JW dress code. I had shoulder-length hair, and getting it cut to "JW length" was heartbreaking for me, but if it would help guarantee my survival at Armageddon, I was willing to go to any lengths. I completed studying the "True Peace and Security" book and joined the Reading West congregation (which served the area in which I lived). I was filled with zeal and began preaching house to house almost immediately. I also began my day every day by doing street work. I became a fixture at the corner of 4th & Penn Streets in Reading PA, so much so that on the rare days I did not show up, regular passersby who generally ignored me would approach me upon my return and ask where I'd been! I was baptized at a District Assembly in the swimming pool at the Holiday Inn in Allentown PA at a mass baptism on July 4, 1975. My first words after coming up out of the water were "I made it!"

I became an "auxiliary pioneer" as soon as I was baptized. I wanted to pioneer full time but couldn't due to my business obligations (I was on the road most of the time). Even though Armageddon failed to materialize as scheduled, I patiently waited as instructed. My first two years as a JW went pretty smoothly. I had numbed myself to all outside influences and was immersed in the "truth". Little by little, I began to feel different in the congregation. This was not due to my sexuality, but due to the fact that very few members in the congregation ever invited me to any social gatherings. Looking back retrospectively, there was an elitist bourgeois mentality in my congregation, which I have since discovered is not unique to the congregation to which I belonged. Those who are proselytized such as myself, especially if they are individuals and no other family members join them, are treated quite differently from those who are born into the Organization. There is a "caste system" which insidiously pervades the Organization. I began to feel lonely. This was during the period where Citizens Band radios were popular. I had owned a CB radio long before their popularity took hold, thanks to movies such as "Convoy" and "Smokey and the Bandit", so I was a firmly established CB'er and found it the ideal diversion for my lonely periods. Eventually, I met a "worldly" fellow my age over the air with whom I had much in common. We spent a great deal of time together and became best friends. In order for the JW's not to accuse him of being a "bad association", I started a Bible study with him, although he really wasn't interested in anything other than my friendship. The inevitable happened: I fell in love with him. One night, both of us had more beer than we should have, and we found ourselves in bed making love. I woke up the next morning in absolute terror. I thought I had utterly destroyed my chances of surviving Armageddon. I immediately went to the elders and told them what I had done. They weren't concerned with the drinking aspect of my "sin". I had gone to the elders before and told them I had a drinking problem, but they weren't interested in hearing about it, probably because one of the elders in my congregation was struggling with his own alcoholism. I was simply told "Well, then just don't drink so much the next time". The judicial committee, however, was extremely interested in hearing every lurid detail of my sexual liasion. Because I was considered "repentant", I was only administered "Private Reproof", but word spread through the congregation like wildfire, and I was treated like a leper except while out in field service. My "Bible study" and I parted ways and, broken hearted, I went back to being a faithful Witness, though somewhat less zealous, and a whole lot more fearful.

Then my spiritual world caved in. I was still faithfully doing street work, when one day a man approached me seeming very interested in my message. During the course of our conversation, I invited him to start a Bible study, to which he quickly agreed. Excitedly, I asked for his address, whereupon he told me "Wernersville State Hospital", a nearby mental institution. As it turned out, he was a long-term patient there, having lived on the ward over twenty years. Nevertheless, I approached another brother (as yet unbaptized) in the congregation and asked him if he would care to join me for a Bible study there, to which he enthusiastically agreed. Little by little, other long-term patients on the ward joined in our study, and it made my heart glad that I could offer hope to these seemingly hopeless and abandoned people. Eventually, I approached the institution's unit supervisor and requested day passes, two at a time, for the patients, to take them to Sunday meetings at the Kingdom Hall. The passes were granted. The gentleman I had originally studied with came with me every time, but he had one serious idiosyncrasy: He had a loud, bellowing laugh, and frequently laughed at inappropriate times during the Sunday talks. This would send the congregation into hysterics. After several weeks of bringing these gentle but somewhat odd people with me, I was surrounded by elders after a Watchtower study. They wanted to know why I was bringing these people with me to the Kingdom Hall! Astonished, I stated that these people needed to be saved most of all, to which the reply from the elders retorted "Perhaps, but they cannot understand our doctrines". I asked if that would exclude them from ever being able to become Jehovah's Witnesses, therefore condemning them to die at Armageddon, to which I was icily told "Yes". It was at this point that I began to question my beliefs.

By this time, I was drinking alcoholically on a regular basis, the elders still ignoring my drinking problem, but watching me like eagles lest I "slip" sexually again. I had befriended another brother in the congregation about my age at this time, and one night, both of us decided to go see the movie "The Rocky Horror Picture Show". I was drunk, in a blackout, and remember little of the event, which is why I couldn't understand my being surrounded by elders the next morning with newspapers in hand demanding to know why I would attend such a film and allow the reporter to interview me, thus tarnishing the congregation's good reputation. There was no mention anywhere in the article that I was one of Jehovah's Witnesses, and since I never gave my full name when out in field service, I could not understand their concern for the congregation's reputation. Still under "Private Reproof" for my previous sexual indiscretion, the elders decided that the only way to restore the congregation's reputation was to administer "Public Reproof". My name was announced from the platform as having engaged in "Conduct unbecoming a Christian" -- all for going to see Rocky Horror!!

Very shortly after this happened, I had a serious falling out with my business supplier, left Pennsylvania, quit the jewelry business and moved to Atlanta, Georgia. In my introduction to the Lakewood congregation in Atlanta, I was honest about the circumstances behind my Public Reproof, but instead of condemnation, I found support and sympathy, especially from one elder who was not only instrumental in restoring my zeal, but got my reproof lifted in a matter of months. Unfortunately, that didn't last long.

An opportunity arose for me to relocate to the Caribbean -- a dream come true! A zealous, restored Witness once again, I tearfully left Atlanta and moved to the island of St.Thomas in the US Virgin Islands. Shortly after my arrival, the elders inquired about where I had come from, and they sent for my records from the Lakewood congregation. Apparently that wasn't good enough for them. They saw in my records how I had been reproved, so they sent a letter of inquiry to the Pennsylvania congregation, who fired back a nasty letter stating that the Atlanta congregation had no right to lift my reproof without consulting them first, demanding my reproof be restored immediately. It was. That was the beginning of the end, and I was getting real disgusted with how I was being treated.

That is why, one night a co-worker invited me out on a double date with himself, his girlfriend, and another young lady to go to Safari (the gay disco on St.Thomas at the time), I jumped at the chance. I felt at home immediately upon walking in. Seeing men dancing with other men just looked and felt so natural to me. The next weekend, I timidly went back alone. The Memorial was coming up, and by this point I had pretty well lost all enthusiasm for being a Witness, so I decided to do something which I thought the elders would find totally obnoxious in a deliberate attempt to get disfellowshipped. Back in 1980, writing a letter of disassociation was virtually unheard of. If you wanted to leave, you deliberately committed a disfellowshippable offense. In my case, I started smoking. An elder came into my place of business one day, and I lit a cigarette and blew smoke in his face. Later, I went out and got my ear pierced, and showed up at the Memorial sporting a new, gleaming gold earring in my right ear. Of course, I was called before the Judicial Committee immediately. That sultry afternoon, sitting before those three men in the suffocating air of the St. Thomas Kingdom Hall, I was once again asked to give sordid details of my same-sex encounters. Not one word was mentioned about my smoking -- not even by the elder into whose face I'd blown a mouthful of smoke! Because I was declared "unrepentant", I was disfellowshipped on the spot. I was told that unless I came back married with a child of my own fathering to prove to them that I was no longer gay, I would never be accepted back into the congregation! The last thing I was told by one of the elders on my judicial committee as I left that St. Thomas Kingdom Hall was "Jehovah no longer loves you, not for what you did, but for who you are."

As an interesting side note, only days after being disfellowshipped, one of the elders on the Judicial Committee came to my door alone, asking me very intimate questions about what gay men do in bed. Although there is no way to prove it, I am certain he was trying to seduce me. Fortunately, a friend came to the door in the middle of the conversation, and the elder excused himself and left abruptly. He never returned.

Only a couple of months after I was expelled, I met someone who became a very important part of my life. Rick and I became significant others for 14 years. He passed away in 1994. During this period, I came out of the closet to both of my parents, who told me that they would rather have a gay son than a Jehovah's Witness son. It was not easy for me to recover from the influences of the JW's. Belief that I had been abandoned by God took its toll on me. I began using illegal drugs, drank even more heavily, was hospitalized several times, and attempted suicide once. I tried starting a support group for gay & lesbian ex-Witnesses while living on St.Thomas, even getting written up in The Advocate, but due to my low income and heavy drinking I was unable to sustain the project. I turned my mailing list over to a fellow gay ex-Witness in Pittsburgh who coined the name "Common Bond" and picked up where I left off. A couple of years passed, and I secured a copy of the book "Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality" by John Boswell. I finally resolved my questions about whether or not I was scripturally condemned. I discovered that the passages the Witnesses use to condemn homosexuality are mistranslations. I finally the process of self-acceptance began.

I moved to San Francisco in 1993, and while reading the Bay Times one afternoon (one of San Francisco's gay weeklies), I saw an advertisement for a support group for gay Jehovah's Witnesses and called immediately. John Wirtanen answered the phone and we talked for hours. There were three of us at the very first meeting, and our group has grown ever since. I'm happy to say that I have been clean and sober since 1987. I am now fully accepting of myself as a gay man. I will say that the thought of "maybe the JW's were right" dogged me for a long time, but after reading Raymond Franz's book "Crisis of Conscience", and renewing my commitment to A Common Bond on line, I have learned the true nature of the Watchtower organization and have no desire to "repent". My spiritual path has taken me in fulfilling directions I'd never thought possible, and am no longer in fear of the Watchtower's god of doctrine and punishment. I left California in 2003 and have relocated back to eastern Pennsylvania where it all began. I am now a published science fiction novelist, and am involved with the Eastern Pennsylvania chapter of A Common Bond. I have found real purpose in life by reaching out the hand of support and encouragement to other gays and lesbians with a background in Jehovah's Witnesses. I am grateful that the day of worldwide chapters and conferences of A Common Bond has finally arrived!