Tucked beneath the Brooklyn side of the Brooklyn Bridge, beyond the serviceberry trees and hedgerows of the Bridge Park Greenway, across the blacktop of Furman Street, the House of God awaits. Nearly 7 million Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout the world call the collection of buildings Bethel, transliterated from the Hebrew, Beth El, “House of God.” Its tall red sign, a city landmark for decades, looms over the skyline: WATCHTOWER. The building is also home to thousands of volunteers who live on the premises, all in the service, among other things, of printing the most widely circulated magazine on the planet: 46 million every month. I was supposed to live there, too.
When I was a small Jehovah’s Witness boy living in Queens, Bethel was Oz-like for me. I mean that with all the awe, utter hopefulness, and mythic fear with which Dorothy and her friends had approached that magical city. My earliest memory of visiting there, at six or seven, has my family walking those incredibly clean streets as if beyond them were a protected place, separate from the broken cement outside of Bethel’s borders. But mostly I remember the street names: Orange, Pineapple, Cranberry, and Water. Such nature! God lived in a concrete Eden. I remember Lemon Street most vividly of all, so bright and perfect. I can still see my father pointing at the sign. So this was where God lived.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are mostly known as a nuisance, especially on a Saturday morning. But I can promise you this: they mean well. As a kid I spent countless weekends knocking on doors, and was told several times to get off the owner’s property, etc.; but in retrospect I can say the overwhelming majority of people were kind, open to (brief) conversation, at the very least respectful. Delivering sermons to strangers is a lifelong effort for the Witness. It’s why Bethel exists in the first place: to provide that ministry with Bibles and supporting literature. It’s also, for the boys, an essential stage in the process toward becoming a preacher, a minister, and one who gives longer and longer sermons to congregations. So while it might seem exotic to some that I was a minister at a very young age and continued to minister into my late teens, it’s simply a normal part of the Witness life.
By my mid-twenties, however, things had changed. Drastically. I had not only stopped witnessing, I had left the church. As a family we’d left New York and moved to Atlanta. And then I left Atlanta. I fled my family — I pulled a typically adolescent-male maneuver and ran away. I ran for years, actually, and lived for various reasons, and for various stretches of time, in Southern California, Mexico, Seattle. I then bounced back and forth between Atlanta and New York, and then settled in New York for good, some ten years ago, and spent the subsequent decade waiting tables and tending bar. I worked in old man Irish haunts in Queens, and at upscale velvet-roped wine tastings in Manhattan. I worked for restaurant chains that force to you wear a button on your ill-fitting polo shirt. I wore colorful corporate flair. It was a long and transitory time, marked by loneliness, guilt, and confusion. But mostly it was marked by avoidance. I avoided my family, and saw them not nearly as much as I should have. And I avoided thinking about the very thing that sent me running in the first place. Even in my writing. Because I’d always been writing. In fact, it was literature that first got me questioning my given place in the world. I wrote in the mornings, before working late-night shifts. I wrote on weekends. I wrote about everything under the sun, except for what really mattered, my religious heritage. Though my family and I had long since reunited, and our healthy relationship had become a priority, I did my best to forget the beliefs I’d left behind.
Bethel, however, always remained in my periphery. I could see the Watchtower sign from East Manhattan, where I worked at a fancy nouveau-American bistro (now closed), and when I took long brain-clearing walks and runs along the East River walkway. I’d left the church, yes, but Bethel had endured, becoming a symbol of my past failures and unresolved fears. I pointed to it many times, saying to friends: “There it is . . .” The usual response was a shrug.
Last year, at age forty, nearly two decades after I left the church, a friend of mine, Amber, also an ex-Witness, suggested we take a tour of the Watchtower facilities. We joked about how weird it would be, but soon decided it was something we simply had to do. On the train ride there, we talked about the mythical place it held in our memories, the powerful grip it had on what we imagined ourselves to be and once were. It was a clear day and warm. I regretted wearing a jacket as we walked from the station and out among Cranberry, Pineapple, and Orange Streets. (No sign yet of Lemon, which I’d have to scope out on the way back). Amber and I approached the entrance, and I pulled from my pocket a small pad I’d brought for taking notes. The building stood there, faceless, emerged from the earth. I took a deep breath and held my notepad like a charm.
Amber went in ahead of me. She seemed so confident and comfortable. She’d only left the Witnesses a few years before, but had successfully resolved her divorce from the organization in a way that I, in twenty long years, hadn’t managed to do. I lagged behind, my shirt sticky with perspiration. Leaning against the cool glass door, I saw the lobby teeming with people in their Sunday best, marching past with books and clipboards in hand. All on a mission of nonstop smiling efficiency, it seemed. Beside a large sectional sofa, Watchtowers were fanned out on a table. I walked over and sat, feeling hot. Amber approached the front desk, and I marveled at her. She was just plain cool. I was jealous. And then I felt like throwing up, so I headed for the men’s room to pull myself together, pressed my face against the cold metal towel dispenser, and fainted.
I woke up on an impeccably clean white floor and caught my breath. I wondered how long it would be before someone came in, and I sat there as the seconds passed. Minutes? Nobody came. I stood, and when I stood I saw something remarkably unremarkable. The color of the walls: beige. The walls were beige with maroon trim. And I thought of the congregation restroom I knew as a child, and of the congregation restrooms I’d seen in other cities — all precisely this same shade of beige. There had to be a storage room deep in Bethel’s depths housing how many cans of Bethel Beige? I opened the door and looked at the lobby carpet and walls: so much benign beige. Suddenly, I was calmed by how banal and bureaucratic this place was — how unthreatening in every way. I found Amber, and we took the tour. It lasted an hour or so, and we met some lovely people who’d traveled thousands of miles to be there. We watched instructional videos. We looked at printing machines and informative placards. We left.
It was midday, and on the street outside I saw a friendly looking young man, clearly a Bethelite. He wore an inviting smile and a beige two-piece suit. White shirt. Tie. Remembering my earlier mission, I asked him if he could point us toward Lemon Street. He said he was sorry, he wasn’t familiar. Was I sure I had the right name? I checked the subway map, and Googled fervently when I got home. Nothing came up. It had never existed at all.