My article headlined 'Shunning: The cult-like practice of Jehovah's Witnesses', which was published on September 13, 2015, sparked widespread reaction.
The following interview with 26-year-old Courtney Thomas should advance the discourse around this religious movement. Thomas is a resident of Gravel Heights, St Catherine, and was involved in the Jehovah's Witnesses church from 2008 to 2014.
How did you get involved with the church?
Jehovah's Witnesses became friends with my family and encouraged us to study and attend meetings. After I graduated from high school I started to take Bible studies more seriously.
The Witnesses made very good friends. Very kind and considerate people. I finally got baptised and became very active. I served as an aux pioneer, regular pioneer, ministerial servant, literature servant, and was also an assistant to the theocratic ministry school overseer.
Are your relatives members of the church?
My mother and my eldest brother are Witnesses, and I have an aunt who is currently studying church literature.
What are the principal teachings of the church that are at odds with what you consider acceptable or reasonable?
It's both reasonable and acceptable for someone to have a blood transfusion. Although Witnesses are now allowed to accept blood fractions, thousands have already died believing it's an unpardonable sin.
I also find it reasonable for an individual to worship in a different way and not be abandoned by his or her family. It's also reasonable to conclude that since Jehovah's Witnesses have a history of false prophecies dating back from their beginning, they should willingly accept the label as false prophets.
It's also reasonable to expect intelligent individuals to ask critical questions of the church leaders, for example, 'Why are members never told about past publications such as the totally discredited The Finished Mystery?' Also, members should be able to investigate allegations of child abuse.
In July 2015 in Australia, a commission of enquiry uncovered more than 1,000 cases of child molestation that were reported to church elders but were ignored. It is a systemic problem in this church. We have to ask what is going on with the church in other countries.
How do you distinguish between a cult and a religion?
Cults are known for their secrecy. Elders of Jehovah's Witnesses have a secret manual, Shepherd the flock of God, that only they are allowed to read. Also, there are great strains in leaving a cult. You are excommunicated and members are instructed to strictly avoid you.
Usually cults are physically removed from society, as we saw with Branch Davidians and Jonestown, but what we see with movements such as Jehovah's Witnesses is that their seclusion is more mental than physical.
Why do you consider the Jehovah's Witnesses a cult?
Cults have several defining characteristics, among those are secrecy, as I explained. Jehovah's Witnesses are known for keeping secrets concerning its child molestation problem. There have been serious false prophecies in the past - serious pronouncements which current members are not told about. The world was expected to end in 1914 and 1975. A few faithful men of old were to be resurrected in the 1920s (Abraham, Joseph, and David) and a house was built in the 1920s in San Diego to accommodate them. This house was named Beth-Sarim. This never happened.
Also, control is exerted and fear is driven into members so that they don't leave even if they have reason to. One such fear is loss of friends and family due to shunning. Anyone who dares to question the authority is deemed an apostate or mentally diseased. The Witnesses teach that all other religions and churches are wrong so it's their way or divine retribution.
At what point did you have second thoughts about this church?
When two friends expressed their willingness to leave, I needed to know why the drastic move as one of them grew up in the church and the other joined when he was 13 years old.
Like them, I had stumbled upon some 'apostasy' videos on the church. Also, an Adventist co-worker had given me the book, God's Channel of Truth - is it the Watchtower? A very interesting publication. I read it from cover to cover.
Shunning is enforced against members that have erred; were you subject to this practice, and what are some of the repercussions?
After dissociating myself from the organisation on January 10, 2015, I immediately started to feel the effects of the shunning. My peers started to block me on WhatsApp and friends started to 'unfriend' me on Facebook. Calls to my eldest brother who is an elder in Portland went unanswered. My own mother started to treat me differently. She still speaks to me but that mother-and-son relationship is not the same. Children of active brothers and sisters in my former congregation see me on the road and run from me as if I was a monster. Shunning among Witnesses is very damaging to many families. Children are forced to cut ties with relatives who are no longer Jehovah's Witnesses and parents are forced to cut ties with grown children and not even communicate with them via emails. Friendships that took many years to build can dissolve in a matter of minutes.
How should individuals respond to an invitation to study or read literature from this group?
Even though it is a cult, I will not encourage hostility to members who are witnessing. Deep down they are genuine persons trying to serve God as best as they can although they are misguided. Well-informed householders can be instrumental in turning things around. Parents should also be aware that the children of Jehovah Witnesses are using the school ground to evangelise.
You have expressed an interest in cult awareness programmes that help victims reintegrate in society. Are cults a growing problem in Jamaica, and if it is, what should be the response?
Social media, in particular, is at the core of this problem. I would call on the various ministries in Jamaica, such as Ministry of National Security, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Youth and Gender Affairs to join forces to highlight the dangers that lurk on the Internet.
The media is equally vital in addressing this issue. We must also have trained counsellors and support groups to attend to the unique needs of former cult members.
Are you still a religious person?
Yes, I still believe in God but I am very cautious about attending any particular church. I question everything.
How has your experience with Jehovah's Witnesses impacted your life socially, personally and spiritually?
Socially, I have lost about 75 per cent of my friends. I am not sure what mental state I would be in right now, were it not for some supportive family members and a friendly community.