What is it like to be a Jehovah’s Witness family living in Ireland?
Adherence to biblical strictures provides a solid base in an increasingly secular society
Katy Mullins (Carrick-on-Suir) and Becky Mullins (Dungarvan) attending the annual Jehovah’s Witnesses convention in the Citywest Hotel, Dublin. Photo: Nick Bradshaw
A childhood without celebrating birthdays – your own or anybody else’s – is hard to imagine in 21st century Ireland. When your child is at primary school, there are times when it seems there is a party nearly every weekend.
But not for those growing up with Jehovah’s Witnesses as parents.
They don’t “do” birthdays.
“I don’t mind,” says 10-year-old Ethan Wall from Co Cork. Does he tell his classmates why he can’t accept their invitations? “I use the Bible to explain that God doesn’t like false celebrations,” he replies solemnly.
That is not to say they don’t enjoy celebrations per se. And Ethan’s parents, Reece and Kelly, stress that they have other events to look forward to.
“We would do parties for them all the time,” says Kelly, nodding towards Ethan and his seven-year-old sister Ruby, who are busy with Biblical colouring-in sheets. “I think sometimes because you are conscious of it, you make sure there are plenty for them. You wouldn’t want them to feel that they weren’t part of happy things as well.”
We’re talking in the midst of the year’s biggest gathering of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Ireland, a three-day convention at the Citywest Convention Centre on the outskirts of Dublin. There’s an air of a huge wedding party, so smartly dressed are one and all. Males of all ages are at least in shirts and ties if not three-piece suits, while the girls and women flock around in elegant dresses of all descriptions. There isn’t a pair of denim jeans in sight.
Enthusiastic greetings between friends and many couples walking around hand-in-hand adds to the “loved up” atmosphere. Nearly all the 6,000-plus active members of the Witness congregations around the island attend the convention.
The span of ages, from the occupants of dozens of buggies neatly parked in rows in a backstage area of the vast auditorium, right through to senior citizens, is indicative of the close-knit family nature of this religious community.
So, what is life like for Jehovah’s Witness families in an increasingly secular Ireland? A few of the convention attendees agree to talk to Health + Family about what they do and why.
Back on the topic of birthdays, David Dunlea says the lack of celebrations never bothered him and his brother growing up in Cork.
“Often it is more of an issue to other people, because they don’t understand. My parents were always very good – they tried to make a real effort of other occasions. My parents’ wedding anniversary would always be a family day – the kids would all get something.”
Now he and his wife Rosalyn, who was also raised as a Witness in Cork, take a similar approach at home in Galway with their children, Madison, who will be three in September, and six-month-old Joshua. Their non-observance of age milestones stems from the fact that two birthday celebrations featured in the Bible didn’t end well – John the Baptist was beheaded on King Herod’s birthday, while Pharaoh, on the day of his birthday feast, had his chief baker killed.
Surprisingly perhaps, these Christians also regard December 25th as just another day, also Easter Sunday (but they do celebrate the occasion of the Last Supper as the Memorial of Christ’s death) and there’s no trick or treating for children at Halloween. Yet, they like to party at other times and, while abuse of alcohol is frowned upon, many enjoy a glass or two.
More predictably, they believe in refraining from sex outside marriage and from homosexual practices – but that does not make them homophobic, David says. “We do not have any issue with people who have chosen differently to us and people who take a different view to us. We respect their right to do something they want to do with their life – we would just hope they respect our right to think differently.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses, who originated from the Bible Student movement in the US, are probably best known for how their biblical beliefs clash with the modern medical practice of blood transfusions.
Their refusal to give consent for such a procedure, even when it appears to be a matter of life or death for a beloved child, is inexplicable to most onlookers. It’s an issue that is at the heart of the film adaptation of the Ian McEwan novel, The Children Act, which will open in Irish cinemas on August 24th.
David, whose parents converted from Catholicism after Witnesses called to their door in Cork, explains the rationale. He quotes the Book of Acts reference to “abstaining from blood” and also how when Noah and his wife came out of the ark “God told them they could start eating meat but only animals with their blood drained”.
He is a member of a Hospital Liaison Committee that gives presentations to hospitals on what to expect when treating Jehovah’s Witnesses. In an emergency situation, congregational members can contact the committee, who will act as a go-between.
But how could parents refuse a potentially life-saving intervention?
“The funny thing is that it is often represented as that – blood equals life,” he replies, maintaining that many doctors agree that there are other options. “We look for the best quality treatment we can get – with that one restriction, not using blood products.”
When children have been made wards of court so doctors can give transfusions without consent, parents must have very mixed feelings?
“Of course,” he responds. “I have not been in the situation myself, but I have been with others who have. It is hugely stressful – it is where you have two worlds that collide. What we believe is important to us and then you have your children who you love like nothing else.”
Any suggestion that parents want their children to be “martyred” in such a situation is “nonsensical” he says. “What we do in those circumstances is look for the best possible treatment we can get. They can’t in good conscience consent to something for their child that would be abhorrent to them and goes against everything they believe. We’re not abdicating our responsibilities as parents to the court, but when they do step in, we respect that they are entitled to do that.”
In those situations, they still ask doctors to give a transfusion only as a last resort.
“In my experience, it has almost never been necessary for that transfusion to be given,” he says. “You often don’t hear that part”.
The world has changed but it comes down to, if you believe in God, he hasn’t changed,
When it comes to blood and dietary matters, vegetarianism is not required, nor is halal slaughter. David personally wouldn’t eat black pudding, but is a fan of a rare steak.
The transfusion question is, it could be argued, a prime example of the foolishness of trying to live by a code of conduct recorded by biblical writers who could not have even started to envisage the world today.
“The world has changed but it comes down to, if you believe in God, he hasn’t changed,” says David. “That’s why you have to answer that first for yourself: do I believe the Bible is God’s word? If it is, it should contain the best possible guidance in life, regardless of the type of society we live in.”
The Walls feel their beliefs give their family a structure and positive lifestyle in today’s rapidly changing world.
“When you are raising children, everyone teaches them to be kind, not to steal, to do the right thing, not to lie – all those principles are in the Bible,” Kelly points out.
As a family, the Walls do the “cold calling” on doorsteps, for which Jehovah’s Witnesses are renowned. It can’t be easy, considering most people don’t want to see them?
“These things don’t come naturally,” says Kelly, who used to run a bridal shop, but now jokingly describes herself as “a domestic engineer”.
“At first you might be hesitant,” agrees Reece, a self-employed carpenter, “but when you see the importance of the message – it gives you that courage.”
Indeed, the theme of their convention is: “Be Courageous.”
Going door to door is a nice activity for families, says David.
“For kids, it is teaching them from a young age, doing something for your neighbours. We feel that we have learnt something that is important for our lives and you want to share it with others. Irish people are great, even when they don’t agree with you, generally speaking they are very polite about it.”
Surely doors are shut in their face?
“You get some. Religion is an unpopular topic,” David points out. “A lot of people have almost aggression towards religion.”
That is why they try to make the distinction that they are there to talk about the Bible, not religion.
“People will sometimes say ‘you’re not going to convert me’. But that’s not the goal, we want to share – what they do with that information is their business.”
Sex abuse scandals have damaged the reputation of religious groupings all over the world and the Jehovah’s Witnesses are no exception. Across the water, MPs demanded government action last March after more than 100 people contacted the Guardian newspaper with allegations of child sexual abuse and other mistreatment in Jehovah’s Witness communities in the UK.
“There are bad people everywhere,” says David, who is the convention’s media contact. “We follow policy that if we become aware of such things, we leave it to the law of the land to deal with it. We co-operate with the mandatory reporting laws.”
As regards historical cases, “if somebody wants to pursue it, there is no suggestion that they shouldn’t, it is completely up to them”.
From a religious perspective, “if somebody is involved in something like that, we regard it as a gross sin”. He says he is not aware of any ongoing cases involving Jehovah’s Witnesses in Ireland – “but I am just one person”.
Ministry is an obligation for Witnesses after baptism, which happens during their teenage years or later, depending on when they are ready to commit. They have no clergy, but each congregation has a few male “elders”.
The Walls belong to the Carrigtwohill congregation in Co Cork, where there are about 45 members and six elders including Reece. Kelly has no problem with the fact that women can’t be elders.
“I think the responsibility is better for a man,” she says. “It’s scriptural,” points out Reece.
“Everyone comments at the meetings,” continues Kelly, “so I would feel very much part of the congregation; I would never feel peripheral.”
Nor does she feel Jehovah’s Witnesses are on the outside of Irish society; they integrate through work and she meets other parents at the school gate, she points out.
“We are people of principle and we have a strong faith,” adds David, “but we are just people like everybody else.”
Bubbly sisters Becky (22) and Katy Mullins (20)from Carrick-on-Suir, Co Tipperary, have never dated anybody outside the Jehovah’s Witnesses community and don’t expect they ever will.
“It’s not forbidden,” says Becky. But, considering how they try to live by their principles, to be in a relationship or marriage with somebody who didn’t share those “would be very difficult”.
To marry outside the congregation “would be a wider choice”, she acknowledges, “but at the same time, it’s not like you are holding yourself back from anything”.
So, do they have a full social life?
“Absolutely”, says Becky and they both laugh at the observation that the annual Jehovah’s Witnesses convention they’re attending in Citywest is surely itself one great dating opportunity.
“I have never ever felt the inclination to want to date somebody outside the Jehovah’s Witnesses,” says Katy. “I want a life of service to God and I want to share that.”
“You can think about what you want in the moment” says Becky, “but at the same time you can think ‘that’s not going to benefit me five years down the line’.”
Their adherence to the faith in which they were raised has been unwavering into young adulthood. Their English mother was a Witness from birth while their father, a native of Carrick-on-Suir, converted in his early 20s.
It's a very joyful life and we are very, very happy
At what age did the sisters realise their family was different from others?
“I suppose probably when you started national school,” says Becky. “It wasn’t much of a problem – we were obviously raised that way and prepared for what we were going to face.”
They knew why they wouldn’t celebrate birthdays but had plenty of other parties with friends.
“I never felt like I was missing out on anything,” says Katy. “It is what we were used to. We knew the reasons why and we loved the reasons why.”
The teenage years are generally regarded as a time when nobody wants to stand out from their peers and it’s natural to rebel against parents. Not in the Mullins family it seems.
Becky was 15 when she was baptised a Jehovah’s Witness and Katy 14 – a decision they were “absolutely” left to make for themselves, they stress.
As younger children they would have been given simple rules and reasons, says Becky, who is a music teacher and a member of the Irish-speaking congregation in Dungarvan, Co Waterford. In your teens, “you’re not doing something because your parents have taught you to do it but you’re doing it because you’ve done your own research into it and made the decision for yourself”.
Katy, who works in a pharmacy in Carrick-on-Suir, says she was never rebellious. “I loved what I learnt from the Bible and that was always so important to me.”
When they left school they became pioneers, for whom spreading the Word is almost a full-time job. Becky still does that, aiming to spend about 70 hours a month knocking on doors or manning a literature cart out on the street and “people are generally very friendly”. Going into homes to conduct Bible study “is the main goal of our preaching work”.
Katy says they know not to take rejection personally and if others don’t want to know about the Bible message, “that’s their choice – everyone has the right to believe what they want”. However, “for every door that is slammed there is a listening ear”.
She believes she does not have many of the struggles people her age might face because of her “solid hope for the future”. This “solid hope” is based on the biblical promise that one day God’s followers will live forever in perfect health on Earth – “we don’t know the day nor the hour”.
They are quick to dismiss any notion that, meanwhile, Jehovah’s Witnesses are a rather dour, strait-laced community.
“It is a very joyful life and we are very, very happy and I personally wouldn’t change it for the world,” says Becky.
“I can’t imagine anything better,” adds Katy.