Jim Winter lost everything and developed sleeping problems, the corona time became even lonelier for Gerda Gorter: what the ‘inhuman’ exclusion policy does to ex-members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Originally published in Dutch by Rianne Oosterom and Marinde van der Breggen on October 10, 2021 on Trow
It was on an ordinary work day, now four years ago, that the telephone in Jim Winter’s office rang. On the line two elders of the congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses in his hometown of Tilburg. Their message: they were going to start an internal lawsuit against him, because of ‘porneia’, or: fornication.
He stood there with the phone in his hands. The past period flashed through his head. Things had accelerated since he got colon cancer. The illness threw him back to the essentials of life, and he began to question all sorts of things he had seen happen during all his years as a Witness of Jehovah.
He began to struggle with theology and the way the Witnesses dealt with sexual abuse indoors. He tried to talk to his wife about his doubts, but she wouldn’t hear of it. In the end, she even divorced him, believing that he was a bad influence on her faith.
He found “comfort in the arms of another woman,” he says. His best friend and his ex knew about it. Because it was a “worldly” woman, not a Witness, the elders said it was “fornication” and an internal lawsuit was in order. His ex-wife and boyfriend testified against him. The verdict: He was disfellowshipped.
All his former friends, his ex-wife and other congregation members ignored him from then on, as is common practice. Just recovered from the cancer, Winter had lost everything. “It was terrible, that period,” he says about it now. He was very emotional and slept badly. He had no one to fall back on.
His GP, whom he eventually knocked on, was ‘a lifesaver’. He arranged psychological support and recommended mindfulness to deal with the situation. Slowly he learned to stand on his own two feet and built a network outside the religious community to which he had belonged since he was ten.
According to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, whether you ignore ex-members is a personal decision, he explains. “That is typical of their word gymnastics. Because in the education they give and the literature they distribute, everything is aimed at influencing the thinking patterns of members, so that they can hardly do otherwise.”
For example, disfellowshipped and apostate people are called ‘children of Satan’ and association with them is described as very harmful, he says. Ignoring, according to the teaching, is best for the excluded themselves, because then they return more quickly. “That’s why I think this practice is worse than bullying, you can do something about that, this is a whole system.”
Not even greetings
Gerda Gorter also experienced in her municipality in the north of the Netherlands that the choice to approach ex-members can be criticized internally. When ex-members did come to the service – which is allowed – they were sometimes greeted or members of the congregation had a short chat. “But in a weekday meeting it was clearly emphasized that that was not the intention,” she says.
She now knows countless harrowing stories. A woman who slept in her car for a while, because she was no longer allowed to live at home after being banned. A fifteen-year-old, kicked out of the community, who misses her parents terribly. A young man who came out, was ostracized on that ground and has now been pronounced dead by his family.
Her own story, Gorter wants to say, is not the worst. She, indignant about this policy, went to the meetings less often over time. But then her mother got cancer and so she remained a member, to prevent her from wanting contact with her anymore.
During that time when she was less active, her church members tried to get her to return. They came to the door, sent cards, brought a present at the beginning of the corona time that hung on a fishing rod. A good friend from the congregation supported her where she could.
‘You are emotionally stoned’
Until, a few months after her mother died, she criticized the way the Jehovah’s Witnesses deal with abuse on Facebook. That good friend blocked her, as did other members of the branch where she grew up. When she meets them now, she is completely ignored.
That avoidance started in the middle of the corona time. “That made it a really weird, lonely time,” she says. She is now trying to build a new network. She believes that many Jehovah’s Witnesses also hate ignoring disfellowshiped or apostate people, which is why it is important to do something about it, she says. “I want to be heard now.”
The same applies to Winter: “In principle, you are emotionally stoned as an excluded, that should be punishable.” For him, it’s still an “open wound,” he says. “My family has been taken from me.” And when he meets his wife in the supermarket, she looks the other way. “I still have a lump in my throat. How is that possible when you have been married for 26 years?”
Ex-witnesses open attack on ‘traumatic’ exclusion policy
After a successful lawsuit in Belgium, a group of Dutch Jehovah’s Witnesses is now also fighting the ‘discriminatory’ exclusion policy. ” It’s a social death sentence.”