Leaving the Witness: Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life

Leaving the Witness: Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life

by Amber Scorah


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"A fascinating glimpse into the consciousness of being an outsider in every possible way, and what it takes to find your path into the life you'd like to lead."—Nylon

A riveting memoir of losing faith and finding freedom while a covert missionary in one of the world's most restrictive countries.

A third-generation Jehovah's Witness, Amber Scorah had devoted her life to sounding God's warning of impending Armageddon. She volunteered to take the message to China, where the preaching she did was illegal and could result in her expulsion or worse. Here, she had some distance from her community for the first time. Immersion in a foreign language and culture—and a whole new way of thinking—turned her world upside down, and eventually led her to lose all that she had been sure was true.

As a proselytizer in Shanghai, using fake names and secret codes to evade the authorities' notice, Scorah discreetly looked for targets in public parks and stores. To support herself, she found work at a Chinese language learning podcast, hiding her real purpose from her coworkers. Now with a creative outlet, getting to know worldly people for the first time, she began to understand that there were other ways of seeing the world and living a fulfilling life. When one of these relationships became an "escape hatch," Scorah's loss of faith culminated in her own personal apocalypse, the only kind of ending possible for a Jehovah's Witness.

Shunned by family and friends as an apostate, Scorah was alone in Shanghai and thrown into a world she had only known from the periphery—with no education or support system. A coming of age story of a woman already in her thirties, this unforgettable memoir examines what it's like to start one's life over again with an entirely new identity. It follows Scorah to New York City, where a personal tragedy forces her to look for new ways to find meaning in the absence of religion. With compelling, spare prose, Leaving the Witness traces the bittersweet process of starting over, when everything one's life was built around is gone.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780735222557
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 06/02/2020
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 366,305
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

Amber Scorah is a writer living in Brooklyn, NY. Her articles have been published in The New York Times, The Believer, and USA Today. Prior to coming to New York, Scorah lived in Shanghai, where she was creator and host of the podcast Dear Amber - The Insider's Guide to Everything China. This is her first book.

Read an Excerpt

The first thing I saw when I arrived in Shanghai was a fight on the street. People had extracted themselves from the masses on all sides to watch, standing like awkward party guests. Cyclists held up their black bicycles by the handlebars, pedestrians dallied, their hands full of thin plastic bags from the market. As the momentum of the city pushed against those who were stationary, people spilled over onto the street, like water around rocks. Our taxi driver slowed the car to look.

In the center of the crowd, a man and a woman were arguing. The people who had paused to take in this (as I would come to learn) common spectacle were silent as the parties involved shouted, laying out their dispute. No fist was raised—though fights on the street were common in Shanghai, at least in those days when tension felt so high, they rarely came to blows—and no intervention was undertaken by the crowd. But the two piqued bodies were electric, their muscles tensed with adrenaline and the faces above them contorted in pent-­up ­anger.

This restraint was more arresting than a punch or shove would have been. A slap of flesh to cheekbone would have provided a moment of relief; a blow would have forced a climax, a gasp, some kind of release, after which the paused city could transform itself back into its loud moving swarm. Bodies would move on, shopping bags would sag to rest on kitchen counters. But this simmering, unrequited tension, it was in the bones of the place. It boiled in arguments on streets, in the alleys of the hutongs sitting stubbornly in the shadows of the developers who waited to bulldoze them, and in the posture of the old men who spat at the ground as a Ferrari passed. It was a pressure that surrounded you and lodged in your head and became your own tension. If ever a place set the stage for a confrontation of any kind, Shanghai did: a theater in which you were occasionally the spectator in the crowd, or, by turns, the person in the middle, fighting.

Things hadn’t blown up for me yet, of course. My husband and I had just come in over the Lupu Bridge from the airport, and on the smooth white polyester backseat of a taxi we had been whisked through six lanes of light green taxis and loaded trailer trucks, over shining new bridges full of a thousand years of promise looking down at the slow-­moving, ancient brown rivers. Our car was in the old concessions of Shanghai when we came across this scene, creeping among a patchwork of crumbling European architecture bordered by bland high-­rise complexes, all skirted by the life and labor that kept twenty million people eating, moving, and surviving in a metropolis that seemed to have no end, and no discernible way out.

For me, there was no excitement like that which could be generated by a move around the world. This was the third time I had done it. Swapping a life in one place for a new life in another created an energy capable of invigorating even people like us, who were tired of living with each other. I had begged my husband to move to China for years. I was not allowed to leave him, so perhaps if I left enough places with him, it would suffice.

And I had longed for China. I had dreamed of being here so audibly and adamantly that the dream drove me into Chinese class and came out of my mouth contorted in the form of sounds like “zh,” “xi,” and “yun”—articulations that made my cheek muscles ache with the effort. My husband wasn’t one for dreaming on his own, and he was content where he was, but I yearned for China like a death drive.

In the eyes of all the people I cared about, I ended up just that: dead.

But my goal was not death, it was life—other people’s lives. I had been trying to save lives seventy hours a month for years as a missionary of sorts (what we called “pioneering”) in my hometown of Vancouver, Canada, knocking at doors to warn people, people who didn’t care, doors that opened (if they opened at all) to disdain, to anger, to apathy, and in the best cases, to a sort of bemused tolerance. I had dedicated my life to save from a fiery Armageddon the inhabitants of my self-­satisfied West Coast city, a population of people who cared very little about the impending death they faced.

This unwelcomed work was made easier because I had friends who did it with me, and we went door-to-door, in all weather, drinking Starbucks coffees and noting down who was not at home on our Watchtower-­issue lined paper sheets, returning the next week to more closed doors, indulging in an occasional smugness, knowing that they would regret their apathy one day. It was work without pay but done alongside eight million people around the world who were trained week in and week out, and all believed exactly the same things I had been taught as a little girl.

As futile as this work might sound, we had given up any thought of building a life in the world we had been born into, because this world was ending. Soon, we would live in paradise, on Earth, and God would bring destruction on those who were not of our faith. It was our duty to save them, or if not save, at least warn them. We were very invested in the trade-­off we had made. We gave up any hope of a career, or education, financial security, and certain relationships, all for the sake of saving these people, and goddammit—no pun intended—we were very concerned about their impending destruction. You wanted to save just one of these uppity, self-­satisfied people for your trouble. I can use the “we” and speak with such certitude of a collective of over eight million people because we all believed without a shadow of a doubt that this paradise would soon be ours.

And thus, week by week, I took the card given to me by the elders in the congregation, on which was a map of the territory I was to cover, and was assigned a partner to work with. I went door-to-door, preaching throughout my community, giving my sermons, handing out my publications, and noting down house numbers and symbols on the lined record forms tucked into the map’s plastic pouch. “NH” for not home. “B-CA” for busy, call again. “DNC” for do not call (if someone was especially threatening). Those householders who told me that they weren’t interested or, worse yet, hid behind the curtain, pretending they weren’t home, I simply scratched off till the next month, when they’d get another chance.

In this way, I kept knocking, surprised every year that I was still here in this doomed world, and that these people in the big houses were still alive. In time, I discovered that Chinese immigrants in my city were slightly more willing to hear me out, and I began to try to learn their language so as to teach them “the truth.” I derived meaning from the busy activity of my life and from my friends in the close community of fellow preachers around me. The organization and these people and this service were what held my life in place and gave it its purpose, even if no one listened. I had been trained from birth to never stray from this hub of belief, this safety. My life depended on it.

Given the possibility that I might meet one interested person in these thousands of hours of preaching, I did a lot of preparation. I attended the five required meetings a week held in our congregation, where we studied the Bible and were trained in how to convert people to our interpretation of it. I read all the appointed materials and underlined the correct answers to questions cited below the paragraphs. Who the author of these materials was, I did not know, other than that the writings came from a Governing Body of men in Brooklyn who were the unquestioned leaders of us, God’s people, men whose duty it was to give us our spiritual food at the proper time.

Our meetings followed the same structure every week, and were the same around the world. The conductor of the meeting read out the questions from a magazine written by the Governing Body. No matter what the question—be it: “Why does God permit suffering?”—the paragraph had the answer. Was the question: “Why do we die?” We had all the answers to the unsettling aspects of being human, there in our literature. The brother asking the questions was so good at reading the questions he became convinced, no doubt, that he was questioning. And studying hard, we found the answers we wanted there before us. This constant study and easy answers to any and all questions was satisfying, a luxury available only to the in­doctrinated, and I won’t say I don’t miss it, like any luxury to which one has become accustomed.

This kind of peace of mind bred a certain self-­confidence, a certainty of purpose. I did not fear leaving my home and ­moving far away, to this Communist country, a place where my religion had been banned since the 1950s, a place where those who went against the government were frequently “dis­appeared” or executed. I was doing God’s will, and even if I died for doing it, I would have life everlasting on a paradise Earth after all those self-­satisfied worldly people were killed.

And so I was in China on this day in 2005, riding in a taxi, our suitcases in the trunk packed with Bibles stuffed into socks and study books shoved into pairs of underwear. We knew very little about how our religion functioned here, if it did at all. The brothers in charge in Hong Kong who had approved us to come and serve here had simply told us that everything would be made clear, but not until we arrived. I knew nothing about how we would worship and preach in Shanghai, or what my life would look like, because anyone who knew was for­bidden to tell so as not to endanger the people doing the work. As we carved our way between the rows and rows of vehicles and I looked at the thousands of faces we passed, I wondered how many Jehovah’s Witnesses, foreign and local, might be in this city.

The taxi turned into a driveway and we found ourselves in a drop-­off area surrounded by eight massive buildings holding up the lives of thousands of people lived midair, buttressed on all sides by hundreds of other buildings that looked more or less like them.

Our friends Jay and Emma had come to China a couple months before us, also to preach. Before that, the four of us had lived in Taiwan for three years; we had moved there to improve our limited Mandarin. My husband and I had arrived in Taipei at the peak of the SARS epidemic, and rented a room from a sister in the congregation who had been left the apartment by her blind parents. She and her sister lived in the dark, even though they could see—the windows were blacked out, and the sisters rarely turned a light on.

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