Sunday, January 03, 2010

Salón del Reino

After church, my family and I walked back to the Central Boulevard in search of a taxi cab. We happened to pass a Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses, which brought back another flood of memories.

When I attended Colegio Guasave, one of my good friends was a young man by the name of Juan Francisco Reyna del Toro. All the kids at school used to called him "," the sound of a mooing cow, because his last name means "Queen of the Bull." What tortures we must have inflicted, but he accepted his nickname with good humor. He was probably just as awkward as I was, so we made a natural pair.

Juan Francisco was studying to become a Jehovah's Witness. If I remember right, his grandmother was already a member, but no one else in his family had an interest in attending.

He and I became very good friends and frequently discussed the topic of religion. He took every opportunity to urge me to join his religion, and likewise, I did the same for him. Sometime we argued, but we always remained good friends.

At least once, I visited his home in a remote "ejido," one of many small agricultural communities created by the Mexican government. His family always welcomed me with genuine caring and warmth.

And over the course of a couple months, I also attended the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses. Well, technically, back then they did not have an official Kingdom Hall, at least not in that part of Mexico. The first time we attended, Juan Francisco explained that the Mexican government did not recognize the Jehovah's Witness religion, so they had to attend in secret.

He wasn't kidding.

In those days, the Jehovah's Witnesses in Guasave attended meetings in a secret, back-alley building on the same street as the LDS Church. I had never noticed anything, but of course, it was secret. Juan Francisco led the way and told me to wait for about five minutes on a nearby street corner. "I don't see anything," I said.

"Just wait," he instructed.

A minute later, two people crossed the street about fifty yards ahead of us and slipped into an almost imperceptible opening between two buildings. A minute later, two other people arrived and entered unnoticed into the same opening. Three more arrived a minute later, and then others, always in twos or threes, and never at the same time.

Finally Juan Francisco said, "We can go now."

We crossed the street and disappeared into the opening. It was like a narrow passage between the two buildings, which then opened into a hidden courtyard. The inner space was large enough to hold a variety of citrus trees and a moderate sized wooden shack that served as the meeting place for Jehovah's Witnesses.

The building was very humble, just four wood-plank walls, a dirt floor, and rows of simple wooden benches crammed together. The windows had no glass, just wooden shutters that opened to allow the overflow crowd to listen to the preaching.

When we arrived, Juan Francisco explained that I was a fellow student at Colegio Guasave and that I had an "interest" in learning more about Jehovah's Kingdom. The people responded with an immediate and overpowering display of affection. EVERY single person in attendance greeted me without exception. They literally surrounded me and hugged me and patted my back and thanked me for visiting. For a lonely, awkward kid of sixteen, the unexpected show of warmth overwhelmed me. Without warning, I burst into tears and just stood there crying in the midst of the welcoming crowd.

At length, the crowd dispersed and entered the tiny wooden shack. I was the last to enter. A man standing behind a wooden divider or pulpit called out and said to me, "Welcome to number 108."

"What does that mean?" I asked my friend.

"It means you are the 108th person to enter the building," he answered.

The meeting both amazed and disoriented me. Unlike other religious services, the meeting began without prayer or any other kind of spiritual gesture. The leader simply launched into the topic of discussion, taken directly from the Watchtower magazine. Whatever the meeting lacked in spirituality, it compensated for with enthusiasm. The preacher spoke as fast as an auctioneer on speed, quoting Bible verses and texts from the Watchtower. He peppered his sermon with questions and invitations for audience participation. These were not rhetorical questions, but genuine opportunities for people to answer. And answer they did. The congregation responded with equal enthusiasm waving their arms in the air and shouting answers.

Juan Francisco's grandmother attended that meeting. She was a tiny woman in her eighties, but every time the preacher asked a question, she bounced on the edge of her seat like a young school girl. She grasped the Bible in one hand and flailed the other hand in the air as if to say, "Call on me! Call on me!"

In spite of my best efforts, I just couldn't keep up. I would just barely find one verse, when they launched into another verse. By the end, I was dizzy and breathless.

The next meeting was more manageable, but no less unusual for me. The meeting seemed like a training session of some kind. Members of the church would approach the front of the building and act out missionary scenarios. Someone would play the part of a Jehovah's Witness, and someone else would play the part of non-member. The Jehovah's Witness would teach a principle from their doctrine, and the "non-member" would then raise one of several pre-determined objections. The Jehovah's Witness would then have to answer the objection in a strong, doctrinally correct way. If the person succeeded, they changed the scenario and would launch a different objection. The person had to answer each objection.

At the end of the series, the entire congregation discussed the scenario. The leader asked questions like, "What could the Witness have done better?" Then they spoke at length about how to overcome all the common objections raised against the Jehovah's Witnesses. It felt like a strategy session at the War Department, except instead of bombs and battlefields, they planned ways to stop all opposing arguments.

Perhaps the second meeting gave me a preview of things to come. The more I attended meetings with my friend, the more they demanded to know my position on various doctrines. If I didn't answer, they offered to teach me, but if I responded, they began to use many of the same training techniques against me. I would literally see the scenarios played out in their training sessions, and then they would use the same arguments on me. Sometimes I felt myself trapped by the arguments, unable to answer. I even thought about joining their religion, not because I felt moved or inspired, but because I found it increasingly difficult to untangle myself from their logic.

All the apparent goodwill came to a moment of decision when the congregation elder issued an ultimatum. He said, "You've been attending for more than a month. You have to decide if you will continue in the false system of Mormonism, or accept membership in Jehovah's Kingdom."

"What happens if I stay in the Mormon Church?" I asked.

I don't recall his exact wording, but he said something along the line that Jehovah would not accept me.

"If Jehovah doesn't accept me, what will happen?" I asked. For all the words and preparation, the man didn't answer. I pressed the issue, "If I remain a Mormon, what will happen when I die? Will God send me to hell?"

"No," he finally spoke, "Dejarás de existir," (You will cease to exist). I already knew they believed in a form of soul annihilation, rather than hell, but I wanted to hear him say the words.

"So you're saying that God will threaten me with extinction unless I accept your authority?" I demanded.

"Yes." he said with an air of finality.

That was the last time I ever attended a Kingdom Hall.


Let me just say that I have no argument against Jehovah's Witnesses as a people. I may disagree with some of the doctrines while acknowledging their dignity as human beings. In fact, even after I stopped attending the Kingdom Hall, Juan Francisco and I remained close friends. I continue to have several friends who are Jehovah's Witnesses, and I have always find them to be very respectful, honest, and loyal. This particular experience ended on a sour note, but it never dampened my friendships in general.


During our Sunday in Guasave, I saw that the Jehovah's Witnesses no longer meet in secret. They now have a beautiful building with their name displayed for the world to see. This probably reflects a change on the government level. I also asked if Juan Francisco was still in town, but from what I heard, he moved with his family back to Tapachula, near the Guatemalan border.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for that story. I'm sorry that, in youth and obviously difficult circumstances, your friend could not have explained the matter in a better way. It was rather blunt but such is youth, full of awkwardness. Nevertheless, I enjoyed your story. Jehovah's Witnesses have had to operate under such circumstances in many countries, who misunderstood them and felt threatened by them, usually because they won't join an army. I'm glad you saw the goodness in each other and that you were both willing to risk being caught to hear about God. Jehovah's Witnesses in Mexico do now enjoy complete freedom of religion and has one of the largest branches in the world. Sometimes we who have always enjoyed freedom take it for granted and you made me reflect on that. Have a good day, from a Canadian.

Barry Moses (Sulustu) said...

Mr. or Ms. Anonymous, thank you for your thoughtful comment. Of course, we were both very blunt with one another, but as you say, such is the awkwardness of youth. In hindsight, I feel honored that my friend thought enough of me to take that risk. I would love to find him again and thank him for his friendship.


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