I’ve tried to call my mother twice since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic.
The first time was about a week ago, and it was late. I knew there was a chance she wouldn’t answer because of the hour alone, about a minute till eleven, and I think that was part of the reason why I went ahead and did it. I closed the door of the bedroom I share with my boyfriend and sat down on our bed to make the call. Within 30 seconds it went to voicemail. I closed my eyes, let the air I had been holding in my lungs out. It was late, I reasoned with myself. She could easily be in bed. I let it go. Didn’t tell my boyfriend I attempted the call, because we had already agreed, a week before, that I wouldn’t try to reach out to my family even as the pandemic mounted, as the emotional toll would be too much. Afterwards, I went back out to the living room and pretended nothing had happened.
I knew that she wasn’t asleep.
The second time I tried to call my mother made the fact she didn’t want to talk to me a little more concrete. It was a few days later, mid-day, and I did so on an impulse, even after I had told myself I wouldn’t try again. I was in my car, and after days of self isolation, needed to go out and run errands before I shut myself back up in the house. The phone rang a few times, I didn’t count how many. It didn’t feel like all that many before it clicked off, and I heard the familiar sound of her mailbox come on.
Neither time did she text me and ask if I needed something. Neither time did she call me back. When I opened Twitter on my phone afterward, I read the headline Coronavirus spreading faster in Detroit than nearly anywhere in the United States.
Macomb county, a little outside Detroit, where I grew up on the southeast side of Michigan, has almost four hundred cases of Coronavirus confirmed, but realistically has hundreds more that have not yet been confirmed. Michigan has steadily become the state with the fourth largest population of confirmed cases, but from national reporting you likely wouldn’t know that.
My parents aren’t old, but they aren’t young either. My mother will turn 58 this year, my father 51. For almost as long as I can remember, my mother has struggled with health issues, and on both sides of my family, heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure abound. We are also Black, and as this situation gets more dire in the United States, I cannot help but think about cases internationally where Black people, Black women in particular, have been disbelieved or ignored regarding their Coronavirus symptoms, with fatal results.
I misguidedly thought, under the circumstances, that my parents would be at least somewhat interested in my well-being, as I was somewhat interested in their own. This apparently was not the case. Even other family members I’ve spoken to since this all began have expressed shock and concern at the fact that even in the wake of a global disaster, my parents have not as much sent a text message to make sure I was alright. I, for one, am not surprised. They are only following orders.
My parents, along with 1.2 million other Americans and 8.4 million people worldwide, are Jehovah’s Witnesses. In being Witnesses, one of the things that is infused in the DNA of the religious doctrine is that if someone leaves the fold, or even worse, leaves and then speaks out negatively about the religion, they are to be cut off and shunned, called “disfellowshipping” within the organization.
I’m not going to spend any time here trying to prove that this is what they teach, although if you were to bring up this teaching to many Jehovah’s Witnesses, they would deny it. Even on their website, there is an article claiming they do not shun.
As someone who until 2017 was a devout Jehovah’s Witnesses, I am telling you that this is a lie. If you’re interested in looking this up yourself, please do. Many people have already put together pages and pages of proof from Jehovah’s Witnesses own publications that disprove the claim that they do not shun.
What shunning – or disfellowshipping if you are a Witness – means is this: you are completely cut off from your community, your family, and anyone you have ever known. There are many stories of children, minors, being kicked out of their parents home due to being disfellowshipped for sins such as smoking, having sex before marriage, or being gay. In less extreme circumstances, members of the religion will be completely shut out of their families and congregations for some perceived sin or misstep.
I cannot overstate how damaging shunning is, as someone who was raised in the organization from birth forward. My family was devout and faithful, and what that means in the organization is that you stay close to the congregation and to the branch (Jehovah’s Witness headquarters, where they manufacture their propaganda) and don’t make relationships with outsiders who are deemed to be unfit, “worldly”. So, when someone decides to leave, whether they are sixteen or sixty, they will be completely on their own. This is known to all Jehovah’s Witnesses, and for the most part, it is a piece of doctrine that people follow, at risk of being thrown out themselves.
In all transparency, I’ll say this: not all Jehovah’s Witnesses will be like my parents. I’m sure plenty of Jehovah’s Witnesses have reached out to their family members who have left the organization since the pandemic began. I’m thankful for them. But the fact remains that the majority likely have not, because to do so would be to betray their religion and their God. And more likely than not, those who have reached out to their family members have done so not to make sure that they are still in good health, but to attempt to get them back into the fold, as the Jehovah’s Witness leaders have declared Coronavirus proof that we are in the “last days of the last days”, aka that the global apocalypse that they daily pray for, and that will kill all of the non-Jehovah’s Witness population, is upon us. Any former Jehovah’s Witnesses who do not repent and beg the organization for absolution before that day will be caught with the rest of the population deemed “fit for destruction”.
I have no doubts that the world isn’t ending, although I believe that our “system of things” is. Watching the fall of the American Empire, and that of global capitalism, has been terrifying as a colonized citizen. To do so knowing that my family would happily see me get sick and die, or get sick themselves, without so much as a phone call has been devastating. But I’m not alone: thousands of former Jehovah’s Witnesses, as well as ex members of other high control groups, are coming to terms with this fact.
Although the virus taking control of the world’s collective psyche has been difficult for all of us, there is an added layer of pain not being able to suffer through it with the people who are supposed to care about you the most.
I’m going to be fine, either way. Whether I get sick with the virus or not, I’ll likely make it out on the other side. I can’t say the same for either of my parents, or any of my other extended Jehovah’s Witness family. It has been a sobering realization, but not an unwelcome one, in the end.
In these strange times, it’s important to know who is on your side, and who cares about you. As we watch our government fail it’s people time and time again, it’s important not to take for granted those in your life who do care, and who are looking out for you. They are, unfortunately, all we have.
If I were to die, and my parents made it out alive, I wonder if they would consider their holding fast to their religious belief worth losing their child. Worth letting me die without a single word to me. The worst case scenario, of course, is that they will. I have no false ideas about how strongly they believe what they do.
If I were to die, there is a good chance that they would think it is God’s personal punishment for me, as Coronavirus is God’s punishment of the world. I have accepted that, as I have accepted that this pandemic is not going to get better on it’s own. Jehovah’s Witnesses around the world are gathering in Zoom chats to pray that Coronavirus is indeed the end of days they have been waiting for. I’m thankful I’m not one of them.
Story reproduced with permission.