| This is the 85th story of Our Life Logs |
One double-wide trailer, Grandpa, a cousin, and Kingdom Hall.
That was my childhood growing up in north Florida in the 80s and 90s. For the most part, they were good years, and in some ways, even magical. My grandparents raised me and my cousin, Lance, after my parents divorced when I was five. We lived in a trailer. Grandpa made our childhood happy. He owned a cash-register business and we watched him tinker with the machines in his workshop as he told us stories, the way only grandpas can. In the fanciful world he fabricated where there was an angry sandman and bubblegum trees, we laughed. I felt loved.
My family were active in the Kingdom Hall, the worship place for Jehovah’s Witnesses. Witnesses are a unified group who believe in sifting out man-made traditions from the true message of the Bible. They don’t believe in things such as celebrating birthdays or Christmas. However, they’re a tight-knit community. As long as you’re a Witness, you’ll always have family, which was a comforting thought for me in my youth.
I lived with my mom sometimes, too, and would usually spend the weekends with my dad. They were both Witnesses, but my mom eventually left the church, though still keeping her faith in Jesus. My dad was disfellowshipped off and on, but always seemed to find his way back. He would return and repent to the congregation and Jehovah, and then all would be well again. He loved music and was on a band.
On the weekends, I would go with my dad to his band’s practice. Other members of the band brought their kids, too. All the kids would play with each other, but I usually didn’t join. I preferred listening to the music. Watching the band practice ignited my own passion for music. My grandparents noticed my interest and bought me a guitar for $10 at a garage sale. I later learned that it was worth far more than what they paid. That made the gift even more special.
Getting that guitar opened up a whole new world for me. I finally got the chance to play my own music instead of just observing it. When I was 16, I wrote my first song. I created the melody, and my dad laid down the lyrics. The guitar felt right in my hands, like it didn’t belong anywhere else. I knew I had something special to offer. I could feel the passion bubbling up inside me, but with nowhere to go.
Despite my passion as a teenager, I didn’t pursue music very long. The church made it clear that my focus should be on this world and not music. They said if I served Jehovah faithfully in this life, I would have plenty of time to pursue music in “paradise.” I was upset but chose to accept that the church knew what was best. In our religion, lots of things get put off for the next world. As a result, my passion for music remained undeveloped.
And so did I.
Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t believe in hell. They hold out the doctrine that only 144,000 will make it into heaven. The rest will either be annihilated or live in paradise, with Jesus and the 144,000 reigning over them.
I moved in with my dad when I was 17. I dropped out of high school and never went back. I continued to obey the rules of the church for a long time. I was faithful to my beliefs and stayed away from worldly influences. I suppressed my love for music, my personal growth and creative expression. Instead, I took that energy and funneled it into new business ventures. I wasn’t passionate about them like I was about music, but I could justify them to the church. They would make me money that I could use to stay in the ministry.
At the time, putting off my life and my interests seemed like the right thing to do. It was like I was sacrificing earthly things for the sake of something bigger than me. But there was always an inner battle, even in the best of times. I started to disagree with certain foundational doctrines of our religion. I saw situations handled in a way I didn’t think was right. Over the years, all the doubt added up, but I was afraid to address it.
Things changed when I met a girl, which made me question the Witnesses’ rules. I was about 22. My interaction with the girl wasn’t serious, but enough to leave an imprint on me. We worked together at Cracker Barrel. One day, she needed a place to stay for the night. After our shifts were over, I let her come home with me. We got intimate with each other, more than what my conscience would allow. I felt guilty, so I told on myself to the congregation, letting the elders know that I had engaged in “inappropriate” behaviors.
I ended up telling on myself a lot in my 20s. I felt guilty every time I confessed, but I couldn’t help it. I had been exposed to this new part of the world and felt the urge to explore it more. So, I kept, inevitability, “messing up.” I wasn’t actively trying to get kicked out, but I wasn’t trying very hard not to, either. I was just trying to live a happier life and accept the consequences for it.
At first, I only lost my “privileges” within the congregation like the right to participate or contribute in any meaningful way. I didn’t mind as much because it gave me more of a chance to pursue the other things I enjoyed. I continued engaging in behaviors they didn’t believe were biblical and I continued turning myself in.
My life changed forever when I was 28. It was clear that I had messed up one too many times. The Jehovah’s Witnesses announced that I was disfellowshipped in front of the whole congregation. Perhaps I should have been sad, embarrassed or angry, and I was, to a certain level, but mostly, I was excited. I was finally free from the religious constraints I had always been under.
Being disfellowshipped meant I couldn’t come back unless I repented. Friends and family outside of my direct household were encouraged to cut contact with me. Thankfully, I was living in the trailer with my grandmother at the time, so our relationship was unaffected until I moved out shortly after. With my dad, it was a different story. We said our goodbyes on the phone, like a bad breakup.
It was awful. I hated letting my family and friends down. I had regrets, every now and then. Sometimes I wished I had stayed in the church, at least until my grandparents passed away. At times, I even considered going back and faking repentance so I could be with my family again. But those feelings were fleeting and I never acted on them. I wanted to experience life. It was time. Cutting contact with my family and friends was a difficult repercussion to face, but I know now that leaving the group was the best thing for me. I wasn’t afraid anymore to walk my own path alone.
I moved out of the trailer, and got a job serving tables at Steak ‘n Shake and then as a barback. I spent my days working and couch surfed at night. I took whatever free bed I could find on Craigslist. The best part about leaving the group was that I was now able to pursue music, for real this time. Perhaps, it was a subconscious hope that if I played music, someday I’d get my relationship back with my father. And if we didn’t, he and I would at least share in the music we both loved.
At first, I joined a friend’s band, and got gigs with other musicians. I also wrote songs for other people. Eventually, I got tired of relying on other people for my own success. After I discovered my favorite artist, Butch Walker, I realized what a singer and songwriter is capable of. Through him, I gained the confidence to venture out on my own. I wrote my own songs and played shows at bars, open mics and gigs around town. There were ups and downs. One day, someone would see the light in my music and encourage me to keep it up. The next I was sure I sucked and would never amount to anything musically. But I didn’t stop.
After a while, I decided it was time to collaborate again. A member from a previous band I was in helped me start a new group called Shovel to the Moon. I found talented musicians off Craigslist, and we developed a good sound together. We started playing at local bars and worked on getting bigger and better gigs. Finally, at long last, I was growing, and becoming the person I had put off getting to know for so long.
Several years after I was disfellowshipped, my grandmother was rushed to the emergency room and subsequently put into hospice. I hadn’t believed in miracles for a long time, but the elders let me say goodbye to her. I brought my guitar to her bedside and played her my songs. I saw the faith that sustained her all life now giving her peace and resolve on her deathbed.
Though I closed the door to that part of my life, I didn’t stop believing in the power and strength the faith gives to its people. I may be glad to have been disfellowshipped, but I’m able to look fondly back on the life I had in it. It helped build a foundation for me to grow as a person. And sometimes I may still wander, a bit aimless and a bit confused, but I will figure it out one day.
This is the story of Chris Weimer
Chris is a 34-year-old Florida native currently living in his hometown of Jacksonville. He was raised as a Jehovah’s Witnesses and grew up following specific rules that suppressed his own dreams. While still respecting the power of the faith, he felt the urge to break away and pursue his own passion. Chris is now the lead vocalist of his band Shovel to the Moon. When he isn’t working cleaning Florida pools, he enjoys helping his cousin run their dairy, writing music and playing shows.
This story first touched our hearts on May 23, 2018.