Tolerance, Part I

As a child, I was very observant. By the time that I was eleven years old, I understood certain things about what was and wasn’t acceptable in my family when it came to religious beliefs.

My mother, may she rest in peace, was a very unique woman. Looking back on my childhood and her stance on religion, I question how different my religious views may have been if she had been the only influence in my life and had never faced certain obstacles.

Though my mother was raised in a staunchly Baptist and proudly Southern household, she really didn’t care for their religious beliefs. As a kid she attended church faithfully, as there was no choice in my Grandma’s home(which I would later find out). However as soon as my Mom graduated high school she ‘got the hell out of dodge’, so to speak, and joined the Navy. I wonder if my Mom’s insistence on joining the military so soon stemmed from a desire to put as much distance between her and that environment as she possibly could. And indeed, with stints of duty throughout the South Pacific and the West Coast, she achieved just that.

My early image of my Mom is a woman who was always reading, fascinated by Chinese and Spanish culture, a social butterfly…and never went to church. Sure, she taught me to pray at night before sleeping. She told me that Jesus loved me. But that was the limit of her religious instruction.When I was a child we didn’t attend church together. Sundays were for football and beach parties. From the time I was born until the day she died, my Mom never attempted to indoctrinate me into Christianity.

During times of difficulty,however, my Mom reverted to the faith that she had been raised with. In 1989 she was going through a rough patch. Marital problems and a struggle with addiction began to take a toll. I watched as my usually chatty, animated Mom became sullen and despondent.

One Saturday there was a knock at the door. The smiling people from the Watchtower Society were there. My mom-a woman who never went to church, a woman who usually cussed when Jehovah’s Witnesses came knocking-decided to let them in. And so began our lives as Jehovah’s Witnesses. Not only did my  mom listen to them that day, she asked them to come back. We began to attend services at the Kingdom Hall religiously. Our social circle soon became limited to other Jehovah’s Witnesses.

I was nine years old and I was not happy with this change. I thought that JW’s were a strange bunch. There had been a controversial case in Cali a few years prior, in which a JW couple refused to give their daughter a blood transfusion. I remembered seeing the litle girl’s picture on the news and feeling sorry for her. Yet here I was years later, with my mom joining the same religion as this kooky couple! Alas, I was a child and there was nothing I could do. I had to obey my mom. For the next two years my family-my mom and my two sisters-would be faithful JW’s.

This all came to an end in 1991. My mom decided to leave Cali and move to the Pacific Northwest, where all of her family had relocated to. One day while we were packing, she took my hand and said she needed me to do something for her.

“Sure”, I responded,”What is it?”

“When we get up there”, she said,”Do not ever mention that we were Jehovah’s witnesses. Nothing about the kingdom hall, nothing about Saturday services. Not EVER. Do you understand?”

“Yes,Mama”.

I understood. As noted above, my Mom was raised Baptist. When visiting my Grandma I’d attend church with her. The walls of my Grandma’s church had two huge posters on them. One poster had the Lord’s Prayer on it. The other poster was emblazoned with the Nicene Creed in bold, red letters. I had read that poster enough to understand that what the JW’s taught and believed contradicted the Nicene creed. I knew that the mainline churches viewed JW’s as heretics and that my extended family would probably have the same view. In asking me to conceal this, my mother wanted me to help her deceive her family. To this day none of them know that were JW’s, and unless they stumble across my blog,they won’t ever find out.

I don’t judge my mother for what she asked me to do that day. People can debate whether this was ethical. PersonallyI won’t, because I understand why she did it. Though my mother was a 33 year-old woman who had been on her own for sixteen years, she still feared the intolerance and backlash she would face from her own family if they found out that she had departed from orthodoxy.

My mother’s request taught me that,even in familes, there is a limit to tolerance. My mother’s request taught me that you can’t even expect your own blood to love and accept you in spite of your beliefs. My mother’s request taught me that sometimes you have to conceal your convictions in order to survive. It is a lesson that I’ve never forgotten.

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