This is part one of a two-part feature about a Louisville man who is a shunned former Jehovah’s Witness. Part two will be published next Sunday, June 9.
When Mike Shemwell was a child, he was no different than any other. He liked sports, he hung out with his brother Matt. He went to school in fall and winter months and played outdoors in the summer.
But when he was 8, his life took a drastic turn, something he never saw coming, nor will he ever quite forget. His parents joined the Jehovah’s Witness religion — Shemwell refers to it as a “cult” — taking Shemwell, his brothers Matt and Stephen and sister Elizabeth with them.
For the next 30 years, Shemwell’s life was devoted to serving the religion. At times, he worked three part-time jobs just to be able to work his schedule around the 90 hours he spent on the streets, knocking on doors and trying to recruit new Jehovah’s Witnesses.
But in 2015, he and his wife, Jenny, escaped.
Today, Shemwell, now 41, hosts a podcast called “Shunned,” through which he not only tells his own story, but allows guests to tell their stories about escaping religious cults and other oppressive situations.
The podcast has more than 100,000 unique downloads, and Shemwell has found himself a guest on several other such shows.
The number of those excommunicated, often by choice, from such religions is growing, Shemwell says. He wants to help people not only escape their situations if they so desire, but also to heal once they’ve moved into a more “normal” lifestyle.
For the Shemwells, they faced a life of never seeing or hearing from their families again when they left. They faced a world in which they had no friends.
But they’ve not only survived — they’ve thrived. They now have a legion of friends, ironically, in people they knew before they were “disfellowshipped” from the religion as clients of their cleaning business. They’ve visited Niagara Falls and hiked the Adirondacks. They live a happy, American life.
But from the time Shemwell was 8, life was not so free, nor was it always happy.
‘You have to be different’
The move into the Jehovah’s Witness religion was out of Shemwell’s hands. He says he was “born like anybody else” — his parents worked jobs and all seemed well, for the most part. But the family moved into a house next door to a family of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Through a chance encounter related to a real estate transaction, Shemwell’s mother met the neighbors.
“She starts talking to the neighbor,” Shemwell says, “and our whole life changes. My whole life became going to meetings and knocking on doors.”
He continued going to public school, but that offered limited normalcy. For instance, Jehovah’s Witnesses aren’t allowed to salute the American flag or recite the pledge of allegiance, as it is seen as worshipping a false idol.
“When you’re a kid (as a Jehovah’s Witness), at the start of every single day of your life, you have to be different,” Shemwell says. “You have to leave the class.”
The family no longer celebrated any holidays — Shemwell’s childhood was one devoid of birthday parties and Christmas morning surprises.
But there were other pressures. As a Jehovah’s Witness, members are expected to get baptized at a fairly early age. Shemwell and his then best friend — one of the children he lived next door to, ironically — were baptized at age 14.
“If you’re not baptized by time you’re getting into your late teens,” he says, “people start looking at you funny. They talk about you. Everybody knows that if you want to play the game, you’ve got to do this thing.”
And when the baptism is done, the child is considered an adult in the sense that if they step outside the confines of the religion’s strict rules, they run the risk of being shunned. And they won’t just be shunned by the religious elders or church members, but friends and family as well. And being shunned means you are never spoken to, or even acknowledged, again.
Talking with Shemwell, he doesn’t talk like someone who is angry at his parents’ decision. But he does suggest confusion when he looks back.
“My parents were adults when they made that decision to become Jehovah’s Witnesses,” he says. “They don’t know what it’s like to be kid in it.”
‘Hook, line and sinker’
Once Shemwell was baptized, he was all in. His family situation, he believes, played a role in that, specifically as the oldest child in the family.
“The oldest is often kind of the people pleaser,” he says. “I wanted to be good, do the right thing. I would spend the next 24 years trying to live up to being dunked under water one time at the age of 14.”
And so, he would enter into what the Jehovah’s Witnesses term “pioneering,” which is essentially becoming a full-time recruiter. Even as a student, you’re required to do a certain amount of knocking on doors, spreading the word and handing out “The Watchtower” booklets that help spread the Jehovah’s Witness message.
During summers, when school was out, the expectation was to do 60 hours per month.
Shemwell estimates that at one point, he was doing about 90 hours a month; the expectation for adults was at least 1,000 hours of pioneering annually. At times, he was also working three part-time jobs — Jehovah’s Witnesses do not get paid for their pioneering efforts — to make ends meet. He was using his own car, and within a year, it was breaking down.
While attending Butler High School, he excelled. He was class salutatorian, making just one B during his career. He was in advanced courses, and his guidance counselors urged him to go to college to be an engineer. But he knew he couldn’t, because the religion he was in discourages such things.
Shemwell says he was a “hustler” as a teenager and worked on electronics. At one point, a boss gave him the offer to run his own store, which would have helped him attend college. He knew better.
“I turned it all down so that I could knock on doors for 90 hours a month, because I had been programmed to do that since I was a kid,” he says. “I was a true blue believer, man. I bought it hook, line and sinker.”
Meanwhile, his brother Matt went to traditional school, but his other brother and sister both ended up being home-schooled, something Shemwell believes was ultimately to their detriment. Part of their education then becomes a belief that pioneering is an elective and talking about “the Creation” is studying science. He believes it’s part of the religion’s mind control.
“It just keeps kids isolated,” he says. “They’re becoming more insular. It’s a trap — they want to keep you small so they can keep you in.”
Time, along with countless hours knocking on doors, sitting in on meetings and running the sound at all of them, while trying to eke out a living, wore on him. He hadn’t even reached age 20 by this point.
“I just got discouraged with that whole process,” he says. “I knew I couldn’t do it anymore. They create little workaholics. By the time I was 19, I was completely burned out.”
‘Armageddon is always coming tomorrow’
Then Shemwell met his wife Jenny.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are not allowed to date unless the intention is to marry. Dating couples can’t go on dates alone — they must take a chaperone. You certainly can’t have sex outside of marriage, lest you be shunned. And most Jehovah’s Witnesses are married by age 19 or 20.
“I was starting to get a little old,” he says, laughing out loud. “It sounds so ridiculous now.”
The couple courted briefly before marrying, and by the time he was 21 and she was 19, they were married and starting a cleaning business together. If you break off an engagement, you can be disciplined by the elders. You can be stripped of your role as a pioneer.
“Which now sounds like a reward and not a …” he tails off, laughing again. But the point is, he and Jenny suddenly were even more under the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ control. It would eventually bond them and help facilitate their decision to leave the religion. But in the short term, it had the opposite effect.
“Now, if you want to leave, you’re not just disappointing your family, you’re disappointing your spouse and your spouse’s family,” he says. “You’re getting in deeper.”
The burnout didn’t get much better after marriage. Running the cleaning business meant working at all hours, in between knocking on doors and helping to run countless meetings. Whatever it took to put “the Kingdom” — and Shemwell uses air quotes when he says this phrase — before anything else.
“We were living that JW life,” he says.
Then, around 2007, Shemwell became what he describes as “suicidally depressed.”
He was expected to perform more and more. No matter what you do as a Jehovah’s Witness, you can always do more, he says. You can donate more of your money, you can spend more hours knocking on doors, you can attend more meetings.
“There’s insane pressure on your life,” he says. “I was running on that hamster wheel. It was too much.”
So he went to the elders and told them he needed a break. He told them about the long hours, the stress, the inability to keep up, the suicidal thoughts.
“Their response was, ‘We do what we choose. It’s obvious you don’t love Jehovah enough.’”
Shemwell says he has always been “business-oriented,” so he had been participating in business forums online. He was recommended a book called “Driven to Distraction” by Edward M. Hallowell and John J. Ratey, so he bought the audio version and he and Jenny listened to it together. That’s how he learned he had some form of ADHD. It changed his outlook.
“In the cult, your inability to do anything, it’s always seen as a moral failure,” Shemwell says. “But I learned we humans have limitations and we can’t do all these things, and not everybody is going to be great at everything. It’s not a moral thing, sometimes it’s just brain chemistry. That sent me down this path of learning. I started researching things like ‘happiness’ and ‘emotional abuse’ and ‘narcissism.’”
Speaking of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, he says, “They are narcissists, they create narcissists, they attract narcissists. The religion literally calls itself ‘The Truth.’ By calling it that, everything else is false. You’re made to feel special, like you know something that nobody else does.”
The basis of it is basically us versus them, he says. You must be a faithful witness to the best of your ability every day so that when the end of times comes, you’ll be chosen over those who haven’t discovered The Truth.
“First of all, Armageddon is always coming tomorrow,” Shemwell says. “It’s been coming tomorrow since the 1800s. That’s the carrot on the stick. Will you be found to have been a faithful witness. Are you in or are you really in?”
Outsiders, known to Jehovah’s Witnesses as “worldly people,” are those who aren’t “in.” They are to be avoided, because they are believed to be bad people. But as Shemwell began learning more and more, he began to understand that even though he had been told this for years, his experience with his customers, the people whose houses and businesses he and Jenny cleaned, were anything but.
“I knew on some level I was being lied to,” he says.
‘Everyone has doubts’
As the years crept by, he had thoughts of leaving. They weren’t much more than nagging doubts at first, but these thoughts grew over time. There also was a concrete problem that wouldn’t go away that complicated the couple’s situation: By this time, they owed more than $50,000 in back taxes to the IRS. They simply hadn’t been able to work enough to make a living, pay their annual taxes and still meet the demands of the religion.
They were grossing roughly that amount annually, not including business expenses, and it seemed like an impossible task to make up that deficit.
“When you grow up poor,” he says, “you don’t know how to handle money.”
Plus, why plan when Armageddon is perpetually coming tomorrow?
But it was becoming more and more clear that the debt wasn’t going away on its own. So Mike and Jenny decided it was time to take care of their finances, even if it was at the expense of The Truth. It took them about 18 months, which included ridiculous amounts of hours and living on an ultra-tight budget, but by early 2013, they were square with the IRS.
“Whatever work came, we took it,” he recalls. “Screw the meetings. Like a gazelle being chased by cheetah, we focused on one thing. Anything that came up, we said ‘yes.’ We worked non-stop.”
But when the smoke cleared, Shemwell realized the biggest benefit wasn’t even that they had paid off the taxes. Rather, it was 18 months being away from the meetings — the year and a half of, as he puts it, “not injecting that bullcrap into our brains.”
He and Jenny started talking about their situation. Little things turned into bigger things.
One big issue for Shemwell came in the wake of the tornadoes that wiped out parts of Henryville, Ind., in spring 2012. The Jehovah’s Witness stance on disaster relief is to only help their own.
This time, they offered some help by sending a few volunteers to assist in cleanup. But a perceived show of hypocrisy during an important meeting sent Shemwell over the edge.
A higher-up in the organization accused other religious groups of not performing the way their volunteers had — which included some of the Shemwells’ customers, people he held in high regard.
The speaker suggested those groups were there to loot rather than to help. And as such, the Jehovah’s Witnesses expected donations in the form of a percentage of the resulting insurance checks those affected received to help rebuild their homes.
“It was all I could do not to just stand up and say, ‘F%#k you,’ and leave,” Shemwell recalls. “It was so offensive to me.”
As a Jehovah’s Witness, if you hear one member criticize the religion, you are duty-bound to turn them in. Shemwell let the criticism come out in impassioned waves behind closed doors. Jenny never turned him in, which likely would have led to him being shunned and them being forced to divorce.
But she wasn’t ready to agree with him either.
He eventually pressed her on the issue, telling her one day while driving to a cleaning job, “Look, everyone has doubts. I know you have doubts, too. If we express them openly, nothing changes other than that. If we have this conversation and you don’t like the way this goes, take your doubts, put them in your pocket and I won’t bring it up again.”
Turns out, Jenny did indeed have unspoken doubts herself. It was the first time they openly admitted this to each other in a mutual way.
“Once she started expressing her doubts, she was almost as done as I was,” he says. Perhaps more so. But they decided to try one last-ditch effort to “get right spiritually.”
“It has to be me, right?” he says today, sarcastically referencing the mind control he feels the religion had exerted over him since he was 8 years old. Turns out, it wasn’t.
Next Sunday: The “last supper,” escape and helping others heal.