DAVENPORT, Wash. – Without a word or sign of acknowledgement, members of the local Kingdom Hall walk right by when they run into Joel Jahn.
“I pretend he’s not there,” said his sister-in-law, Andrea Jahn, “like he’s someone I don’t know.”
As far as the Jehovah’s Witnesses are concerned, Joel Jahn is dead – even to members of his own family.
Earlier this year, Jahn, a wheat farmer in this town about 40 miles west of Spokane, learned he had been “disfellowshipped” for apostasy. While elders at the Davenport Kingdom Hall won’t discuss why he was excommunicated, Jahn believes it was due to his outspokenness and for questioning the teachings of the Jehovah’s Witnesses faith.
Many religions use various methods to ensure morality and keep their followers in line, but some – including the Jehovah’s Witnesses – use the more formal practice of disfellowshipping, which entails kicking the “sinner” out to protect the rest of the congregation and shunning that person until he or she seeks repentance. Followers of the faith consider disfellowshipping a loving act, but Jahn and others who have been shunned say it’s a method of control that not only uses fear and guilt, but also tears families apart.
“Disfellowshipping is religious abuse,” he said.
This week, during a Bible conference in Airway Heights, Joel Jahn and others who have been excommunicated by the Jehovah’s Witnesses and other faiths will gather to share stories and support those experiencing confusion and pain. While Jahn has no desire to return to the religion that he was raised with, he still mourns the loss of his family. The presentation is titled “Mandatory Organizational Shunning or Christian Love?”
Several years ago, Joel Jahn started questioning aspects of his faith, including the interpretation of Scripture. He and his wife, Linda, another lifelong “publisher” – an active, baptized Witness – even expressed their concerns through letters to the Watchtower Society, the governing body of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in New York. They continued to talk to relatives and other Witnesses about their own doubts, but they grew disillusioned and stopped attending the weekly meetings. This past year, Joel Jahn was especially critical of the Witnesses’ policy on the reporting of suspected child abuse cases within the church.
“It has deeply saddened me that my religion protects pedophiles,” he wrote in a letter published this summer in the Davenport Times.
Michael Graham, one of five elders at the Davenport Kingdom Hall, declined to divulge the exact reason for the disfellowshipping, only to note that Joel Jahn refused to participate in the judicial committee’s meetings. “The shunning is his choice, not ours,” said Graham, who was baptized a Witness in 1973. “He’s the one who walked down this path with his eyes wide open.”
Graham describes disfellowshipping as “an act of love for the sinners so they understand the errors of their ways” and “an act of mercy for the congregation.”
The official Web site for the Jehovah’s Witnesses explains this using a quote from 1 Corinthians: “Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.” Every effort is made to help wrongdoers, the Web site states, but “the congregation needs to be protected” from those who refuse to follow the organization’s rules.
Jehovah’s Witnesses can be excommunicated and shunned for a number of reasons, explained Graham, who cited adultery, drunkenness, theft, fornication, observing Christmas and “speaking against the church and trying to turn members away.” Witnesses who see a member of their faith disobey the rules are encouraged to report him or her to the church elders. The accused must then attend a private meeting with three elders who put him or her on trial. Only a few Witnesses have ever been disfellowshipped at the Davenport Kingdom Hall, a congregation of about 40 baptized members in a town of about 1,700.
“The key is not the sin itself,” said Graham, who became an elder in 1988. “It’s nonrepentance.”
Since the disfellowshipping of Joel Jahn, his brother, Jory, and his sister-in-law, Andrea, won’t have him in their home. They haven’t said a word to him in more than three months. Even his own mother isn’t allowed to talk to him, unless the topic is related to the family business.
Linda Jahn, who is still considered a member of the Witnesses, has also suffered. Her sisters and father, who live out of town, won’t talk to her because she’s married to a man they consider a sinner. Her mother calls her only when her dad isn’t at home. Family members have tried to turn their college-age daughters against them.
“We’re supposed to be dead in their eyes,” said Linda Jahn, who’s especially upset about the anguish all this has caused her mother. “Why can’t we have the freedom to change our religion without losing our family?”
Others who have been excommunicated by the Jehovah’s Witnesses have lost even more. When Richard Rawe of Soap Lake, Wash., was kicked out of the organization in 1975, he lost his entire livelihood. At the time, he lived in a community made up of a lot of Witnesses who stopped hiring him for painting and contracting work. He and his wife, Frances, were both accused of thievery and adultery, he said. They couldn’t defend themselves when they were tried before the judicial committee.
“If the elders don’t like you, you’d better leave town,” Frances Rawe said.
Some former Jehovah’s Witnesses also experience mental anguish after disfellowshipping, said Joel Jahn, because they truly believe they’re going to hell. It took him four years of his own research and Bible study to undo years of “brainwashing,” he said.
Joel and Linda Jahn haven’t suffered financially or spiritually as a result of the shunning, but they’re still angry about the slander that’s been circulated about them. “Basically, if you disagree with the rules, you are evil,” said Joel Jahn, who used to knock on doors to proselytize and pass out copies of Watchtower magazine.
“It’s an abuse of power. Shunning is a big roadblock they can use against you.”
While the whole disfellowshipping has been hard on Jahn’s elderly mother, Andrea Jahn, his sister-in-law, said she was relieved when Joel Jahn was officially excommunicated. “I feel protected now,” said Andrea Jahn, who was raised Catholic but became a Witness when she moved to Davenport 29 years ago after attending a number of different churches.
“We have beliefs that we know are in the Bible, but he caused you to doubt what you think,” said Andrea Jahn. “When we had get-togethers, I really didn’t want to be with him because of his attitude.” While Witnesses are allowed to have doubts, they’re encouraged to do research and confirm that their faith is “the true religion” by reading the Bible, she explained.
A spokesperson for the Watchtower Society did not return the newspaper’s request for information about disfellowshipping, but the official Web site of the Jehovah’s Witnesses states that the disfellowshipped “are always welcome to return to the faith if they reject the improper course of conduct for which they were disfellowshipped.” They may even attend religious services, it states, and receive spiritual counsel from the elders.
If Joel Jahn were to call and ask for forgiveness, Graham said he would immediately talk to him. But unless that happens, he’ll continue to ignore and even avoid him. “He did this to himself,” Graham said.
Joel and Linda Jahn say they have no plans of ever returning to the Kingdom Hall or any gathering of Jehovah’s Witnesses. It’s nothing personal against the members, said Linda Jahn. “For the most part, they’re good people with good hearts,” she said. “They’re just following rules because they think they’re pleasing God.”
The Jahns simply want a faith that can withstand doubt, one that encourages debate and conversation while pursuing a path of God. They continue to read and study the Bible, she said. They continue to pray.
“I now don’t look to other men to lead me to God anymore,” said Joel Jahn. “I question everything.”
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