My Short-Lived Life at Being Perfect - Part 2
If there is one thing I learned once I became a pioneer, it was that people either loved you or hated you. There seemed to be no in between. Many people looked up to, and were in awe of, those members who had the time and resources to devote ninety hours a month to preaching. Then there were others who felt uncomfortable around us because they may have felt guilty that they weren’t taking on this responsibility or maybe felt pioneers looked down on them and viewed them as not being very spiritual. Personally, both those sets of people made me uncomfortable. I really didn’t feel anyone should look up to me, especially as I chose to do this for the wrong reasons and in no way did I look down upon or judge anyone who didn’t pioneer. How could I?
The Acting Gig of a Lifetime
Around the same time I joined the pioneer ranks, my father and I were approached by my uncle, who was the "Presiding Overseer" of our congregation, to participate in a short dramatization at one of the JW assemblies. (The Presiding Overseer is the head of a congregation). Actually, the drama was to be performed at three assemblies. Apparently, my uncle was a pretty hot commodity within the Southern California JW community so he was asked to give a talk on the Sunday portion of the three assemblies taking place in Norco, California. In the little five or so minute dramatization I played a young girl who was in way over her head, having gotten a secular job and moving into her own place. She now had bills to pay; every once in a while she would miss JW meetings because of her job and someone at work, who wasn’t a JW, was hitting on her. In other words, her life was falling to pieces! My part in this skit was to pace around on stage practically ripping my hair out over the stress and complain aloud - to no one in particular - about how disastrous my life had become. While I'm pitching this fit, I suddenly notice the JW book Questions Young People Ask, Answers That Work. I pick up the book and miraculously turn to the chapter on whether or not a young adult should move out of their parents’ house. After reading a couple parts of that chapter I immediately come to my senses and decide that quitting my job and moving back in with my parents to pioneer is the right thing to do.
I did this three Saturdays in a row. Of course, since I was required to look the epitome of modesty I wore the obligatory long skirt and sensible shoes. I already knew that was expected of me. What I didn’t expect was being told how offensive the organizer of this assembly found my hair. You see, my hair was very curly. This was the early 90’s, when the teased and sprayed-to-a-crisp hair was still in style and the JW organization did not approve of this look, at all. My hair was just curly; I couldn’t help it. I didn’t even like it. I just tried to make the best out of what I was given. After one of the rehearsals, the assembly organizer took my uncle aside and strongly suggested that I straighten out my hair. He seemed to think that I might become "a good example" to the frizzy-haired young JW girls of Southern California and make them want to stop the sinfulness of teasing and spraying. As it wasn’t worth arguing about and it was only for this ridiculous skit, I dutifully straightened my offensive locks.
Anyway, the reason I brought up this skit is because, looking back with 20/20 hindsight, I’m pretty sure I wasn’t asked by my uncle to do that part because he thought of me as a sterling example within the congregation. Remember, the Presiding Overseer of our congregation - the guy in charge - was my uncle. He knew my background and how I made it known in the past that I was not a fan of this religion. During those three Sunday I announced to three different circuits (roughly between thirty and forty congregations) that staying at home with your parents in order to put the JW religion first and not get involved with unbelievers was the right decision for a young person to do in these “last days.” I was now receiving all kinds of praise from the higher-ups in various congregations on what a great example I just set forth for others my age. When first moving in to the new congregation in California, all eyes were on me to make sure I didn’t act out of line like I did back in New York. Now all eyes were on me to watch what a good example I would set. If I decided to back out of the commitment I made to stay home and pioneer, how would that look?
I don't remember too much about my first few days as an official pioneer. Something I did get good at doing was "counting time." As I've mentioned, pioneers have a monthly quota. For years it was ninety hours per month but in the last few years it's been lowered. (Non-pioneer members are required to preach around seven or eight hours per month). This means clock watching while attempting to make converts. Everyone counted time differently. I knew some people who started the clock as soon as they drove away from their house. Others, at the "meeting for field service," which is when the people that were going out preaching that day met at the church for what amounted to a pep talk before actually going out to preach. At these mini-meetings we were also informed on what neighborhoods we will be invading that day. Other people believed you should only count time when you started talking to an unbeliever about God's message. As far as I knew, there were no clear-cut rules on how to count your preaching time and discussing how you do so with other JW's can start an unpleasant debate. If an unpleasant debate starts between a few people - especially pioneers - chances are the subject of that debate will get back to the elders and no one wants to deal with that!
I liked to think I mastered the whole time counting thing. I was all about rounding up. If I went door-to-door for over an hour I would round it up to two because....why not? One easy way pioneers acquire time is by hitting laundromats before the meeting for field service. We would drive around to different laundromats both in strip malls and apartment complexes and leave older copies of Watchtower and Awake magazines on the shelves. If someone was bored they can browse through one of the magazines while waiting for the spin cycle to end and maybe - just maybe - they will see the light and we'd have ourselves a convert!
This was a great strategy because the JW religion not only requires every member to turn in a form every month to their respective congregation listing how many hours a month they preached, but also how many magazines and books they handed out. Obviously, as a pioneer, it was expected that I would be placing magazine and books left and right; but that wasn't the case. As I mentioned in part one, I was pretty good at fake ringing the doorbell so I wouldn't have to talk to too many people, but even when I did to talk to people at their homes I wasn't very effective at convincing the householders to take the literature I was presenting. Looking back I'm convinced this is because it's almost impossible to sell a product that you don't entirely believe in to someone.
As mentioned in part 1, my family was dead-set against a secular job where I would come in contact with a lot of unbelievers and they did everything in their power to dissuade me, including getting the congregation elders involved. When my mother came into contact with some fellow JW's who were looking to recruit new hires to work for a company that cleaned model homes, this seemed to them to be the answer to all their prayers.
During this time in California "McMansions" were popping up left and right. Someone was needed to clean the model homes that realtors walked buyers through. No one is living there, so it should be an easy gig, right? (That is if you like cleaning homes, which I didn't!) It can be just as difficult as cleaning a lived-in home. Think about it: the realtors working these housing tracts are trying to sell homes which, in the late '80's and early '90's, were listed at close to half a million dollars; these model homes had to look beyond perfect. If a pillow was off-center on one of the couches or if a fingerprint on the glass shower door was overlooked, you can bet these realtors would call, screaming that the homes were "filthy." No exaggeration here. One of the communities whose model homes I cleaned was Coto de Caza. At that time, the area consisted of about four model homes, the skeletons of some future homes, and miles of empty land. Little did I know that almost 20 years later Coto de Caza would be made famous thanks to the Real Housewives of Orange County. Although, I'm going to assume the residents of Coto are not too proud of that fact.
In addition, we obviously had to clean them off hours; either at night or early in the mornings. Since our church meetings were at night and didn't finish until after 9:00pm, after the meetings I would head to my cleaning job, finishing around 1:00am. The next morning I was knocking on people's doors in an attempt to convert. Sometimes I would wake up at 3:00 or 4:00am and clean, then go home to shower and get ready to do some more preaching. Good times!
Soon I would discover - what seemed at the time to be - the perfect opportunity to escape.
(c) 2014 Brenda Thornlow
Brenda Thornlow was voted one of the 50 Great Writers You Should Be Reading for 2015. She is the author of the new fiction series My Life as I Knew It; the short story, The Revolving Door and A Godless Love. Available at Amazon. (Link below)
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© 2014 Brenda Thornlow