“Leaving the Witness: Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life” by Amber Scorah

Amber Scorah (Photo: Lee Towndrow) Amber Scorah (Photo: Lee Towndrow)

Amber Scorah’s time in Shanghai was not the typical expat sojourn. “Revolutions do not come without violence,” she writes in her new memoir. “If I hadn’t come to China, I would never have even noticed. Somehow, in one of the most restrictive places in the world, I had found freedom.”

When Scorah moved to Shanghai in 2005, she went with two goals; one was to save her lackluster marriage. The other was to proselytize as a Jehovah’s Witness. Instead, she left the religion she and her family back in Vancouver had practiced for three generations. Yet among the most eye-opening parts of her book are the ways in which Jehovah’s Witnesses operate in China.

As a Witness, Scorah was expected to marry within the religion, and for life. Divorce wasn’t an option. When she was in her teens, a relationship with another Jehovah’s Witness went beyond the chaste pre-marital interactions expected. Because of this intimacy, Scorah was “defellowshipped”, or shunned by her church. Even after she had repented, her opportunities for marriage were quite slim. She and the man she ultimately married had little in common apart from their religion. To save their marriage, Scorah suggested she and her husband become missionaries overseas. China presented a huge potential for converts.

 

Swapping a life in one place for a new life in another created an energy capable of invigorating even people like us, who were tired of living with each other. I had begged my husband to move to China for years.

 

In preparation, the couple moved to Taiwan where, unlike China, it wasn’t illegal to preach as a Jehovah’s Witness. They learned Mandarin and moved freely about, spreading the gospel.Three years later, the couple moved to Shanghai on business visas they obtained, under somewhat false pretences, in Hong Kong. China was a different story:

 

There was a protocol upon arriving in a country like this, where Jehovah’s Witnesses were banned. Even if you know someone doing the work there, as we did, you were told nothing about how the preaching was done, or how we would get together for meetings, until you were contacted by the brother who looked after “intake” and training.

 

Leaving the Witness: Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life, Amber Scorah (Viking< June 2019)
Leaving the Witness: Exiting a Religion and Finding a Life, Amber Scorah (Viking, June 2019)

Jehovah’s Witnesses operate in China not unlike CIA agents. Both need other jobs as “cover”, but Jehovah’s Witnesses, who encouraged to stay away from “worldly” influence of university, it’s hard to find work in a place where expat jobs usually require college degrees. But one can  purchase a fake degree from a fake university. Scorah found a job at a company that produced Chinese language instruction podcasts at a time when podcasts were just taking off. No one at her place of employment knew her true reason for being in Shanghai and no one checked her fake degree.

Because they couldn’t go door to door in Shanghai, Scorah and her husband wandered around the city separately to find unsuspecting Chinese men and women to chat up.  One the pretence of looking for a language exchange partner, Scorah would ask to exchange phone numbers. Making sure her potential converts were not Communist party members could take weeks. Her first Bible study target was a woman Scorah calls Jean.

 

Feeling guilty that I hadn’t yet given her a chance to learn the truth, I prayed about it and began to look for an “in.” Everyone’s life had things in it that were wrong, sad, or frustrating. And while Jean was optimistic by nature and shy to share things about herself, finally one day she shared something sad, and I knew that was my cue.

 

Scorah began to fill in for some of the podcasters and started to receive fan email. One of these listeners was a man in California named Jonathan. They developed an online rapport that grew into an emotional relationship. Jonathan guessed that there was more to Scorah than just an office job at the podcast firm. When she revealed that she was a Jehovah’s Witness, her life would never be the same. Jonathan wrote to her incessantly, trying to convince her that she was in a cult, which explained why she never questioned the male-dominated world she lived in. She started to see things through his perspective.

 

I walked away from this conversation and thought about the things I would say, talking to my Bible students, and I realized how ridiculous I sounded. The whole premise—my whiteness, my arrogance, my gross ulterior motive—was becoming clear to me. If I didn’t have the truth, what was I doing? Indoctrinating people? It was a terrifying thought.

 

There was nothing worse for a Jehovah’s Witness than not believing. One could commit adultery, abuse children, or steal money and still be forgiven in the church. As Scorah writes, “I had been deemed an ‘apostate.’ There was no return from this; it was the one sin that God would not forgive.”

She describes leaving Jehovah’s Witnesses in the same light as women who often struggle to leave an abusive partner. Each time she knew she should turn around and not look back, something from her past tried to pull her back. Shanghai was a huge city, but she still ran into Jehovah’s Witnesses. So she moved to New York, this time to start over for good.

Sadly, this isn’t the end of Scorah’s story. Once she moved to New York, she half expected life to be relatively easy after she lost her family and most of her friends. But she experienced further heartbreaks in New York and for the first time felt emotions that never surfaced when she was in the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Yet for this, she credits her time in Shanghai.


Susan Blumberg-Kason is the author of Good Chinese Wife: A Love Affair with China Gone Wrong.