By Richard E. Kelly
In the summer of 1963, I set in motion a plan to disassociate myself as one of Jehovah’s Witnesses. The irony of my plan was that I had to first leave Bethel, the “Club’s” worldwide headquarters in Brooklyn, New York. But I didn’t want to be alone. So I asked Helen Joan Geerling if she would marry me. Not right away, because I needed to find a good-paying job and a place to live. When I told her that we would be living in New York City, she liked the idea, although she wanted to know why now.
I told her that staying too much longer at Bethel wasn’t an option for me. The double standards and blatant hypocrisy practiced at Bethel concerned me. Cold, non loving old men governed the Club, and many of their personnel decisions were vindictive. The Watchtower Society’s president, Nathan H. Knorr, verbally bullied other Bethelites. Vice President Freddy Franz seemed to live in the past, disconnected from reality. Heavy drinking was commonplace at Bethel, and I’d never heard the “F”-word used so often. I could not believe God was actually directing this group of men. In fact, any chance for me to find spiritual contentment wasn’t going to happen at Bethel.
Helen wasn’t totally surprised. She had heard rumors of this kind of behavior from people at her Kingdom Hall who were relatives of Bethelites. But like so many other Club members, she rationalized these excesses: The Society’s leaders were imperfect men trying to please God, and Jehovah would address these shortcomings in His due time. The bottom line for her was that it was still “the truth.” On the other hand, she acknowledged that it may be time for me to leave Bethel, even if it was early, and accepted my conditional marriage proposal. Now it was time for me to tell Nathan Knorr, the Club’s president, that I was leaving Bethel.
I slept well the night before. I calmly worked kitchen duty the next morning, watching carefully to see when Knorr stood up after the breakfast meal was over. (That was his signal that if anyone wanted to talk with him, now was the time to do it.) As he started pulling himself away from the table, I moved quickly toward him and asked if I could schedule time to talk. Up close, he was a tall, big-boned man with an imposing aura, like a white George Foreman, who never smiled. He gave me a stern look, crossed his arms, and rudely stated that “now was as good a time as any.”
I noticed that several people stopped to look, no doubt curious why I was speaking to Knorr. Without a hint of nervousness, I announced, “I want you to know that I will be leaving Bethel in two weeks, and I’d like to tell you why.”
Knorr never looked happy, but now he ratcheted up his already harsh demeanor. He glared back at me and tauntingly inquired, “So – why are you leaving?”
He was interrogating me and I was suddenly unnerved a bit. But I stayed calm.
“Because I want to get married and . . .”
He held up his big right hand, his signal for me to stop and to listen.
“So after you’re married for a few years, do you think that you will leave your wife as well? Perhaps you will tire of her like you have of Bethel service. I wonder if you know anything about keeping commitments.”
I’d come to Bethel to get away from my mother’s guilt trips. Now I was getting the best that the Club’s president could give me. My big sin, in his eyes, was leaving Bethel before my four years were up. Wow! It’s a good thing that I hadn’t told him what I really thought about the Club. Who knows how worked up he would have become? I wasn’t going to be bullied and I wasn’t going to react to his accusation. So I politely responded, “I’ve learned a lot at Bethel and I am grateful for that experience.”
Knorr gave me a hard, piercing stare and waited for me to say something stupid. But I didn’t take the bait. Instead, I simply smiled, turned, and slowly walked away. With every step I took, I liked the person I’d become better and better. By the time I reached the swinging kitchen doors, I was ecstatic. The euphoria of knowing that I had initiated a plan to free myself from the constraints of Mama’s severe religious beliefs produced a long-lasting rush, helping my final two weeks at Bethel pass by very quickly.
This is another article adapted from Richard E. Kelly’s first book, Growing Up in Mama’s Club – A Childhood Perspective of Jehovah’s Witnesses which is available on Amazon.com and from his website, RichardEKelly.com. Kelly’s experience was not unlike many others who left behind their homes, families, and education to make the trek to Brooklyn and commit to two or more years of service at Bethel. Unlike many others who stayed longer and gave up their youth, Dick made the move, left Bethel, and went on to forge a successful career for himself. He, and his lovely wife Helen have a happy, supportive, and loving family and enjoy active retirement in southern Arizona.