The Shunned Speak Out
Location: East Orange, NJ
Years Out: 24
Matthew Fudge was born into the religion. He was baptized when he was 15 years old, but by the time he was in his twenties, he couldn’t quell his curiosity about other denominations. Churches are forbidden parts of "Christendom," a JW catch-all word for other Christian churches. In order to maintain a clear distinction, members never refer to the Kingdom Hall as church. Attending other churches or places of worship is forbidden. Witnesses are also not permitted to listen to gospel music or any music associated with holidays, like Christmas carols. They do not sing hymns; songs sung at the Kingdom Hall are called Kingdom melodies.
When Matthew got older, he confessed to being intimate with a woman, which led to his being publicly reproved, a step down from disfellowshipping where other members are to limit contact. The second time he was intimate with a woman, he confessed and was disfellowshipped. He was 26 years old.
Matthew took his questions about church to two co-workers. Then, a co-worker asked Matthew to audition for a gospel play. Even though Jehovah’s Witnesses forbid attending other churches, Matthew accepted the invitation. As a child, Matthew would have never imagined that one day he would be in a church, or performing in a gospel play. Matthew still lived at home with his mother and she required him to go to meetings at the Kingdom Hall. He started telling her that he was going to another JW congregation when he was actually going to a church. But Matthew eventually came clean.
Compared to African American churches, Kingdom Halls are somber places. Pre-recorded music without percussion plays as attendees sing from hymn books. No choir sways left to right, lifting voices in harmonies; no one dances in the aisles, catches the holy ghost, or speaks in tongues.
"It's very liberating. You can accept the fact that you can do that, you're not violating the scripture if you shout in church." - Matthew Fudge
"The relationship with my mother just deteriorated," he said. He also lost a relationship with his brother, who is still a Witness. The last time Matthew Fudge attended a meeting at a Kingdom Hall, he wore blue jeans, a white t-shirt, and a leather jacket. He was disfellowshipped, so he sat in the back of the Kingdom Hall.
"That religion’s robbed me," said Matthew Fudge. His tone was defiant, his cadence stamped with disbelief.
"I didn't do this to hurt anybody. I didn't wake up one day and say 'What's the best way to hurt my mom?' I wasn't trying to do that, God called me out of it." - Matthew Fudge
When his mother began to suffer with dementia, Matthew was driven to repair their damaged relationship. One Sunday, he decided to go to the local Kingdom Hall to check on his mother. He planned on finding an elder and asking how his mother was doing. He saw his mother first instead. Within moments, his mother began to weep, begging him to return to Jehovah. She was standing by another woman, close to her age, Matthew recalled. When the woman realized who Matthew was, she stared at him with a look of contempt.
"I realized the longer that I stayed there, the worse it was going to get. So I just left." - Matthew Fudge
Their relationship was so damaged that, at her funeral, he felt like he was looking at a stranger.
"I have to keep forgiving and keep forgiving because memories keep coming up," he said.
Matthew Fudge is now a member of the Mt. Calvary Missionary Baptist church where he still sings in the choir and attends church every Sunday.