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Can I Keep Both My Family and My Religion?
Hollie Williams
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Names have been changed.

When I was 13, my Aunt Valerie and Uncle Winston introduced me to the Jehovah’s Witness religion. It was right before Thanksgiving, and we were sitting together at the kitchen table.

I’d been living with them after running away from a foster home. Aunt Valerie was slowly helping me to get back on the right track.

“What are we doing for Thanksgiving?” I asked.

Uncle William said, “Thanksgiving is a pagan holiday. Why do we have to wait for the government to tell us when to give thanks? Why can’t we have a family meal of our free will, out of love? And we don’t need to wait until December 25 to give gifts to our family and friends. Giving is nothing without love!”

I could see his point. Uncle Winston felt we should give from the heart and not based on the calendar. He explained that he was a Jehovah’s Witness, and this is what they believed. It made sense to me.

Eventually I went back into a foster home, but I remained interested in my uncle’s religion. Over the next four years, Uncle Winston and I talked on the phone about his beliefs, sometimes for hours. Uncle Winston read Bible verses aloud and explained what they meant. I asked him many questions, and he suggested I go to the Kingdom Hall and see for myself.

A few months ago, I found someone to take me to the nearest Kingdom Hall (the equivalent of a church or mosque for Jehovah’s Witnesses—the place to gather and worship). There were rows and rows of chairs and the walls were a bright color. No one passed around a donation box; it was left in the back. If people felt like donating from the heart, they would go back and make a donation.

People smiled and welcomed us. We found seats and together, the group began studying the Bible. That day, we discussed the topic “How Jesus Magnifies God’s Righteousness.” It was a serious, warm-hearted, and beautiful discussion. Afterward, we sang together and ended with a prayer.

Healing

I have gone regularly to services ever since. The religion is helping me deal with emptiness in my heart about my separation from my family.

I went into foster care when I was 9 because my mother suffered from alcoholism and wasn’t able to care for my siblings and me. We were brought to an agency called Angel Guardian of Mercy First. Their slogan was “Where children can hope and families can heal.” But that’s not what happened. My sisters and I went to live in a foster home with a lady who physically abused me. Later, I was separated from some of my siblings. We had family visits, but I didn’t see my mom until two years after I went into care. Then I started seeing her every other week.

I worried a lot about my mother and tried to care for her, both before and after I was brought into foster care. It was painful to be away from her. I often cried for all of us to reside together in a home again.

Last year, my mother died from complications of her alcoholism. It crushed my heart.

The first time I went to the Kingdom Hall was about four months after my mother died. It gave me a sense of belonging that I had been missing through my trials in foster care, separation from loved ones, and the loss of my mother. Attending meetings regularly has helped me cope.

One thing I love about the Kingdom Hall is the sense of unity I feel with other people who share my faith. Everyone around the world studies the same topic in the same week. It is not like church where you could be talking on one subject, you visit another church, and they are studying a different topic. We refer to each other as sisters and brothers. I am Sister Hollie. I feel at home with a beautiful family.

My Religious Values

I am now joining a troop, which is a group that comes together to honor Jehovah God’s will as a family. They welcome me in the troop and teach that the best gift we could bring to Jehovah is being righteous instead of wicked. They accept people of all ethnicities and cultures.

I see the potential within this religious community to have the foundation of a loving family. It will never be a broken-up family because we believe that our faith will allow us to stay together in paradise after death. As part of this family, I will be an adopted child in Jehovah’s Kingdom.

Jehovah God has helped me cope with my mother’s death in a healthy way by giving me hope that loved ones will return through resurrection. We believe that when Judgment Day comes the dead will come back to life. And at the same time, I have a growing bond with Jehovah God, which brings peace to my heart even while I am going through a difficult grieving process.

However, I’ve sometimes felt I have to hide my beliefs. I’ve watched people treat our religion as a joke. When people react this way, I feel embarrassed and self-conscious.

image by YC-Art Dept

As I became more involved with the Kingdom Hall, I noticed my family, friends, and my boyfriend saw me differently. Some family members and friends don’t agree with my beliefs.

Once I was asking a lady on the train for directions. She saw that I was carrying a Jehovah’s Witness pamphlet and said, “Not interested.” It was embarrassing. After that, on the train, I would put the book my aunt Valerie offered me, What the Bible Really Teaches, inside a larger book, so that people couldn’t see what I was reading.

I felt guilty about my shame and asked myself, “How does Jehovah God feel about me hiding my religious beliefs?”

The biggest challenge was my foster mother’s feelings. I’m so close to her that I call her my godmother, or just “Mom.” Soon after I first joined the congregation at the Kingdom Hall, she approached me.

“Hollie, how did the service go?” she asked.

“I enjoyed it! We focused on the topic ‘Magnifying Jehovah’s God Name.’”

“I heard the Jehovah’s Witnesses be trying to take you away from your family,” Mom said.

“I don’t believe that’s true,” I said. I wanted to ask her why she would think that. I felt bad because I thought she would encourage me to go with my belief. I was wrong.

The Holiday Dilemma

Now it’s the holiday season and I feel pressured because my mom tells me about her plans for Thanksgiving and Christmas. I’ve chosen not to celebrate those holidays anymore, since my religion does not observe them. But I didn’t want to disrespect my godparents, so I tried to figure out ways around it.

I spoke about it with one of my fellowship brothers, Brother Pool. “I don’t want to disrespect Mom and Dad by not participating in Thanksgiving. But I also don’t want to disobey Jehovah God’s laws,” I told him.

“You have to be honest with your mom and dad. Sit them down and tell them what they practice is not what you practice according to your religious belief. Tell them, ‘I just want you to respect my religious practices,’” Brother Pool explained.

I’d never talked directly to my foster mom about how my religion doesn’t practice holidays. I saw how much she loved the holidays and worked hard to make us happy. I felt bad about mentioning it. So for Thanksgiving, I met Mom halfway by eating a simple meal because I did not want her to feel the Jehovah’s Witnesses were drawing me away from our family.

Should I Leave?

I felt so conflicted that I started thinking about leaving her home. I had heard about a program where teens in foster care could live in their own supervised apartment instead of in a foster home. Maybe living there would ease the pressure.

On the other hand, I love my home with my foster parents. I would miss all the beautiful trips and family events we share. We watch movies and go shopping together. I can talk to them about almost anything. I’d miss my home. I’ve grown attached to our family and I love them.

In the end, I decided to stay in my foster home. I feel it will be best to talk about my concerns with them and be open about my religious practices.

I came to an understanding that hiding your feelings to not hurt somebody else is actually hurting yourself, and probably them, too. I was afraid of hurting my foster parents’ feelings because they’ve done so much for me. In the end, I was hurting myself because I felt I had to give up something I love.

Mom and Dad helped me through some hard times in my life. If I explain to them how I really feel, maybe they will understand. I don’t have to disrespect my religious practices, and I don’t need to leave home. It just takes honesty, listening, and understanding, I hope.

Who Am I?

Having Jehovah God in my life helps me identify who I am. I had to make sense of my religious belief. Who am I spiritually? Will I allow others to change my religion? Is this religious belief valuable to me, even if other people may not understand?

I decided that being me is more important than how others may feel towards me. My spirituality is a big part of who I am, and I’m becoming a better person. I now have hope of seeing my birth mother again. I have hope for everlasting life. I have hope for no more struggles and pain. I have hope that I will reach my goals.

I feel more relief from anxieties, losses, stressors, obstacles, and pain. I slowed down on the cigarettes. I feel more at peace. I have good friends. I am not participating in negative things, such as gossip. I feel cleaner inside my heart.

I’ve dealt with some hard things. I’ve lived with fear because I do not want to grow up and live the same negative lifestyle I was born into. I do not want my children to go through the same hardships I went through.

Today I feel more opened up inside, and I deal with my problems better. I do not have to hold things all bottled up inside like I used to. Without Jehovah God as part of my life, I might have given up in the face of my hardships. Now I do not worry about the ones who walk in and out of my life. I have the greatest father of all in my life: Jehovah God. I will dedicate my life to Him. But that doesn’t mean I have to give up the people I care about, even if we don’t share all the same beliefs.

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(FCYU-2014-10-25)

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