Why My Birth Religion Matters
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Why My Birth Religion Matters

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Why My Birth Religion Matters
Malayalam Bible

In light of our recent presidential transition, religion and the phobia thereof has become popular again. Religion is something that people take pride in, especially in the rural South, where I was born and raised. Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, it's all pride and even the location of the church matters to some of them. Other religions are tolerated to a point, but rarely violent in public places like high schools or the college campuses around me. Another common thing in the area is that most religions don't intermarry, which makes my situation particularly odd.

My father was a Christian, even attended Bible College at one point. He's now an atheist with no intention of converting to anything related to Christianity or organized religion. On the opposite end of the spectrum, my mother is a fully baptized Jehovah's Witness.

Growing up, I attended the Kingdom Hall with her. I referred to people as "brother" or "sister" and everyone was treated equally. We had two prayers a meeting, accompanied with songs and discussions about bible passages. We had two assemblies a year, and one district convention. No matter what race, ethnicity, sex or class someone was, in the Kingdom Hall, they were all respected and loved.

Since high school, I straddle the fence between my parents' religions, or lack thereof. Some days I believe that there is a god, and the Witnesses are right. Other days I find a total lack of reason to believe in a higher power. I don't particularly define myself as either, although I always register as a JW on paperwork, especially with schools. There's a stigma around Witnesses, and there always has been, even though it's almost explicitly ignored.

"I'm a Jehovah's Witness." I said, during registration at my four year college, awkwardly in front of a table. The chaplain faltered, and struggled to smile at me. She had a pile of papers, with religions from Hindu to Nordic Pagan, so it wasn't particularly obscure. It was just that religion, the one people talked about behind closed doors, the one that was a joke.

"Oh, okay, let me make a note of that. We don't have those services on campus, but we can contact the local congregation to make arrangements for you to go."

"That would be lovely, thank you." I watched as she wrote the note on my paperwork, and smiled at me, still uneasy.

"Alright, the chapel is always open if you need it. I'm Jenny, and I'm here as a resource and safe space if you ever need one." And that was the last of discussion of my religion from August until May.

In history classes, even specifically about modern times, or religious classes, the Witnesses rarely come up. This isn't particularly surprising, as the religion is banned in several countries, and they're mostly deemed as a strange cult. It does however, sting, because other religions are discussed. Indigenous religions have been talked about, the Reformation and Spanish Inquisition, the Crusades, missionaries and the rise of radical Islam, all have been talked about. The Holocaust, a sore topic that is something people like to skirt around, focuses solely on the persecution of Jews.

Jehovah's Witnesses were in the concentration camps as well, marked by the inverted purple triangle. While it wasn't a cut and dry deal with Witnesses, who had the option to rescind their beliefs, many of them refused. They accepted the fate of the camps, faith never wavering. With the exception of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in DC, I have never seen anything about the Witnesses mentioned in the Holocaust. About 10,000 Witnesses were detained, tortured or put to death, from Germany alone.

Witnesses didn't just receive persecution in the second World War. Russia banned the religion in 1951, sending over 9,000 to gulags and various concentration camps. During both World Wars, Canada put Witnesses in concentration camps. In the United States, schools banned the religion and would go so far as to tar and feather some of the Witnesses. Even in 2016, Russia has labeled the Witnesses as "an extremist group" and banned the literature they use.

But the Witnesses have also paved the way for things that we take for granted. In 1943, because of a lawsuit by the Witnesses, the Supreme Court ruled that a student could not be forced to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. In 1946 and 1953, the Supreme Court also ruled that they could not be forced to join the military because of their religion. Earlier than that, in the beginning of the twentieth century, they were among the first to pioneer color in film.

Even if I don't attend congregations, preach or get baptized by the Witnesses, I still think the religion of my childhood matters. The fact that we just ignore what has happened to Witnesses, perhaps because the religion is viewed as a sham, or because it doesn't touch on the horrors done to Jews, is wrong. As a country, we preach religious tolerance and an accurate history, but there's never any mention of a religion that helped bring national change. This religion does not deserve to be glossed over, in favor of the plights of others. This religion matters, not just to the curriculum of history and religion students, lawyers and the government. This religion should be talked about, not skirted around, so children don't view it as bad. So that Witness children don't feel singled out for being apolitical, or avoiding birthday or holiday celebrations.

I'm not saying that the religion should be preached, but subjects from the Witnesses, such as being apolitical could be discussed. The option to choose should be available to students, so that they are aware that choices exist. We should talk about how others were treated during horrors such as the Holocaust, because often it's glossed over as just the Jewish people. We should talk about how religion has advanced our worlds, with Islamic influences in math, to color film from the Witnesses, to the creation of ink by the Hindus.

Whether or not someone chooses to listen to the beliefs, every religion has a place in our world. Every religion matters, and should be discussed. My religion, whether it's from my mother's congregation or my father's avoidance of one, should be respected. Just as any Christian is respected in the country. As much as Islam is respected in the world, Judaism in Israel and Buddhism in Tibet.

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