Then one day, at age thirty-three, she knocks on a doorand a coworker she deeply respects answers the door. To their mutual consternation she launches into her usual spiel, but this time, for the first time ever, the message sounds hollow. In the months that follow, Curtis tries hard to overcome the doubts that spring from that doorstep encounter, knowing they could upend her “safe” existence. But ultimately, unable to reconcile her incredulity, she leaves her religion and divorces her Witness husbanda choice for which she is shunned by the entire community, including all members of her immediate family.
Shunned follows Linda as she steps into a world she was taught to fear and discovers what is possible when we stay true to our hearts, even when it means disappointing those we love.
|Publisher:||She Writes Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.10(d)|
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Jehovah's Witness: n. (1931): a member of a group that witness by distributing literature and by personal evangelism to beliefs in the theocratic rule of God, the sinfulness of organized religions and governments, and an imminent millennium.
— Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 10th Edition
It started on a Saturday. The alarm blasted at 7:30 a.m., jolting my husband and me awake. He made the coffee as I laid claim to the first shower. We began our standard weekday routines: Grape-Nuts eaten over the kitchen sink, bed made, cats fed. Ross's off-key James Brown rendition of "I Feeeeeeel Good!" floated through the bathroom walls.
I pulled up the kitchen blinds to see another overcast Portland day, the sky familiar shades of gray. The brittle orange leaves of our maple tree clapped in the wind, urging me to rally. The folded chairs needed to be pulled from the closet and set in tidy rows in the living room, across from the couch, facing the television cabinet.
By nine o'clock, we were ready. Ross went to the back office to organize his briefcase, preparing for the morning by reading and highlighting talking points from the latest issues of The Watchtower and Awake! magazines. I settled onto the couch, waiting for the caffeine to kick in.
Todd Sterling arrived first. He smiled at me as he let himself in through the front door, then removed his shoes and sat in his chair, the one I had set out in front, facing the others. He was wearing the standard Portland uniform: a tan trench coat. Todd was a longtime friend of the family and an elder in our congregation. Still trying to wake up, I didn't feel like making small talk and was grateful to Ross as he walked into the room, red hair damp from the shower, hand outstretched, making some good-natured joke about Todd's tie.
Within five minutes, the rest of the Friends had arrived. Besides Todd, there was Hannah Thomas and her husband, Patrick. With shoulder-length salt-and-pepper hair, she had the warm, buttery eyes of a deeply caring person. As always, Patrick sat down on one of the outer chairs, shoulders hunched. The Schiller family came, too: Bob and Vivian, with their teenage daughter, Chloe, and ten-year-old son, Michael, wearing a bow tie just like his dad.
Todd led the meeting. First, we read the Daily Text, a spiritual thought for the day. Then Michael Schiller volunteered to read the Bible verse it was based on, a passage from Matthew: "He that has endured to the end is the one that will be saved."
I unbuttoned the sleeves of my starched cotton shirt and rolled them up into neat cuffs at the elbow. I was having a hard time paying attention. Thoughts about my job were knocking around my mind like pinballs. That week I had interviewed eight candidates for our training staff and had narrowed the choices down to two people. We were in the middle of a rapid national expansion. Could I convince my boss to hire both, or would I have to choose between the two?
The meeting moved on to what the brothers and sisters would say at the doors, should we find a listening ear. The Watchtower Society provided weekly suggested talking points. This week's topic was international peace and security, something people have longed for throughout time. We would acknowledge the complete failure of all human governments and man-made organizations to bring true and lasting peace. We would then point out — using our Bibles — that only Jehovah God could make it happen, empowering his reigning son, Christ Jesus, to bring a New System to our Earth. There were many prophecies pointing to now as the Last Days of this wicked world. Our preaching was a fulfillment of prophecy and an act of love for the people in our communities. Before God set up his righteous government on Earth, those not willing to bow to his divine sovereignty would be destroyed at Armageddon, the righteous theocratic battle that would precede the millennium. It was our Christian duty to warn our neighbors before it was too late.
After about twenty minutes, Todd concluded the meeting with a prayer. We all stood and bowed our heads as he gave thanks to Jehovah, requested forgiveness for our sins, and asked that we be guided to the humble and openhearted people in the community. "We are honored to be used by you, Dear God, to help separate the sheep from the goats. And please, Father, protect us from Satan, who walks about like a roaring lion, seeking to devour someone. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen."
We organized into our car groups. Enthusiastic about working with Todd, Ross had a twinkle in his eye. "I folded some tracts for you." He kissed me on the forehead and slipped the pamphlets into my book bag, next to my Bible and The Watchtower and Awake! magazines. Usually I carried other Bible study aids, but that morning I hadn't taken the time to gather them.
I was the last person to slip into Hannah's ten-year-old Toyota Corolla. I was grateful for the familiarity of the crew, sisters with whom I had been in service innumerable times before. Vivian Schiller was in the front passenger seat, Chloe and I in the back. Vivian was discussing our wonderful "sweater weather" and then turned a motherly glance my way.
"Linda, you're quiet this morning."
"Just a bit tired is all," I said. "I should have taken the morning off, but Ross and I made a family goal to get eight hours each this month in the field service."
"We missed you Thursday night," Vivian continued.
"You've been traveling a lot lately," observed Hannah, glancing at me in the rearview mirror. "You must find it hard to manage that schedule and still keep up with The Watchtower and book study."
"I don't mind," I said. "The long plane rides give me quiet time to read the magazines." The second the words left my tongue, I was startled to realize this was a bald-faced lie. I had not been reading the magazines on those flights at all. Instead, I usually prepared for the training sessions it was my job to facilitate.
We lived in the suburb of Beaverton, Oregon, about five miles west of Portland. Hannah headed closer to the city and the affluent Skyline neighborhood. The Watchtower Society organizes the preaching work by putting congregations into circuits, and circuits into districts. Each congregation is responsible for evangelizing to all the households in its assigned territory, by breaking down the designated area into smaller, manageable sections, with maps cut and pasted onto numbered cards. Hannah had checked out this territory and over the coming weeks would do her best to find everyone at home, even if it meant coming back two or three times.
She had turned onto a windy, well-manicured lane that could have been the inspiration for any Norman Rockwell painting. I had been here many times before. Passing a certain Frank Lloyd Wright–style home in the middle of the block stirred my memory.
"Does everyone here know about Mr. Gavros in that brick house on the left?" I asked, as Hannah parked on the side of the street.
"No," said Hannah. "What about him?"
"He's a retired PSU professor and a hospitable intellectual.
He always asks for the magazines, and I know he reads them because he likes to discuss points from past issues. But he's never accepted my invitations to come to the Kingdom Hall. He's a die-hard Methodist with no intention of doing anything else but talking. I saw him the last time we worked this. Can you two take that side of the street?"
Vivian and Chloe agreed.
"If you disappear for an hour, we'll know Mrs. Gavros is serving you tea," I said. "She's a peach."
The sun had burned through the nimbus haze, and the humid smell of rotting leaves wafted around us. Hannah agreed to talk at the first door. I caught myself hoping no one was home on our side of the street, so I wouldn't have to talk at all but could still get credit for doing the time — two hours closer to our family goal.
The first house was a white colonial with a winding, tree-lined driveway. Two Mercedes were parked in front of the garage, and we heard music drifting from a back room. Surely Hannah saw this as a positive sign, but I was hoping the music was too loud for anyone to hear her knocking.
Standing on the bristly Welcome mat, we did not speak. After a second knock, Hannah looked at me and shrugged her shoulders. I pulled out one of the tracts Ross had given me. The caption read: "Life in a Peaceful New World," accompanying a picture of a young girl feeding a bear in a beautiful park. It felt trite and distant, someone else's idea of utopia, not mine. Still, I envied the exuberance on the girl's face. An aura of contentment and full engagement surrounded her. I slipped the tract under the door. Hannah wrote down the address so we could attempt another visit.
For the next twenty minutes, I got my wish: there was no answer at any of the houses we called on.
"Linda, my knocks aren't rousing many people. Are you ready to jump in here? Maybe you'll have better luck."
I had been too occupied with my work to read the current issues of The Watchtower and Awake! — nor had I spent any time thinking through what I might say if someone answered the door. But I had been preaching month in and month out since I was nine years old, and was well trained to walk blithely by No Soliciting signs hammered to fence posts. In my late teens and early twenties, I had spent five years as a full-time pioneer, dedicating ninety hours each month to the ministry. It's a volunteer ministry, so I supported myself with part-time clerical work. I attended the Pioneer School, which deepened my spiritual practice and expanded my repertoire of effective ways to reason and dialogue. My dad said I was born with the "gift of gab." I found it exhilarating to engage with strangers, to skillfully bring them to an "aha moment" that could change their lives, or persuade them at least to consider a new possibility. Over the years, I conducted hundreds of home Bible studies and played a role in the formal dedication of eight people. I wasn't the least bit nervous about talking. I could fall back on twenty-two years of experience.
I gathered my thoughts as I led the way up the next driveway. I reached for the brass knocker that hung on the large oak door and gave it a rap.
A dog burst into a high-pitched barking frenzy, and I heard paws clicking against a wood floor as it approached the other side of the door. A man's voice got closer and shushed the dog away. The door opened wide.
A shot of adrenaline passed through my chest. I wasn't expecting to see someone I knew.
"Nick! I didn't know you lived here."
It was Nick Marshall, one of the executives from my office whom I most admired.
"You have a beautiful home," I continued. Until that moment I had seen him only in suits and ties, but now he stood before me, wearing gray sweats, leather slippers, and Ben Franklin reading glasses. As he bent down and forced the dog to sit, I noticed the black curly hairs on his ankles between his sweats and the fleece lining of his slippers. He folded the sports section of the Oregonian underneath one arm.
"You look like you're dressed for the office," he said.
Nick managed a team that worked closely with my boss's group. My religious affiliation was common knowledge around the office.
"Indeed I am, Nick, but engaged in a different kind of work this morning. This is my friend Hannah."
Hannah and Nick nodded at each other; then his eyes shot back to me. The initial shock of seeing someone familiar was wearing off, and my mind was accessing words I had said a million times before.
"As you know, Nick, I'm one of Jehovah's Witnesses. On most weekends I volunteer to talk to people about the meaning of world events in light of Bible prophecy. I see you're reading the paper. I don't suppose you're finding much good news in there?"
The words felt like wooden alphabet blocks dropping awkwardly from my mouth to the floor. This conversation was very different from our usual water-cooler banter, which ran the gamut from the Portland Trail Blazers to the state of the world to why his teenage daughter hadn't spoken to him for days.
"Good news! Are you kidding?" replied Nick. "The Trail Blazers just gave up their draft pick position. But I suppose that's not what you meant, is it?"
"As disturbing as that is, no — I was thinking bigger picture. We've talked many times, but I've never asked you what hope you have for things — world conditions — to improve."
"Well, as much as I gripe, I doubt things are any worse today than they were when my parents raised me. Each generation has its ups and downs. Why? Do you guys think you have the answer?"
"Well, yes." As I said this, I was struck by how arrogant it sounded. "The Bible suggests God has a purpose for the earth, that there is a reason why, generation after generation, He allows so much suffering. We're living in a unique time in human history, when God will bring about His original purpose for the earth."
"And what is that purpose?" His voice had tightened, and he glanced down at his watch.
"To destroy all man-made governments and to set up His own government that will solve all of man's problems."
I had a cadre of Scriptures at my fingertips and was capable of using my Bible to build a case for this bold statement, but the moment I heard the word "destroy" cross my lips, embarrassment swept over me. I'd uttered that sentence many times before, but this was the first time in my life I had noticed how harsh and partisan I sounded. My face felt so hot, I wondered if it glowed.
Did Nick notice my fleeting, stunned expression, the discomfort I suppressed? I babbled and hoped the dog would start barking again so I wouldn't have to keep going. Hannah stood off to the side and said nothing.
A few years earlier, Nick had taken a three-month leave of absence. He wanted to spend time with his father, who was diagnosed with a rabid, rare form of brain cancer. Nick was already on the corporate fast track by then, closing some large deals and showing promise for more. Others might have feared that taking time off could delay the next promotion or cause management to question their dedication. For all I know, those thoughts did cross his mind, but Nick felt compelled to play an omnipresent role in his dad's final days. "You can always make money," he said. "But you can never go back and get more time."
Now, as I stood on his doorstep, I heard a condemnation in my words that did not line up with my personal experience of Nick. Ordinarily, this was when I would read a passage from The Book of Revelation about the Last Days, or something from the Gospels about seeking first the Kingdom, but now, an unfamiliar reticence stopped me. Standing before this well-informed and worldly, wise man, I had nothing new or useful to say. The story line I came with seemed fanciful and egotistical. How silly of me to think I could offer him — or anyone — some definitive method for salvation. I couldn't even look him in the eye.
I had to get out of there, the sooner the better. I handed Nick a tract, saying something about how he might enjoy reading it in the privacy of his own home. His shoulders dropped as a glint of relief passed through his eyes. I turned and fled to the street.
* * *
My Bible lay open on my lap, the gold leaf long since worn from its pages. I struggled to concentrate. My haunting, awkward conversation the day before with Nick Marshall kept forcing itself into my mind's eye. Ross sat next to me, eyes focused on the speaker, occasionally nodding his head. We were at the Kingdom Hall, in our usual seats, four rows from the front. Vince Lloyd, one of our favorite elders and a talented orator, was delivering the Sunday sermon: "Beware of Subtle Worldly Influences."
"Remember, friends, that Jehovah is a God who exacts exclusive devotion. It's important to regularly reflect upon our lives and see where our loyalties lie. It is not enough just to be separate from the world, but to hate the world, abhorring what is wicked."
He had just finished reading from Genesis the story of Dinah, whose life was ruined when she gave her heart to an unbeliever. Dinah didn't just bring suffering on herself; her brothers got into the mix, murder and mayhem ensued, and an entire family was undone, all because Dinah spent too much time with her worldly neighbors.
Nick's creased brow, a mix of patience and pensiveness, dominated my thoughts. Each time I thought of our exchange on his doorstep, I was riddled with tension. My entire life was spent secure in the knowledge that I had The Truth. Witnesses refer to people as being either "in" or "out" of The Truth. The "T" is always capitalized. Jesus said the truth would set you free, and I had always felt lucky to be born into the one true way. And when we knocked on doors, we were bearing witness to the One True God, Jehovah. "'You are my witnesses,' says Jehovah." I understood my role in the world to be one of telling The Truth about Jehovah and his purposes, like a character witness refer to people as being either "in" or "out" of The Truth. The "T" is always capitalized. Jesus said the truth would set you free, and I had always felt lucky to be born into the one true way.
Excerpted from "Shunned"
Copyright © 2018 Linda Curtis.
Excerpted by permission of She Writes Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Part One: Portland, 1993, ix,
Part Two: Chicago, 1994, 123,
Part Three: The Death Exemption, 2006, 241,
Epilogue: The Death Exemption, 2010, 289,