I Belong Here
Debbie Edinger’s Story
Written by Megan Johnson
“They don’t believe in grace,” Debbie said as she sat on her deck with sunshine across her shoulders. “Oh, and they don’t allow celebrations of birthdays or holidays.” She paused and looked out at the lake. “My daughters are still a part of it, so sadly, I’ve never met my granddaughter.” Her voice caught a little. “I did get to see her once during a Zoom call for my mother’s funeral, though.”
Debbie left the Jehovah’s Witnesses when her marriage of 30 years came to an end. “My ex-husband verbally and physically abused me and my daughters, but when I brought my concerns to the elders, they advised me to stay—but I had already stayed way too long.” To complicate things further, her ex-husband was very involved at their Kingdom Hall, and she knew that no matter the circumstances, divorce was not acceptable. “For a Witness, regardless of how you are treated, you have to stay married,” Debbie explained.
However, with a non-existent self-worth from her husband’s abuse, she could no longer carry the heaviness of what she had endured for so long. Debbie decided to file for divorce but leaving wasn’t an easy process by any means.
“I was baptized as a Witness and was married at 17 years old.” Before she could even legally vote, she was a wife and had been a Witness for as long as she could remember. But when she decided to divorce her husband, her long-standing history within her congregation didn’t matter. She was swiftly disfellowshipped. When a Jehovah’s Witness is disfellowshipped, or excommunicated, from their congregation, they are not only asked to leave, they are never to be spoken to again by those who remain within it.
Debbie felt this most acutely in her own family. “My daughters are very cold to me, but I know they love me. Being a Witness is all they’ve ever known. They are doing exactly what they were raised to do. In order to be a good Witness, they have to love Jehovah more than me.” Her voice softens when she talks about her children. “The two positives that came out of my last marriage were my two daughters, but the reality is that I’m dead to my daughters. I understand why, because I believed the same things.”
Most of those “things” hang on an intense complexity of routine, rules, and exclusion. “It’s about keeping people out, mainly ‘the wicked’, and doing what is expected of you,” Debbie shared. “The more hours you put in “pioneering” for Jehovah, the better person you are. If you have low hours, you’re looked down on as being a bad Witness.”
After being disfellowshipped, Debbie was not only grieving the loss of a relationship with her daughters, but both of her parents fell ill and passed away within a year of each other. While her parents remained Witnesses after she was disfellowshipped, they never stopped speaking to her. “Before my dad passed away, he chose to walk me down the aisle and get to know my husband, Jim. I wish my parents could have spent more time with us as a couple. My parents were happy for us and really liked him.”
For a Jehovah’s Witness to walk his disfellowshipped daughter down the aisle was a costly decision. Debbie’s eyes filled with tears as she recalled the respect she still holds for both of her parents, “I’m thankful that my parents gave me a love for God, and it stayed with me. Because often, when people leave the Witness faith, they actually leave God and turn away from church altogether. But my parents never turned their back on me, so I never turned my back on God.”
In God’s mysterious way of pursuing his kids, Debbie’s father was her first introduction to grace, even though the Jehovah’s Witnesses didn’t believe in it.
In June of 2020, on the first day of summer, Jim and Debbie were married in Lake Chelan. “Jim is my gift from heaven,” Debbie beamed with joy. With Jim in her life, she discovered that life isn’t as cold and harsh as she thought it was. Rather, the love of God she had been introduced to by her parents became personal.
With a fresh start underway and new hope in her heart, Jim and Debbie began attending RealLife. They simply walked in one day to check it out. “When I first came to RealLife my initial thought was, ‘I belong here.’” For her abused heart, which had been cut off from the only community she had ever known, finding belonging somewhere was a miracle. Let alone finding belonging at a church, since she had been taught they were bad places to be.
With a loving, supportive husband in her life and a church home like RealLife, Debbie found herself able to embrace Christ’s rhythms of grace after decades of being subjected to an abusive religious system and an abusive marriage.
Jim and Debbie aren’t shy about offering that same belonging they’ve experienced with others at RealLife. They choose to volunteer on the Connection Team, RealKids, and Guest Services. They recently started their own Life Group with several other couples and often invite people over for dinner just to share their lives with them. Both of them ooze gratitude for each other and the community they have found. It is RealLifers like Jim and Debbie that remind us that Jesus doesn’t exclude anyone. Even though they know the pain of being unforgiven, excluded, and judged they have decided not to treat others the same way. “I’ve never been so close to God as I am now,” Debbie said.
In a life story where there was no room for grace or for the God who loves us no matter what, Debbie found Jesus at exactly the right time. While there is still pain in her family and losses to grieve, Debbie is more sure of where she belongs than ever before. “Here is what I do know: God hears our cries and pleas for help, because he heard mine.”