Year of Sundays

This is how it began: over a month ago, I informed Joel that I’d Googled “2011 Jehovah’s Witness Memorial” and that the smackdown was happening on Sunday, April 17th.

“Good. But let’s go somewhere well out of the way, so I can partake without anyone seeing me.”

I honestly had no idea what the hell he was talking about. I mean, I’ve seen him take communion at Foursquare and Imago Dei, so it didn’t strike me as a big deal. I figured everyone would be doing it, so why not him?

[Insert the sound of a 144,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses laughing at my ignorance!]

But no matter how often I brought it up (daily) or how cute I tried to be when I nagged him about it (very), I could NOT get Joel Gunz to commit to a Memorial Service location.

When the day of the service arrived and Joel still hadn’t technically picked a Kingdom Hall yet, we found ourselves randomly driving in a generally northbound direction. Finally he decided we were going to Longview and called a couple of congregations to figure out what time the Memorial services began. When it got too late and we realized we’d never make it that far in time, he decided we’d go to the Woodland Kingdom Hall. Then as soon as we got to the Woodland freeway exit, he wanted to keep driving up to Kelso. When he tried to find that congregation on his fancy newfangled brain-phone and couldn’t, I called BS, turned the car around and drove his indecisive ass back to the Woodland congregation.

Even then, we had to stop for a drink on our way to the chapel.

Bracing ourselves for the evening’s Armageddon

By the time we finally arrived (a MONTH later!), I thought Joel was doing pretty well. As we were walking up the front steps, he decided we were just innocuous reporters. “We’ll just tell them about the blog,” he assured me. “No big deal!” We were greeted with smiles and handshakes, given a couple of creepy Sing to Jehovah songbooks, and informed that it was, indeed, okay to take pictures as long as we didn’t disrupt the service. We took our seats and I thought we were all good to go.

Until I turned to look at Joel.

Who had turned as white as a sheet.

Let me just push pause here and say that “white as a sheet” is not a phrase I use carelessly. In fact, I don’t use it at all in my fiction writing because it’s not only a cliche, but let’s be honest, are your sheets even white? Mine aren’t. But more importantly, have you ever actually SEEN anyone turn white before? Because I never had until Sunday night exactly three seconds after Joel Gunz saw Joel Stangeland across the Kingdom Hall. At which point all the blood drained from his face, sweat geysers began erupting all over his beautiful bald head and I started praying to the God of Xanax to magically make a pill (or three) appear in my purse. My next instinct was to go all She-ra on his ass and lift him bodily from that green polyester chair, throw him over my shoulder and bravely drag us both out of the building in my four-inch suede heels.

But he didn’t want to leave. He wanted that stupid bread and crappy wine, even if it meant taking them directly from the hand of one of his oldest friends in the cult. A friend he hadn’t seen in almost a decade.

So we stayed.

The service itself was bland, largely unremarkable and without the cult-like flavor I was expecting. I did learn a few things, however, like how only 144,000 people will receive the afterlife and since those words were written 1,987 years ago, it’s a pretty safe bet that heaven is already full. It took me a few minutes to put it all together what with the speaker’s superfluous analogies about giving gifts to your cousin’s uncle and what if the wrong person got your gift or… something? It was too dumbed down for a non-believer like me to understand. I think he was basically trying to say that heaven is like a giant game of musical chairs. There are only so many spots and the music is getting faster and louder.

I also learned that apparently you can only partake of the sacraments if you actually believe one of those chairs has your name on it.

So, how do you know if you have a heavenly hope or calling?

I still have no idea, but I’m pretty sure it involves either psychotropic medicinals or virginity, neither of which apply to Joel Gunz. (All virgins go to heaven!)

Other jewels of knowledge I gleaned:

  • During the Memorial, the elders – exclusively men – all sit in the front row like members of the Men’s Wearhouse Mafia.
  • JW’s don’t get to celebrate birthdays or holidays, but they obviously make a mean potato salad because the average BMI in that Kingdom Hall was definitely over the legal limit. They might single-handedly be keeping Casual Male Big & Tall in business.
  • Of the 18 million people who attended the Memorial service worldwide in 2010, only 11,200 of them partook of the Lord’s evening meal, which is less than one percent (actually it’s .062 percent).
  • The JW’s really like to hop around their scriptures a lot. The talk only lasted about twenty minutes and here’s the list of passages that were covered: Romans 6:23, John 2:16, James 2:24-26, Revelation 14:4, Corinthians 11:23. After that I stopped writing them down because I was getting more than a little suspicious that they were cherry-picking verses just to make their points.
  • Also – if you want to follow along, you have to BYOB because Bibles aren’t provided at the hall.
  • The singing is so terrifyingly emotionless, you might find yourself looking around the hall for a blunt object with which to pop your own eardrum. Bibles won’t work. I tried.

I sat there for much of the service trying to imagine Joel up there giving the talk because I know he was on that path when he was a Witness. Then my thoughts turned (as they so often do) to that thing we had done in the rapture of our drunken debauchery the night before and it broke my brain. The idea of Joel Gunz ever being a Man of God just does. not. compute. (Thank Jehovah!)

So when the plate of sacramental crackers was passed through the pews and no one in the dozen rows ahead of us partook of it because they deemed themselves unworthy of a heavenly calling, the irony of Joel’s intent was not lost on me. It wasn’t until I received the plate of emblems directly from Joel Stangeland’s hand and passed it to my Joel that the magnitude of what we were doing finally hit me.

Joel was about to piss in their cornflakes.

In public.

While I took his picture.

Which is pretty much what he did.

Silence fell as the plates were passed amongst the pews, so when Joel took that first bite, everyone heard him crunch down on the cracker and a ripple of shock and awe went through the hall. I hid my red cheeks behind my enormous camera and snapped the glamor shot.

In which my crackah eats a cracker!

I’ll be honest: this is where I started to feel of two minds about what we were doing. Going in, I thought partaking was something everyone did – or at least the men. I had no idea that Joel had never done it before, not even when he was a good boy Witness, or that he would be the only one partaking at the Kingdom Hall that night. I had no idea what a Big Freaking Deal it was and that we would so blatantly be disrespecting their traditions.

In fact, we’ve gone out of our way so far to be as respectful as we can. I don’t like stepping on toes. I’m even shy about picture-taking during the services because I feel like it’s pretty rude, even when we’ve gotten permission ahead of time. And here we were intentionally disrespecting everyone in the room!

At the same time, I could completely understand what this meant for Joel. The enormous cojones it took for him to go through with it. The years and YEARS of therapy he endured to get to a place where he could even walk into a Kingdom Hall, much less partake of the sacramental emblems while his worldly blond girlfriend took his photo. I was so proud of him I could spit. And the chunk of my heart that belongs to him expanded like a Peeps marshmallow chick in the microwave.

I admit I was still having trouble shaking off our duplicity. That lasted right up until the service ended and I saw that Joel’s old buddy was making a beeline directly toward us. We took a pit-stop by the water cooler for a minute and ended up separated by the throng of people in the lobby. When I got back to my rightful place at Joel’s side, I arrived just in time to hear one of his oldest friends utter those dreaded words:

“I think you should leave now.”

Joel said something self-deprecating like, “I can respect that.”

He then introduced me, which was when I stopped feeling ashamed and started feeling ANGRY.

Because good Joel Stangland was ridiculously kind to me. He shook my hand and smiled and told me of the fond memories he had of Joel at Bethel and how he still had some of his wacky high school poetry.

So here’s what I don’t get and don’t think I’ll EVER get: Why am I okay? Heathenous, ignorant me! She who can’t find a bible passage to save her life. She who legally took her porn name and uses it to write erotica in her free time. She who plans to live in sin forever (or until it’s legal for her lesbian sister to get married). She with the cigarette in her hand in the masthead! They’ll kick you out of their cult for smoking (literally thousands of Witnesses are disfellowshipped every year for that alone), but it’s perfectly okay to be nice to ME because I just don’t know any better, right? Because I haven’t seen The Truth yet.

Well, I call BS. The truth is that at least Joel Gunz TRIED to be a good witness. He worked his butt off, gave his entire life to the organization and nothing he did was ever good enough for them. All because of ONE REASON: He always told the truth. He never lied about his sins or tried to cover them up, even at the cost of his own salvation. I don’t think there’s a witness alive today who can say that about themselves because if they COULD, they would have been disfellowshipped already.

And that’s not the only beef I have with the organization!

This is one of the poems Joel Stangeland was talking about. Joel wrote this in high school. At age 17.

The Five Minute Romance

I stood at
the crosswalk
on North Lombard and Greeley
waiting for the light to change.

A small maroon
fastback turned left
and in the passenger seat
a blue-eyed girl quicked a look at me
(or the dress in the shop behind me).

Her glance stayed with me all the way downtown.

Lovely, isn’t it? And here’s the rub – this is his biography in the back of that book of poetry.

Is a senior actively involved in the television and newspaper programs. He is also a drummer in two bands: Eastwind and the Jefferson Jazz Combo. He was a winner in the 1983 NCTE writing competition and was a participant in the writer-to-writer program at Lewis and Clark College. He is currently working with his mentor, Gary Miranda. Joel is not planning on attending college.


In spite of the fact that school counselors encouraged Joel to apply to Yale because he was a shoo-in, he did not go to college.

Why is that, you ask?

Because his devout Jehovah’s Witness parents forbade it. They promised to disown him and never speak to him again if he went. Because JW’s don’t believe in higher education. In fact, it’s church policy. The best and brightest kids in the congregation are encouraged to go to the church headquarters at Bethel in New York City, where instead of reading the great philosophers and learning to expand their minds beyond the bubble of their church, they sweat over printing presses and mop floors and go door-to-door doing Jehovah’s work on the ground. They basically train their young men to become janitors.

I wish I was making this up, but I’m not. The April 15, 2008 Watchtower, page 4, says:

“What, though, of higher education, received in a college or a university? This is widely viewed as vital to success. Yet, many who pursue such education end up with their minds filled with harmful propaganda. Such education wastes valuable youthful years that could best be used in Jehovah’s service. (Eccl. 12:1) Perhaps it is not surprising that in lands where many have received such an education, belief in God is at an all-time low. Rather than looking to the advanced educational systems of this world for security, a Christian trusts in Jehovah.”

To be honest, I’m glad Joel went to Bethel. I’m glad he was a Witness because it led him down the road to becoming the man he is today and I’m not sure I’ve mentioned it before, but he’s a pretty spectacular guy. The part that angers me is that because he left the Witnesses, he hasn’t spoken to his family in nearly nine years. His own 19-year old son won’t even speak to him! What’s worse is that I’ve met Max, Joel’s son. I’ve even had the honor of reading some of his work and if you think Joel was a talented teenaged poet, it’s only because you haven’t read Max yet. He’s already a better writer than Joel and I put together.

And because Max is a Witness, he not only refuses to speak to his father, but he refuses to go to college. The idea of all that squandered potential ENRAGES me. Not to mention all that squandered LOVE. Joel would kill for an hour in the sunshine of Max’s company, but the kid can’t talk to him because it’ll get him kicked out of church. Of course, Max can talk to me all he wants because I’m not an apostate, but his OWN FATHER? Not a chance.

That’s what makes this a cult.

It’s also what makes what Joel and I did on Sunday perfectly okay. I’m not at all sorry if we offended good Joel Stangeland or the rest of the cult keepers. I doubt it, but maybe they’ll look at our actions and think twice about their own. I don’t know much about how God’s love works, but I do know this: THEY’RE DOING IT WRONG.

As for Max (who will likely read this in horror), I want you to know that your dad saved that cracker. It’s serving its time in the left pocket of his favorite dinner jacket. He might not know it yet, but he saved that cracker for you.

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