Leaving the Witness
A Preacher Finds Freedom to Think in Totalitarian China
The elders asked me to meet them at the Starbucks on Nanjing Road in central Shanghai. The sun was bright that day; the usual haze had lifted for a change. When I arrived, I was greeted by Brother Steven and Brother Richard. They’d already bought me an iced coffee. The ice on top had melted. I stirred the drink with the straw.
Brother Steven started.
“Amber, we wanted to meet with you today because we heard about some things that were said.” He cleared his throat. Brother Richard’s eyes stared just past me. “We wanted to meet with you to encourage you, and give you the help you need. Please don’t feel nervous.”
The sun was bright in my face, sort of like an interrogation lamp.
“Do you know the conversations we are referring to?”
He was referring to conversations I’d had with my former Bible student, a young Chinese teacher named Jean. I’ve never been able to lie very well. I told them the truth. That yes, Jean was confused. But that I’d felt it was the right thing to do, to explain certain things to her.
“Yes, of course,” said Brother Steven. “Now please tell us exactly what was said.”
Sipping our coffee drinks, we looked like the other expats one sees around Shanghai. But we weren’t. We were Jehovah’s Witnesses. We had, each of us, arrived with bags full of Watchtower publications wrapped in gift paper or hidden inside socks, to be used for converting Chinese people to our faith. We knew lots of stories of Witnesses who had been followed, watched, bugged, deported by Chinese officials. All three of us were criminals in the eyes of the Chinese government. But only one of us was a criminal in the eyes of the church elders, and this meeting in the Starbucks would result in a different kind of deportation. It would result in the swift kick out of the life I had lived for thirty years, and into an intimidating, complicated world I had known only from the periphery.
I began learning Mandarin Chinese in 2003 through a night class offered at my congregation in Vancouver. I had been a devout Jehovah’s Witness from the time I was a child, and I became a full-time missionary the day I graduated from high school. It was a pretty typical path for a young Witness. Pursuing any kind of career was frowned upon as materialistic and a distraction from what really mattered: preaching.
Four days a week, I would put on my modest skirt and practical shoes, fill my briefcase with magazines and other Watchtower publications, and walk to the Kingdom Hall near my home in Kitsilano. I’d meet up with a car group of other Witnesses. We’d then head out to our assigned territory—the affluent neighborhoods of Vancouver’s west side.
We would knock on doors—street by street, house by house. Some people would be polite, but most were just annoyed. Once in a while someone would slam the door in my face, or yell. But mostly people didn’t answer. Missionary work wasn’t the easiest in Vancouver.
None of this affected my zeal. We were shored up for constant rejection at the three meetings a week we attended—one of which was for the sole purpose of teaching us how to overcome objections and be better preachers. All my friends were Witnesses, too. Socializing with “worldly people” (non-Witnesses) was forbidden. So we were all in the same boat, and the seventy-plus hours a month we’d spend out preaching made for good stories. Plus, we knew that all these people would be killed at Armageddon, anyway. It was easy not to take the abuse too personally.
One day I heard about a new idea spreading among Jehovah’s Witnesses: to preach to Chinese immigrants. I wanted to preach to people who would listen, instead of to these rich, self-satisfied Vancouver types. Immigrants seemed perfect. I signed up for the free Mandarin class offered by the church.
Learning Chinese was a grueling process. The muscles in my mouth hurt after the first lesson. Though my progress was slow, I suddenly had more Bible students than I could keep up with. Eventually, I bought a 1982 Volvo station wagon for cheap, and drove all over the city to conduct hour-long Bible-study sessions with Chinese immigrants.
After a year of Chinese classes, I decided to quit my part-time job and move to China. Given the positive response I was getting from Chinese immigrants in Canada, I was excited. I finally understood why God hadn’t brought Armageddon yet. There were 1.3 billion more people to reach before the end of the world.
Three times each week, 110,000 congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses all around the globe meet to study exactly the same material put out by a central governing body based in Brooklyn. The most common theme of the Witnesses’ meetings is how to survive Armageddon, the end of the world. Preaching is done with the aim of converting people, thereby saving their lives. Every Witness is constantly pressured to spend more time proselytizing, since it’s only Jehovah’s people who will be saved. Preaching to others is also held out as the way to save your own life.
Witnesses are strongly discouraged from going to university. This religion is no place for critical thinkers, and dissent is swiftly quashed. While investigation of one’s beliefs is encouraged in theory, the eventual consequence of any actual questioning or nonconformity is excommunication from the community.
Sometimes I would hear about “apostate materials”—any literature or video or audio recording that criticizes the Witnesses, or points out inconsistencies regarding their official stance on doctrine, or debates hot issues like blood transfusions. I was pretty curious as to what these materials said; God knows we were warned against them enough. But any literature of that nature (this story, for example) is branded as destructive and insidious, and the author as worse than the devil himself. You don’t dare give in to your curiosity.
From childhood on, we were taught to focus all our energy, talents, and resources on our preaching mission. I never gave a thought to pursuing a career—it was out of the question. The ideal life was finding part-time work, perhaps as a window cleaner or hairdresser, to support one’s preaching. Three times a week, these lifestyle choices were reiterated at the Kingdom Hall meetings through talks, symposiums, demonstrations, Q&A sessions, and conversations. We rarely had any kind of social interaction with non-Witnesses, worldly people, since we had to avoid their corrupting influence. We lived in a society of our own.
When I got to China, things were really different, by necessity. Pro-selytizing is illegal. Religious meetings are banned. The preaching work and congregation meetings have to be conducted underground. This means that the handful of Witnesses in Shanghai can meet only covertly, which makes seeing each other more than once a week next to impossible. Preaching in the usual structured, door-to-door fashion is also, obviously, out of the question. For me, a Witness accustomed to a life of uniform routine, this seemed like an unprecedented adventure.
A couple of weeks after I arrived in Shanghai, I received a cryptic text message from a man who called himself James (some of us used fake names; we knew the Chinese government monitored electronic correspondence). He proposed meeting in a noisy local restaurant in the French Concession. I called his number when I got to the restaurant and he waved so I would know him. We chatted a few minutes, then he immediately got down to business. With a practiced manner, he explained the instructions from the branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses as to how to conduct my missionary work. I was to find a job, perhaps teaching English, as a cover. Then I was to start cultivating relationships with worldly people, both Chinese and Westerners. These friendships were to be made with the sole purpose of religious conversion.
This sounded crazy to me. Every day of my life I’d been taught to stay away from these people, and I had. I was the person who made excuses not to lunch with coworkers. Who never kissed the boy who loved me in high school. I was the one who didn’t join after-school sports or attend birthday parties or my prom, all for fear of contamination. But I had my instructions; there was no other choice.
The first time I tried to make a worldly friend was in a bookstore on Fuzhou Road, a couple blocks down from People’s Square. I looked around for security cameras. Even though the store was really crowded, I stood out, a tall white girl among the leveled-off, uniform masses of Saturday shoppers.
Feeling paranoid, I went to the English book section, thinking that might arouse less suspicion. I opened an English teaching textbook and kept watch, glancing over the top of the book. I was nervous. I was used to doorbells and sermons. Plus my Chinese was still pretty poor. I didn’t know how I’d fare in a conversation.
A girl in her late twenties with wire-rimmed glasses stopped at the shelf beside me. She wore a tight mohair sweater and plaid wool pants. Her everyday plainness was just enough to make her feel approachable.
“Ni hao,” I said, self-consciously.
A large smile broke out on her face. “You speak Chinese!” she said.
“Bu tai hao.” (That meant “Not too well.”)
“Waaa, tai hao le!” (“Wow, this is incredible!”)
And so I met Jean.
Jean had me over for dinner the next day. She had written down detailed instructions to her apartment by subway. Take Line 3 to Caoxi Station. When you see the IKEA, you know you’re getting close; take a sharp right.
I climbed the staircase to her apartment and passed the other residents cooking their dinners in the shared kitchens at the end of each open-air hallway. I got to Jean’s door and knocked.
“Ni hao,” Jean said, excitedly, swinging the metal grate open.
There were two beds that made an L in the room. Her roommate stood formally next to the one with a pink ruffled bedspread. Between the beds was a table on which food was already served. Four dishes: sautéed greens, soybeans with peppers, meat in a sauce, fried tofu, and rice in the rice cooker.
“Huanying. Qing jin!” (“Welcome. Come in!”) Jean’s roommate smiled, her eyes crinkling at their corners.
Jean rinsed off chopsticks and bowls in the sink next to the bathroom and brought them to the table wet.
“I hope you like it. I am concerned it’s not too delicious.”
Jean opened up the lid of the digital rice cooker and scooped rice into each of our bowls.
“Chi fan!” (“Eat!”)
She motioned to the platters, then took up her chopsticks and placed a chunk of meat onto my rice, then some leafy greens. She urged me to eat. I wanted to wait for her, but she insisted. The roommate watched as I took a bite.
“Hao chi!” I said, enthusiastically. What I lacked for in vocabulary I tried to make up for with tone of voice.
Jean clapped a little and laughed, then insisted, shaking her head, “Bu hao chi!” (“It tastes terrible!”)
“No! It’s delicious,” I insisted. She really was a good cook.
We chatted in half–broken Chinese, half–broken English as we ate. Jean’s English was good, much better than my Chinese; she was the envy of her roommate. She studied all the time, and had been the only kid in her village in northern Jiangsu who could speak English. Her older cousin would bring her books when he returned from his business trips to Tianjin. Two years ago, Jean had moved to Shanghai for work. She had found a job as a receptionist at a real estate company, but her dream was to be a Chinese teacher. Every month, she would send part of her salary back to her parents. In spite of the one-child policy, her parents had managed to have six children (five girls and a boy) by dodging the authorities. One of the girls was adopted; the rest of the family moved around a lot to avoid fines or sterilization. They stopped after they had a boy.
Jean explained that she liked her job because the boss was an Englishman, and she sometimes got up the courage to practice speaking with him. She related stories of their mundane conversations about dinner or haircuts with delight. She made 1,800 renminbi a month, equivalent to about $280.
Brother James recommended that before bringing up anything about the Bible with one of our new friends, we find out if that person or their family was affiliated with the Communist Party. Anyone who was a party member posed a potential danger, and contact was to be cut off immediately; a party member might turn in a Witness out of loyalty to the regime. On the other hand, it was also said that some people became party members simply to qualify for certain jobs, meaning they were communist in name only, and thus not as risky to befriend. I tried to casually return the conversation to Jean’s family.
“So… what does your father do for a living in Jiangsu?”
“He’s a farmer.”
This seemed safe. Or were the farmers communists? After all, didn’t they have to give a percentage of their crops to the state? I tried to think back to the Chinese movies I had seen, my only reference.
“What about your mom?”
“She looks after the kids and my grandmother, mostly. Sometimes she helps with the farming or makes crafts to sell.” Oh, right, and they had six children—surely they couldn’t be that communist.
“And your brothers and sisters, do any of them work?”
“My younger sister is in school, my older sister has a baby. Though my brother is in the army.”
Army. Why hadn’t James mentioned anything about the army? This seemed like a major alarm bell. If you were in the army, you must be a communist.
“But he has been writing my parents from the camp, telling them he wants to be a pop-music star. They are very upset. But he asked me all the time, so I saved money and sent him a guitar at his birthday. Here is a photo of him playing.” She flipped open her cell phone. His lazy teenage posture reassured me somewhat as to his level of devotion to the chairman.
We finished eating, and Jean refused to let me help her clear the plates. “Sit, sit,” she kept ordering me, physically restraining me with one arm. When she finished stacking the dishes in the sink, she mentioned there was a surprise. Dessert and coffee, she said, beaming. Both already seemed like a rarity to me in China.
“At IKEA.” Her eyes shone. “Do you know, you can keep taking as much coffee as you want, for free? For Chinese people, we don’t understand this, we think they are very crazy.”
We put on our jackets and walked down the five flights of stairs to the ground. It was getting a bit chilly now that it was October. As we drew near the yellow and blue monolith, I didn’t yet share my new friend’s excitement. But in time, as my months in Shanghai stretched into years, I began to feel a similar awe at the bottom-less coffee.
The cafeteria offered some Chinese food items, but was identical in every other way to any IKEA, cheap and bright. I could have been in Vancouver if not for the chaotic queue-jumping and diners installed at tables with rice brought from home. Many of the patrons were residents who lived in the ramshackle alleys behind the giant yellow building. The locals made the best of it, enjoying the free air conditioning, making IKEA the living room they had never had.
I chose a mini cheesecake with gooseberry preserves; Jean took a chocolate pudding. I paid, in spite of her violent protestations, and we proceeded to the coffee station with our mugs. People were stockpiling the powdered creamers and the packets of sugar. An older lady chastised me for not participating in the looting. “It’s free,” she said, urging me on.
We found a small empty table by the window. People camped out around us, minding their own business at tables piled with empty trays and dishes. Old ladies babysat grandchildren. A couple of children had pattered toward the showroom area to play in the fake kids’ bedrooms. Jean and I talked for a long time. We refilled our coffees twice. We agreed to meet on the weekend for a bike ride. Jean wanted to show me a Hunan restaurant.
And so, in this fashion—slowly, inadvertently—I began to infiltrate this new world.
I began taking Mandarin classes every day with foreigners from all over the world, none of whom knew my religious affiliation. My teacher was delighted by my progress, often comparing me, in her somewhat-insensitive Chinese manner, to the other students: “You will be fluent in two years. You”—pointing to the student next to me—“No,” she said, shaking her head. After class, I would go out with my fellow students, all of whom had different motives for learning Chinese. Some had come to China to party, some were here to meet Chinese girls and get laid, some to make money. I continued to make vague excuses about why I was learning Chinese. James, a nervous sort, had hammered it into my brain: reveal nothing. And I, trained to be obedient, stuck to my story of being an English teacher with an inexplicable interest in Chinese people.
When I hung out with these worldly people, it was hard to shake the feeling that I was doing something wrong. They swore, they smoked, some of them drank a lot. They often made references to things I didn’t get. I didn’t understand their innuendos, and I hadn’t read their books or seen their movies. But I was a quick study. I had to play along; I didn’t want to blow my cover, and besides, it was interesting to learn about their lives. I was following my orders to a tee, and all of this could be done guilt-free.
In addition to my new school friends, I scheduled time each day to look for Chinese people to talk to. I’d sit in restaurants, hang out in Huaihai Park, read books in public squares, or hop on subways and buses, offering fast friendship to anyone patient or chatty enough to put up with my broken Chinese. I prayed for God’s help, but it was easy to find people who were interested in a foreigner, especially one who knew some Chinese.
Jean became my first Bible student. I broached the subject after our weekend bike ride. The day had become an information-collecting mission, and by the time we sat down to stewed beef and steamed fish-head, I had a couple approaches in mind, pulled from my mental Rolodex of Jehovah’s Witness conversation starters.
“Jean, you know when you mentioned your grandma dying, it reminded me of how I felt when my dad died. I totally understand how you feel.”
Jean answered, but I was already plotting my next sentence.
“I know this might sound strange, but did you know that there is a way that one day you could see her again?”
Jean, bless her soul, politely raised her eyebrows. “Really?”
“Yes. When I feel sad about my dad, I like to read what the Bible says about death. Have you ever read the Bible?”
“No, but I am so interested in it! I really love Christmas. The first foreign friend I ever had was a Christian lady, and she was so kind to me. She even came to visit my family once. But then she had to leave China, so I never saw her again.”
“Oh, wow, that’s amazing, I didn’t know that we had this in common. Next time, if you like, I could bring a book and a Bible for you. I think you will find it really comforting.”
Jean agreed enthusiastically. I felt relieved that I had done what I was supposed to do, and proud that I had my first Bible student in China. I wished I could send an email home, but we were forbidden to talk about our work here. I realized I was leading Jean down a path that was potentially criminal and that would mean, if all went well, that she would become an underground enemy of the state, have to limit ties with her family, cut off her friends, and likely not marry or have children—Witnesses could not marry outside their faith, and there were very few Witnesses in mainland China—but I felt this was a small price for Jean to pay to have the truth. If I could convert her, she could survive Armageddon.
I still had to be careful. I wasn’t supposed to tell her where I lived. At first we would meet for our study sessions in public parks, until one humid day when I noticed two men in polyester suits vigorously snapping photos of us. We separated, and I took the subway in the wrong direction home, just to be safe. After that, I treated Jean to coffee at various Western cafés, but never the same one two weeks in a row. I taped gift wrap over the covers of our Watchtower publications so people couldn’t see what they were.
Jean loved Western culture. Back in Jiangsu, her drive to learn En-glish came from a secret thirst to learn about the outside world. I was the perfect vehicle. And she mine. We studied half in Chinese, half in En-glish; to passersby, it looked like a language-tutoring session. Jean agreedenthusiastically with anything I said. She learned the English words God, Jesus, Armageddon. She developed a taste for cappuccinos.
Soon I was busy riding my bicycle around Shanghai, books in my backpack, crisscrossing the city to conduct study sessions with my Chinese Bible students. As my Chinese improved, I started to notice the Chinese of mainland China were reacting very differently to my message than the immigrants in Vancouver had. The things I was teaching them from the Bible were incomprehensible. Creation? God? Everlasting life? Don’t go to college? Don’t pursue money? They would sometimes laugh a little, especially at this last idea. But none of them quit studying with me. They began inviting me out for dinners in giant restaurants with their families, dishing out the choicest cuts of meat into my bowl.
Week in and week out, Jean and I met. We became great friends; she began tutoring me in Chinese, and I helped find her a job teaching in one of the foreign-run language schools. She was a talented teacher. I thought to myself many times: What a good preacher she will make, when she is ready.
As I got to know Jean better, and as she felt comfortable enough to be gently honest, I understood that, over our first dinner of Hunan food, Jean would have been happy to go along with anything I suggested as a basis for our friendship, resurrection or not. This was true of all my Bible students. Most mainland Chinese people could not relate to Western notions like the resurrection, creation, paradise. In Vancouver, I now understood, I had been nothing more than an English tutor, pulling up in a Volvo and offering free English practice to baffled but appreciative immigrants. In China, there was no mincing of words, now that I could understand the words. These 1.3 billion people I was trying to save looked at life in completely different ways. The concepts I pressed them to grasp and adopt were bizarre abstractions, a not-unpleasant idiosyncrasy one put up with in order to have a Western friend.
Sooner or later, in our study sessions, my students and I would get to the section in the book with the chapter on Armageddon—with its two-page centerfold illustration of fire falling from the sky and people dying, reeling into the gaping earth. As I began to explain these things, in a new tongue, in a new place, I started to hear what I was saying, for the first time: “So because you were born here, and I was born into my world, God’s going to kill you and your family and friends and associates, but not me. Because you were educated differently, in a different culture, and therefore have a different explanation for life, for spirituality, for goodness, for meaning, you will die, and I will live. This is because I was taught, week in, week out, from the time I was five, that this all made perfect sense. And you were not.” (Open book to Armageddon centerfold.)
I started to feel embarrassed.
In one of the most restrictive, totalitarian countries in the world, for the first time in my life, I had the freedom to think. I was no longer running from my part-time job to preaching meet-ups, to Bible studies, to congregational meetings and conventions and congregational social activities. I was no longer spending my days knocking on doors. I was no longer sitting in the audience three times a week at the Kingdom Hall, raising my hand and regurgitating answers from Watchtower publications. I was no longer spending the little free time I had after one meeting studying my answers for the next.
A year passed. I couldn’t read the Watchtower publications without crinkling up my eyebrows, or scouring for holes in the Chinese-firewalled internet for other viewpoints. I found it harder and harder to believe that this religion was the only true religion, the only way to happiness. I knew I was going to be killed at Armageddon for having these thoughts, and before that kicked out of the Church and ostracized by my friends and family. Sinners can and will be disfellowshipped: premarital sex, adultery, homosexuality, drunkenness, smoking… the list of sins goes on. I knew of the consequences, because I had been kicked out many years before for having sex with my Witness boyfriend, after confessing the details of our sexual encounters to a panel of three old men. No one forced us to confess; hiding sin or living a double life would lead to being killed at Armageddon, since God saw it all. The three elders who convened to hear my case, however, had not seen it all. Therefore there was the apparently necessary matter of rehashing the whole encounter in which I had lost my virginity.
“How many times did you do it?”
“What were the events that led up to doing it?”
“Was there heavy petting?”
“How long did it take you to come forward?”
“Did he ejaculate?”
“Did you use birth control?”
“Who bought the birth control?”
“Was there any—ahem—oral contact?”
My boyfriend and I were disfellowshipped. If we wanted to attend meetings, which was necessary in order to be reinstated, we had to sit in the back row, and leave immediately after the program. No one was permitted to speak to us.
My dad died that year. I went to his funeral in the Kingdom Hall. I sat in the back row. No one spoke to me.
The day the elders confronted me at the Starbucks, I vacillated between wanting to return to the tranquilizing salve of knowing you’re right when everyone else is wrong, and the inner thrill that maybe I didn’t have to be this person anymore.
Brothers Richard and Steven waited patiently for my response.
“I hadn’t seen Jean much lately, and I knew she would be confused as to why I had stopped studying with her. I told her I had done some research and found that I was wrong about some things.”
The elders picked up their pens and began to take notes.
“I told her to question what I had taught her. That I had thought it was the truth, and had never meant to lead her astray, but there were things that were not what I thought they were.”
Brother Steven looked up when I stopped and acknowledged me. “Thank you for being so truthful.”
“And finally, I told her that I loved her and wanted to continue to be friends, if she was willing.”
I didn’t go much further. I didn’t tell them about the critical books I had read, one written by a member of the Governing Body who’d been disfellowshipped for his earnest scrutiny. I didn’t tell them about the news stories detailing the incidents of child abuse the Watchtower Society had suppressed, or about the people who died after refusing a blood transfusion due to a murky interpretation of an ancient law. I didn’t tell them about the brother in my congregation in Vancouver, excommunicated for homosexuality, who hanged himself in the forests of UBC. I didn’t mention that I could check off almost every box on a list of “Cult Characteristics.” I didn’t talk about the fact that we were elitists, and that we had divided the world into “us” and “them.” And I didn’t bring up that I felt like we were salesmen, selling the illusion of love, duping ourselves.
Silence sat between us as I did not tell them what I knew. I could see in their eyes that they knew what I alluded to, or at least Steven did. But they had their reasons for staying in the religion, and I had committed the worst and most unforgivable sin of all, the sin that God does not forgive. There was no return from apostasy.
They asked for a moment to confer. I went to the restroom. I washed my hands. Everything that mattered seeped away: my friends, family, memories, purpose, meaning, future. And I was choosing it.
As I walked away from that meeting with my new instructions—to be quiet and stay away—a line from one of the apostate books I’d read came to my mind. It was a quote by John F. Kennedy:
The great enemy of the truth is very often not the lie—deliberate, contrived and dishonest, but the myth, persistent, persuasive, and unrealistic. Belief in myths allows the comfort of opinion without the discomfort of thought.
I’m pretty worldly now, I guess. I live in New York City. I have a career. I have sex with my boyfriend. I have new friends, and I go to college at night. Sometimes, after a long day, I go for a run in Battery Park, and it’s hard not to notice the red watchtower sign blinking at me from its Brooklyn headquarters across the river. Or, in the mornings, when I exit the subway at Grand Central, I see the sisters, zombielike in their inner peace, each holding up a magazine with a picture of paradise on the cover. I remember how nice it felt to believe the myth. But at least I have my thoughts to discomfort me.
Illustration by Tony Millionaire
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