Reckoning | 1.3 | Inside the Ark

The story of Noah’s Ark was often used as a literal example of what was going to happen to the world when God finally decided to once again cleanse the earth in a global Armageddon. The forces of nature would be used to murder billions of people who refused to heed the warnings of impending doom. A terrifying prospect, yes, but completely avoidable. All you’d have to do to survive is get in the ark and stay there. But there are no free rides on the ark, my friend.

Jehovah’s Witnesses refer to themselves collectively as “The Organization” and I’m not sure anyone who hasn’t lived it can truly understand how regimented our lives were. We were a global sales organization and recruitment force, dedicating our entire lives to the all-important work of helping people realize ‘The Truth’ before ‘The End’.

What that meant was that our days and weeks were completely prioritized around our Witnessing activities. Here’s what a normal week looked like for me from the time I was born:

  • Tuesday Evening Bible Study (1 hour, usually in someone’s home in groups of around 10–20)
  • Thursday Evening Meetings (2 hours, at the Kingdom Hall) with specific focus on our door-to-door activities, including demonstrations on how to overcome objections and convince people of our doctrine)
  • Sunday Morning Meetings (2 hours, at the Kingdom Hall) The first hour was a lecture, the second hour we ‘studied’ The Watchtower magazine together by reading and regurgitating contents of the articles therein)
  • Saturday Morning Field Service (2 hours minimum — going door-to-door and trying to ‘place literature’ with householders, with the intention of performing ‘return visits’ (RVs), ultimately with the hope of convincing them to let us come for a weekly bible study using our literature in their home.
  • Assemblies and Conventions — sprinkled throughout the year. Congregations were grouped into Districts. Assemblies and Conventions were events where the congregations would get together and have giant mega-meetings that were held in enormous halls and stadiums, usually lasting 2–4 days.

Keep in mind that the above list was the bare minimum expected participation. Additionally, each of these meetings had to be prepared for in advance so personal bible ‘study’ — reading the literature and bible references ahead of time was also required. Also, a weekly family bible ‘study’ was considered essential, and couples were encouraged to ‘study’ a book specifically for maintaining a godly marriage (heterosexual and monogamous) together, as well.

This was all on top of our regular jobs and school. We were actively discouraged from holding jobs or pursuing education that took time away from these activities. Many Jehovah’s Witnesses did manual labor that allowed for flexibility in their schedules so they could prioritize meetings and service. Witnesses did a lot of janitorial work, landscaping, construction and, of course, the ubiquitous MLMs. Pursuing worldly riches and knowledge were pointless, anyway. What we wanted was freedom to do our real work.

1976 District Convention at Candlestick Park. This was before the days of Jumbotron, so you can only imagine how fun it was to sit and watch tiny men down on the diamond talk for four days. Nevertheless, these were huge opportunities to meet people and they were extremely festive events that sometimes involved travel. Lots of opportunities to volunteer here, too.

Field Service was our real work. Most people have had at least one experience with Jehovah’s Witnesses coming to their doors, politely asking questions and offering bible literature and invitations to the Kingdom Hall. I was ringing doorbells and handing our pamphlets in my preschool years. As you can imagine, this was incredibly challenging for a child who was already anxious and afraid most of the time.

The weekend was when most people engaged in door-to-door activity, because that’s when everyone was off work and most householders were at home. Saturday morning, 9am we would meet up with other Witnesses, pray and divide up into teams, and then head out into our assigned territory.

We had maps of our towns broken down on little cards and we’d be given a card and asked to do all the houses on that piece of the map. As we went along we filled out a piece of paper, listing the outcome of the visits. If they weren’t home, we noted it so that the next person to check out this particular territory could try again.

Since Jehovah’s Witnesses own printing presses, we were always flush with literature and part of our responsibility was to track how many magazines, books and pamphlets we distributed. At the end of each month, we were asked to submit a form that reported how many hours we’d spent in field service, along with how much literature we’d ‘placed’ with householders.

Bible studies were the best part of field service because these were people who wanted us there, and they usually lasted an hour which meant less walking door-to-door, more sitting on someone’s couch sipping tea while we ‘taught’ them The Bible by reading one of our books or magazines with them.

When I was growing up the expectation was that everyone spend at least 5 hours a month in field service — that was the minimum ask. But there were other people in the congregation who would engage in ‘pioneer service’ — which basically meant dedicating 30+ hours a month to this work. There were auxiliary pioneers, full-time pioneers and special pioneers — all different tiers of unpaid service, depending on their ability to dedicate increasingly greater numbers of hours to the work. We were encouraged to ‘count our time’ anytime we talked to someone about ‘The Truth’ — so we often stashed literature in our school backpacks, purses, etc. so we could do ‘incidental witnessing’ with people and count that time as well. Also, parents could count the time leading the family study because they were teaching their kids.

What all this boils down to was a single-minded organizational entity that celebrated personal sacrifice and valued work and service above all else. There was no ‘once saved always saved’ for us. Our salvation was tied to us getting up every day and figuring out how to put Jehovah (and His Organization) first in our lives.

If this sounds like a lot of work and personal sacrifice, it definitely was. But there was a reason we did it, and did it happily.

There’s not much that human beings desire more deeply than a sense of belonging. This is baked into us in ways we truly cannot even begin to grasp; driving how we present ourselves to the world, where we invest our time and energy, and how our personalities evolve from the time we are born. The need for belonging is possibly the most common human characteristic outside of our basic needs for food, shelter, water and sleep.

Congregation picnics were a regular thing.

To be a Jehovah’s Witness was to belong. Furthermore, it was belonging that we could control. Because as long as we stayed true to the teachings and kept showing up, we belonged. As such, Jehovah’s Witnesses’ congregations are often made up of a fascinating array of people from all walks of life who desire belonging above all else.

We were a ‘spiritual family’ and this was demonstrated through our willingness to forego (or at least drastically limit) relationships with our blood relatives so that we could be together as ‘God’s People’. We would attend weddings for people we barely knew at the Kingdom Halls, but refuse to attend weddings for family members who were married inside churches or other religious institutions.

Our whole world revolved around congregational life. We had Witness family gatherings, baby showers, wedding showers, weddings, funerals, graduation parties (no holidays or birthdays, of course) bonding us together and helped us create a deep affinity for one another.

My parents threw parties at random times of the year and tried to make things special for us so we didn’t feel left out that other kids had holidays and birthdays. (please note our fabulous 1970s style prairie bonnets)
We had ‘Present Day’ (very original, I know) instead of Christmas. This was wholly an invention by my dad, and it wasn’t even annually. But we were stoked. (I’m pointing to the biggest present, because it was for ME!)
A random costume party for the Witness kids so we didn’t feel like we had to miss out on Halloween. I’m standing next to the ballerina, and I’m dressed as Rebekah (Jacob’s wife) from the Bible, mainly because I thought her outfit was the best one in our illustrated Bible Story book.

My early childhood was filled with community, activity and excitement. There was always an air of expectation. The End could come any minute! Are we ready?

As spiritual family, we were all in it together, preparing for the end of the world and our work of transforming the earth into a beautiful paradise.

Our future would be one where we’d live in peace forever with people who believed just as we did, under the reign of a Heavenly King, without earthly governments, jobs or schools in perfect health and happiness.

This was God’s Promise for us. It was in The Bible. Nothing could be Truer.

What more could you want? It was worth the time and energy we were spending for a promise like that.

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