HAVANA TIMES, March 23 — Joshua is my friend. He’s 22, but his face appears like that of someone who has lived a little faster than most people. His manners reveal a constant kind of anxiety that someone who didn’t know him would confuse with dementia.
Like everybody, the causes of his present behavior are in his childhood. At the moment he’s serving a light court sentence that obligates him to stay in the province for five years without leaving and to work in a place where, coincidentally, I also work.
No one treats him as a pariah there, because among his virtues he knows how to make himself liked. He can be seen reading a book in any corner, which turns him into somebody with more culture than many of the specialists at the institute, something that speaks poorly of the upgrading of the latter. At the same time, that fact teaches us that life has twisted roads that don’t always lead us to where we think we deserve.
Joshua, tell us a little about your experience with religion?
I’m the son of a man who spent more than half of his life in jail, and not exactly for political or altruistic reasons. My mother ended up divorcing him. Then she married my stepfather, who to me is like a true father.
During that time, some Jehovah’s Witnesses used to come to the house to preach to my mother. Both she and my stepfather were learning from the lectures they received from the visitors. A while later they got baptized as Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Neither I nor my brother was baptized, but we grew up under that education. As a boy I was a little strange, because in addition to being restless, I was able to spend long periods on the roof, reading the Bible or thinking, while the rest of the family carried out normal daily life in the front room of the house.
In school I behaved poorly. I was the leader of those who misbehaved, but I was also one of the students that got the best grades. The teachers complained to my mother, but she didn’t know what to do to get me to act better. I received lots of spankings and was repeatedly grounded, but nothing changed me.
Now, having grown up, I realize that my rebelliousness was in response to so much tension in my life. I believe that’s why, when I had the opportunity to go live for a while with relatives in the town of Batabano (south of Havana) my ties with that religion broke permanently.
But weren’t there Jehovah’s Witnesses among your relatives in Batabano?
No, in fact it was just the opposite. If they welcomed me there, it was —apart from their affection toward me— because they were against what my mother professed. They were afraid that such an upbringing was harming me.
Did your parents let you leave easily?
Absolutely not. I remember I’d spent vacations in Batabano before. I’d got along fine there and I even had a girlfriend. Whenever I had to return to Havana I was reluctant; the house was already in crisis. I even wrote a letter to my aunt asking her to get me out of that “hell,” referring to the situation I was living in.
Things became serious. My aunt pressured my mother, but she didn’t give in. Then I told her that if she didn’t allow me to leave, I’d throw myself off the balcony.
Now that I think about it, I think that I really would have been capable of doing it. My mother —afraid— requested help from the old people in her congregation. After giving her some advice, they suggested she consult God concerning the matter and that she prays a lot. It seems Jehovah answered her quickly, because in three days I was packing to leave.
The years I spent in Batabano changed my life. I’d never run through an open field or known what it was to go swimming in a river; in short, it was freedom. Nevertheless that life wound up getting boring. The moment had come for me to return to Havana, but I wouldn’t go to my house, instead I went to my grandmother’s. It was obvious that I didn’t want to relive the past times, but nor did I want to get into conflicts with my family.
Is that where your religious experience ended?
When returning from Batabano, I didn’t have another belief other than what I had learned since I was a little boy, though I didn’t profess it. Nevertheless, on one occasion I entered a Christian church and they welcomed me with open arms. There they offered me the chance to learn how to play the guitar, plus there were many pretty girls there.
I liked to get into the conversations and stir debate. I had read the Bible often, that’s why I could question what it said. Most of the believers had only learned how to repeat what their pastor had told them, which is why when I asked certain questions, they stood there looking like “fish in a freezer,” with their eyes wide open but seeing nothing.
Concerning the girls there, I can add you that most were far from being saints. In fact, there was a moment when they were the sole reason I continued going to that place.
Due to the rejection of many people, I gradually started making friends from among others who —like me— were excluded. That’s why today I known “the worst” of Old Havana. Sometimes I would find myself in a church with people who had spent their lives pick pocketing and snatching gold chains in the streets, hiding their tattoos and scars with nice clothes.
“Brother, now I’ve found the light,” they told me, trying to talk religion with me, but I don’t like those who accept dogmas submissively.
Why do you think there are so many people, even criminals, getting into religion?
It’s a mixed bag. It’s that one needs to believe in something. Life is hard, and the church helps out – spiritual and materially. But there are also others who hide their worldly sins behind a Bible. There are still others who join because their parents are believers. Then too there are those who use religion like a deal or a passport to leave the country.
How do you see the relationship between Jehovah’s Witnesses and the rest of society?
I can respond to this question through my own experience. When I was little, some very influential things happened to me in that sense. There are principles of the Jehovah’s Witnesses that put you at a disadvantage; for example, giving or taking blood transfusions, be it raw or plasma.
It’s supposed that a person’s soul (or an animal’s) is in its blood, which is why we shouldn’t consume the blood of another being; it would be like eating their soul. A transfusion would be the same thing.
One of the moments that most affected me was the day I stood in the school tribune one morning wearing the pionero neckerchief. My parents had forbidden me to do that. I was reciting a poem and doing fine when suddenly my mother appeared. I fell silent. I immediately passed the microphone to the kid beside me. That day I didn’t receive a beating or a grounding, though neither of the two would have had an effect on me. I was already accustomed to beatings; in addition they had a limit, because after all, to increase them they would have had to have killed me. And as for being grounded, I can tell you that it pretty much resembled my daily life anyway: locked in with no TV reading the Bible, etc.
Is that why you distanced yourself from Jehovah?
Yes, there were many things that didn’t work for me. I believe I was left traumatized a little. There were many contradictions with the rest of society, and that created enormous tension in me that I wasn’t prepared for, given my age.
What can you tell me in terms of relationships between couple’s within the religious context?
While I was in my house I never had a girlfriend. I remember that many classmates made fun of me in school because Jehovah’s Witnesses cannot have girlfriends. And that was when girls were the most interested in me. They sent me letters or told me directly, but I tried to avoid them. Once my mother had to go to the school to ask the teachers to help me out with that matter.
When I left into the “real world,” it was more difficult for me to get a girlfriend than my friends. By then I had become shy, and it was like starting from scratch.
Are you still a believer?
I believe that everyone has to believe in something. It can be in God, in Yemaya, or in the sun, like the Egyptians did in antiquity.
I’ve built my own system of beliefs, which work me, because it would also be impossible for me to totally undo a doctrine instilled in me over such a long time. Education during one’s childhood is something that leaves its marks.
Tell us about your dreams.
I want to be a successful musician. I like the bass a lot, but when I’ve had money to buy one, I haven’t done that. I’m sure that as soon as it’s possible I’ll buy one. I want to gain experience in many senses…to travel, to learn about other cultures, to have lots of good friends, and a woman who wants to fulfill her dreams —or at least attempt to— together with me.