I became a Jehovah’s Witness back in nineteen ninety-two. Just for a few weeks. I was eight years old.
Seeing a homeless man beaten outside a Fish & Chips shop changed me. I was leaving the adjoining video store when a yellow police van ramped the sidewalk. I remember certain details about the incident clearly; the police officer exploding out of the passenger seat: a tall, broad man with red cheeks, who set his hat down before asking the beggar questions.
The homeless man in question might have stolen something or harassed someone for spare change a bit too enthusiastically. It was unclear. The only certainty at the time was his apparent guilt in the eyes of the police officer, who did not ask questions.
The policeman simply took out his baton and brought it down with a hatefulness that didn’t seem real. The first blow erupted like thunder. That’s when I saw the homeless man’s face; his course beard and broken teeth, his one milky eye, blood pouring from an old wound in his finger. His voice would haunt me for years to come; how he called out to God as the baton came down again and again, until the sound of his flesh breaking and the occasional whimper was all I could hear.
I remember how tired the policeman was at the end, as he stood panting over his prey, satisfied by an insane sense of justice.
I was furious with God for not listening.
Nobody could give me a reasonable explanation why He, the God we were taught was loving and benevolent, who knew and saw all things, let this policeman hurt someone for no reason, then throw him inside the van and driven away. Not my parents. Not my grandparents. Not my teachers. Not my friends. And nobody could explain why the homeless man returned to the same fish and chips shop days later, with a new limp and a blue eye, like nothing life-changing had happened.
And so I took it upon myself to ask the man myself.
It was a Friday: Fish night. My mom was ordering at the shop’s counter when I stepped outside. The beggar looked over at me, and asked if I had anything to spare.
“I don’t have any money”, I said. “My mom does, but I don’t think she’ll give you any.”
The man didn’t really seem to care about my answer.
“What did you do, that day the police officer hurt you?” I asked him, very clearly, making sure he heard me.
The man looked at me and scowled. I could see his swollen lips and sunken cheeks.
Before he could answer, the shop owner came running out waving a cleaver knife, yelling for him to stop harassing customers. My mother screamed at me, pulling me back into the store by my earlobe. By the time we found ourselves leaving, the man was gone, and I never saw him again.
Weeks went by and my anger burned like wildfire. My parents grew worried.
My teachers sent notes to them about my dark moods and strange behavior. I’d taken to pulling out my hair in chunks.
It was around this period that my mom thought looking for different answers help me process my feelings. So she invited the local Jehovah’s Whitneses inside, to speak to me. Their names were Stanley and Dwayne, twenty something virgins with matching suits and brush cuts, and they listened to me tell my story.
I finished off by asking the same question: Why doesn’t God listen to people that need him?
There was a short pause before they said something that really struck a chord with me: it broke God’s heart to see that homeless get beaten.
“Really?” I asked.
“Yes, really,” Stanley said. “God is devastated when things like that happen.”
So far, everybody had tried to excuse the fact that God let it happen.
“That’s why God is coming back to fix the world really, really soon,” Dwayne explained.
This got my attention. I asked for more information.
Stanley pulled out some literature and told me about the Second Coming. There were some very appealing illustrations in the Watchtower booklets they had in their briefcases, showing a magical garden where a lion was lying down next to a lamb, and a really pretty girl was reading her book under a tree. I wanted to live there, where happiness was uncomplicated and free.
This idea of God returning to smite all the world’s baddies and problems made me look forward to the future. There would be no school or work, they promised. We’d live in paradise. Nobody would be hungry or poor and we wouldn’t need policemen. I wouldn’t be sad anymore.
“What’s taking God so long,” I asked?
They laughed, and then asked if I wanted to talk more about it another time.
For a few weeks, the Jehovah’s Witnesses came back to continue our conversation. Things got serious quickly. We covered a lot.
Death, they explained, was a harmless, dreamless sleep until Christ comes back. We have nothing to worry about when this life is over, if we live according to the J.W. Bible, because a better one is coming. It was heavy stuff, but at least they had finite answers to my questions.
My parents allowed this for a while, until Stanley and Dwayne asked me to go to an official meeting at their church. Then my mother got involved. She pulled me aside and implored me to read the fine print before committing to anything.
Understand this, she said, if you became a Jehovah’s Witness there will be:
- No more birthdays
- No more Christmases
- No more sitting with my friends during assembly.
- No blood transfusions if I ever need medical attention – I was terrified of cars and escalators. And obviously policemen and their batons.
This information came as a shock. When telling me about the Second Coming and God’s sad heart, my associates failed to mention these details. And as noble as my intention were for questioning God, I wasn’t willing to give up the luxuries He’d already provided. I wanted to live in Paradise, but not if it meant skipping jelly and parties and presents in our little house every December.
So I asked them to tell God that I’ve given my spot in Heaven to the homeless man. Because if I couldn’t convince my parents, grandparents, brothers and friends to become J.W.’s, too, this would be the only time I’d have with them. And this home was better than a hole in the ground.
By Clayton Truscott