Unconstructive Labels and False Prejudgments: Exploring The Myths of Jehovah’s Witnesses
It was 2:00pm on a Sunday and it was time for me to head back to campus. I somehow made eye contact with an elderly Black woman with sparkling gray eyes. She smiled at me and I smiled back at her. I stopped and said hi to her and asked her if she was just coming from church. In her squeaky voice she told me, “No. No. I don’t go to church, I’m going to bible study.” She then went on to say:
“If I told you who I am you would know who I am. I study the bible and I learned that the all mighty god who name is Jehovah does not approve of people going to different places accumulating different opinions about his word, the Bible. The Bible was written for our instruction and if it’s written for our instruction the people who study it should have the same opinion.”
She encouraged me to walk to her place of worship, Kingdom Hall, which was only two blocks away—I cautiously followed her.
I grew up believing so many different myths about who and what Jehovah’s Witnesses were. I have many memories of them ringing my doorbell and my parents telling me, “Don’t open the door, they are Jehovah’s Witnesses.” Growing up I never really knew much about them but I remember being told that they didn’t believe in Heaven and Hell and most importantly they did not believe in Jesus. These myths hindered me from educating myself about their religion.
However, my experience on this day with this elderly woman taught me so much. According to this old lady, Jehovah’s Witnesses only believed in studying the word of God, they did not believe in taking the words out of context and applying them to their personal sufferings. She told me that most churches “Take the words from the bible and tell you what you want to hear, to make you feel good, here we only study the words of the bible.”
Looking back at this interview, I am reminded of Reverend Ike telling his audience, “You deserve that million dollars.” He like many other Black religious leaders gave sermons that lacked true religious aesthetic. Numerous Black churches have begun to combine the sacred and the secular along with their personal beliefs. Jehovah’s Witnesses on the other hand did just the opposite. The focused only on the word of God and did not mix it with the secular world.
The lady then explained to me that Jesus went from door to door to spread the word and that is the reason why she and other followers knock on people door’s handing out small pamphlets. The last question I asked her concerned the myths speculated that concerned Jehovah’s Witnesses. These two myths go as followed:
- Jehovah’s Witnesses do not believe in Jesus or heaven and hell. This woman told me that she does believe in Jesus, however “Jehovah is the person that put Jesus on this Earth to serve as a model so people will know how to live their life.” She asked me, “How did Jesus get here? How did you get here?… You got to have parents, Jesus did not just appear; Jehovah’s put him here.” She wanted me to understand that although Jehovah’s Witnesses believed in Jesus, their main emphasis was on Jehovah. Additionally, she did believe that there was a heaven for good people, but she did not believe that Jehovah would send people to hell; a place where people get tormented.
- Jehovah’s Witnesses do not have a life. This was a myth that was actually new to me until I met and spoke with this lady. She told me that Jehovah’s Witnesses live a simple life, “They are not materialistic and they teach that it is possible to live simple and still enjoy life.”
Often people approach new religions with negative images and stereotypes in mind. Historically the Black church has been thought of as a place of entertainment, however some Jehovah’s Witnesses have pushed this image of Black religion away by embracing only the teachings of the Bible and simplicity. As a form of worship that deviated from the ‘normal’ Black Church, the religion of Jehovah’s Witnesses has become mingled with unconstructive labels and false prejudgments. It is very interesting how this deviation from the norm has become known as a cult or sect to outsiders of the religion.
In class we mentioned that there is always an aesthetic in religious practice and we also spoke about the main three components of the Black church as described by Du Bois: the preacher, the music, and the frenzy. After gaining some exposure to the religious life of Jehovah’s Witnesses, I believe that we should not try to constrain or withhold Black religion to any terms or generalizations. The religion of Black folk is extremely complex and I honestly believe that there is no one word or theme that we can come up with to describe all or most forms of Black religion. Worship at Kingdom Hall lacked that aesthetic, music, frenzy, and preacher; however their service was much more sacred and religious than that of many other mainstream churches and denominations.
Through out the streets of Harlem, one can come across a vast variety of religious buildings, ranging from Catholic and Baptist churches to Nation of Islam Mosques. One specific religious group that tends to be forgotten is the Jehovah’s Witnesses. As I walked the streets of Harlem on a quiet night, I almost missed this Kingdom Hall. It was small and of simple architecture (and of course, closed, as it was pretty late into the evening). Generally, when people think of Christian religions, they think of the large churches all over Harlem, but it is rare that this religious group is brought up in conversation. Just as I could have walked right by this Kingdom Hall without noticing it, due to it’s simple structure, I find it easy to believe that many people do just that. Amongst tall religious sites, embellished with Christian symbols, it is far too easy to miss The Kingdom Hall of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
What role does this play in the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious development? When a specific organization falls behind the shadows of larger establishments, how does this effect that religious group as a whole? I don’t think Jehovah’s Witnesses has much to fear as far as this being a hindrance to their organization. After all, a religious organization should be more concerned with the lives it touches than the lives it gains, right? Take for example closed religions such as Mormon groups and Nation of Islam. They don’t quite go out of their way to bring people in. I think with religion, one should have a desire to pursue a particular religion, not become attracted to it due to popularity. It should also be taken into consideration that while this Kingdom Hall is small and simple, Witnesses go out of their way to do preaching work all over the neighborhood.
While this Kingdom Hall may be small and perhaps forgotten by the community, it means everything to those who are a part of the congregation and to those who wish to be.
That is all that matters.