I love getting snail mail so I was pleasantly surprised to get home from work today and see a handwritten letter addressed to me. After a quick glimpse at the return address with no recognition, I wondered what baby shower, bridal shower, or engagement party invitation lay awaiting inside.
Turns out it was a little more important than any of those life events. The girl who sent me this letter was quite literally trying to save my life (or soul?) by way of converting me to her religion, Christianity. I already consider myself a Christian, but according to the straightforward letter and tract I found inside, I’m not the right kind of Christian.
For some reason, I felt incredibly compelled to write back to my newly found penpal, Nora. Isaac told me that she has written me before, but I have apparently completely blocked it out of my memory. This was even more reason to write her back– two letters for moi? She has an invested interest in my spiritual journey. Also, she happened to catch me on the tail end of a long journey into acceptance of my current beliefs, and openness to the fact that they may change day to day, or sometimes hour to hour. So, this poor girl got unloaded on.
I wanted to share what I wrote to Nora here because the words I wrote are from my heart. Receiving this letter today was merely an excuse to put into words what I’ve been feeling for so long, but haven’t been able to articulate. I still didn’t really do my thoughts and feelings justice (how can you when it comes to matters of spirituality?), but I tried.
My name is Courtney. I received a handwritten letter and tract from you on April 18th and wanted to take the opportunity to open an honest dialogue with you. I know that being a Jehovah’s Witness, you probably deal with a lot of doors slammed in your face, rude comments, and general hostility from certain people. If this isn’t the case, I’m glad to hear that. People in today’s society oftentimes dehumanize people who have different beliefs than they do— it makes them easier to mistreat. I want to assure you that I am responding to you not in anger or hostility, but with genuine curiosity and the desire to explore your motivations and faith, and to tell you about my own faith.
First off, I was curious about how you got my name and address? Since the letter was addressed specifically to me, I am wondering if my information is public somewhere or if you received it in another way. Do we know each other in “real life?”
Reading the letter you wrote and looking at the tract attached to it was not a new and unfamiliar experience for me— I actually grew up in a nondenominational Christian church and attended a private Christian school up until high school. We were taught, even as young kids, to spread God’s word to the masses and try to convert as many people as possible. There was no set number (we didn’t believe that X number of successful conversions = Y reward), but I remember feeling really stressed as a child. I was constantly trying to figure out how I could make sure my friends who didn’t believe in God could get ‘saved’ before dying so that they wouldn’t go to hell. I had other normal childhood stressors too, like what outfit to wear to school and trying to remember the 50 state capitals, but there was always the underlying stress of knowing most of my friends were doomed to go to hell, and if I wasn’t careful, I would too. For a while, I would “ask Jesus to come into my heart” every single day after school. I kept thinking, what if he got out? What if he no longer lives there and I’m not a Christian anymore?
What I wanted to express to you today is that I think it’s great you have something you believe in so strongly that you would take your valuable time to handwrite letters and mail them out to folks. What saddens me is that the letter quotes a lot of scripture and then coldly says at the bottom, “Check out this website if you need more information or have questions.” That’s it. It’s not personal, other than including my name, and there is no indication of who you are— and you don’t know who I am.
What is the intention here? Because hoping that people will read these letters and tracts and suddenly think, “I’m living my life the wrong way, I need to convert” seems irrational and naive. I believe you are probably a wonderful, decent, intelligent, kind, caring, and loving human being. I have never met a Jehovah’s Witness who was anything but respectful and friendly. And this is why I felt driven to respond to you— you have the ability to TRULY affect people’s lives in a way that is so much greater than mailing out letters to strangers hoping that someone bites. Because then what? You get to check that off your list that you did what was asked of you, so then you move on to the next task? Is that what it means to have faith? What is the purpose of trying to ‘save people’ in this manner? Is it to secure your own spot in heaven? Is it because God tells you to convert people? Or is it because you genuinely care about others and want them to come to know Jesus the way you do, because it has brought a joy and fulfillment to your life that you cannot help but tell other people about. Because if it’s the latter, this current method of mailing out tracts is doing quite the opposite. I’m used to seeing tracks and conversion tactics, and it scares me. I can only imagine how it feels for people who didn’t grow up in the church.
I believe that being a Christian means loving others as Christ loves us. I believe there are a lot of ways to do that, and want you to consider ways you can do that. Other ways.
By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. John 13:35.
I’m not going to lie to you, there is a lot about organized religion that doesn’t make sense to me. That isn’t personal towards JW, it applies to every single organized religion that is in existence. Why does one religion, one sect, even sometimes one specific church have their interpretation of a sacred text get to claim, “We are right, everyone else is wrong, they will suffer for eternity if they don’t believe exactly what we believe.” That’s a rhetorical question because I’ve been deep in a belief system that teaches that, and it makes so much sense when you’re in it. Everyone else is wrong, you’re right, and you can sleep at night knowing that.
I remember learning as a child that Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and every other religion— they all go to hell because, oops, they didn’t believe the right thing. I know that Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t believe in hell, so in the faith I grew up in, that means you’re going to hell. In your religion, it means I am going to die and nothing will happen to my soul— I’ll be damned to an eternity of nothingness. Bummer both ways, right?
So, for a long time I stuck to the belief that “My church is right, their specific interpretation is right, so therefore I am right” out of fear. But what happens when we lose the fear? What happens when the fear is pulled away, like a blanket ripped off of your eyes? It’s scary and surprising and upsetting at first…until you realize that faith is truly personal, and nobody has the right to tell others they are doing it wrong and maybe dinosaurs did live millions of years ago.
Faith can look vastly different from person to person. God created each of us so unique and individual, it’s truly amazing how different we are from one another. All seven billion of us! So, I simply cannot reconcile the idea that God, in his almighty power, decided to make a planet and a human race so diverse only to decide, “They all must believe the exact same thing or they will go to hell or (insert whatever the religion believes happens to those who don’t follow their teachings).” I know how it goes because I used to preach it myself…someone would then come in and argue about “free will” and “the gift is there, you just need to accept it, everyone has that opportunity.” But those are copouts. They are a way to not actually think about or critically investigate the question, whether it’s out of fear or stubbornness or blind faith. Can that be? A God who creates his children to be so beautifully different, their brains ranging in physical structure, neurological wiring, creativity, IQ, values, beliefs, and perceptions all have to believe the same exact thing in order to live a worthwhile, meaningful life, both here and in the afterlife?
What if someone switches churches and the scripture is interpreted differently in that new church? Then, is their new church right, or is the old one who also claimed they were right right? And how does it make sense to think that whichever church you currently attend and whichever belief you currently possess are right, simply because you believe them? That reasoning doesn’t make sense to me, it seems egocentric to be honest. Instead, I think we all will believe many, many different things regarding God and our salvation during our lifetimes. It’s not linear, it’s a messy bird nest of a drawing. And that is okay, in fact, that is great! It means we are not complacent and we are trying to be better, to do better.
As of late, I have shifted in my beliefs and now think we all worship the same God, we just have different ways of worshipping Him and different practices that help us feel connected to Him, and to one another. I don’t believe we can pick and choose certain scriptures to live by, and I don’t believe the entire Bible was meant to be interpreted literally. Having that current mindset, according to the faith I grew up in, means I’m not a “real Christian” and I’m going to hell. That’s why, as a 10-year old, I had to “save” as many people as I could— they had to know the truth.
It has taken years and years of contemplating and exploring my faith and talking to fellow Christians and atheists and everyone in between to come to my current place of acceptance and trust in what I don’t know, and what I don’t even know I don’t know. And trusting that that is okay, and our purpose on this planet isn’t to figure out all the answers. But one thing I do know? That Jesus dude sure did talk a lot about loving one another, so I’m going to continue doing that. Not because I’m scared of my fate if I don’t, not because I have to “save souls” in order to secure my place in heaven, and not because the head of an organized religion tells me to. I’m going to do it because it is how I feel most connected to God and/or Jesus and/or the almighty higher power that makes life and all this rambling craziness and word vomit even possible 🙂
I have gone through years and years of being scared of what would happen to me if I finally allowed myself to stand confident in that belief. But, that? That is a faith based in fear— and I don’t believe that is what it means to have a personal relationship with Jesus and “live for Him.” That is living for yourself, but with a clever disguise.
This letter has gotten way longer than anticipated, and maybe it would have been better said in a face to face conversation. I realize some of this may come off sounding like a rant, angry, or holier than thou, but please know it is none of the above. I wrote this because I want you to know who you sent a letter to. I think it’s important to know that there are people and stories and experiences and varied beliefs behind the people you are trying to quickly and easily convert.
I have respect for you as a person and as a Jehovah’s Witness, and I hope that you don’t feel this is a personal attack towards you. That’s the hard thing about the written word, you can’t gauge my tone, body language, and sincerity. I am interested in having more of a conversation with you to hear your side— I truly want to hear about your life, your perspectives, your stories, and what you have to say.
If you feel comfortable, I’d gladly have you over for coffee or tea so we can have an in-person discussion. Or, we could meet at a coffee shop. I believe that proselytizing can oftentimes be inappropriate, but especially when you don’t know the person you’re speaking to, you don’t have a relationship with them, and you don’t understand their perspective and history. It matters. I can’t promise I’ll convert, but I can promise I’ll show you a great deal of respect and listen to everything you have to say with an open mind and heart. I won’t dehumanize you because our beliefs don’t merge perfectly. In fact, I look forward to speaking with you for just that reason.
I urge you to reconsider mailing out letters to strangers with tracts. As a former proselytizer and a current Christian, it is painful to think about others receiving those letters. Those who may be pushed even further away from the love that I believe Jesus is, and wants us to be towards one another.
Please let me know if you want to talk more in person, I’m open to it.