Shunned: A former Jehovah’s Witness and his quest to help others (part 2)

Mike Shemwell doing his Shunned podcast on Jehovah's Witness.

Mike Shemwell broadcasts “Shunned,” a podcast that allows people leaving religions to tell their stories. | Courtesy of Mike Shemwell

This is the second part of a two-part feature about Louisville-area man Mike Shemwell, who is a shunned former Jehovah’s Witness. Part 1 was published on Sunday, June 2.

‘The Last Supper’

The true last-ditch effort the Shemwells made to “get right spiritually” might have been the biggest gut-punch of all, the proverbial keystone that unleashed their avalanche of disbelief.

That effort was attending the International Convention of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which, in July 2014, happened to be held in Indianapolis after being exclusively held in other countries in previous years, they recalled recently. The couple said they decided to attend the three-day event.

But instead of getting a spiritual boost, their disillusionment with the religion they’d known since childhood swelled to uncontrollable levels. First, a traffic snarl put them behind schedule. Then, they arrived and found that the only parking lots that had been reserved were about a mile from Lucas Oil Stadium, where the event was being held.

Dressed in church-going attire, Jenny in heels, they got there just in time, sweaty and disheveled, to take their seats — but soon realized they were not wanted. Or at least that’s how it felt.

“It was supposed to be the most magical experience you can have,” Shemwell says. “But there’s no lonelier feeling in the world than being in a building filled with 45,000 people and knowing nobody cares at all if you’re there.”

Shemwell with Matt and Jenny Shunned

Shemwell with his brother, Matt, left, and wife, Jenny, in Times Square in 2015. | Courtesy of Mike Shemwell

The program they watched involved bashing gays and suggesting to everyone they give more money and more time to the organization, he says. He remembers a giant board lit up with Jehovah’s Witness propaganda. He was disturbed.

“It was so ‘1984’-ish,” he says, referencing the George Orwell book. “It’s Big Brother.”

By halfway through the day, he says, Jenny was in tears. They were looking for reasons to stay but couldn’t find any. Finally, they decided to head back to their hotel, which also had been chosen for them by the organization.

And on the short drive back to the hotel, they decided they were finished. They headed back to Louisville.

Jenny remembers feeling completely alone in what she termed a “sea” of other Jehovah’s Witnesses.

“When we drove away,” she says, “we both kind of knew we weren’t going back. I felt so free. That was an amazing feeling.”

“The feeling of freedom we got on that hour-and-a-half drive back home,” Shemwell says, chuckling, then pausing briefly. “There are not words. There just aren’t words.”

It was, indeed, the last Jehovah’s Witness event they would attend.

In October of that year, Shemwell decided to contact his brother, Matt, who had left the religion more than 10 years earlier. He sent Matt a message through Facebook, apologizing for shunning him, hoping for forgiveness. Much to Shemwell’s surprise, forgiveness and understanding is exactly what he received from his younger brother.

“I was thrilled to hear from Mike when he did reach out,” brother Matt told Insider. “It was definitely awkward — he was a stranger at that point. … I forgave him and anyone else in my life many years before Mike reached back out. And in truth, I would have shunned me, too. Cults have ways of brainwashing you into doing things that are unnatural.”

As it happens, Matt and his wife, who Shemwell didn’t even know existed at this point, were soon taking a trip to Corydon, Ind., to attend a wedding. They stopped in Louisville for dinner and a reunion. For Shemwell, it was joyous, even though he knew the rest of his family wouldn’t be happy about it.

After all, shunning is absolute when you’re a Jehovah’s Witness, family or not.

Not long after, Shemwell and Jenny decided to go to New York to visit Matt, where he and his wife lived. He made the decision to tell his mother they were going and to ask if she had any mementos from his childhood. He says she was “weird” about it, but she complied.

He and Jenny agreed to meet his parents at El Tarasco on New Cut Road, a family favorite when Shemwell was young. On the way to the restaurant, Matt texted him a tweet their sister had just posted. The tweet said she was “on (her) way to the last supper.’”

“So my wife and I went in knowing this is it,” he says. The dinner was tense, his mother handed over some photos, and “that was pretty much the last time we saw them.”

In May 2015, they visited Matt in New York; they went to a Mets game, visited Central Park, talked about their lives. Along the way, Jenny posted a couple of photos from the visit on Facebook. Her sister texted and asked, “Isn’t he disfellowshipped?” Yes, he was.

“Within 24 hours, my wife’s Facebook friends list was cleared out,” Shemwell says. “From that day, even when we weren’t officially shunned, she has not heard one word from her family.” That includes her parents and four younger sisters.

Escaping the grip

The couple officially left the Jehovah’s Witnesses on Sept. 4, 2015. They call it their “Shunniversary” — ongoing proof of how the Shemwells continue to spin their difficult experience into a positive — and they celebrate it annually, in direct and ironic defiance to the many years they couldn’t celebrate holidays or birthdays.

One way out of the religion is to commit a moral failing in the eyes of the elders and then be judged and disfellowshipped. Another way is to become what is termed a “fader,” to just slowly fade away and wait for the elders to disfellowship you. Shemwell wasn’t interested in playing games, but he and Jenny decided to stop participating altogether, deciding that at the first sign of intervention, they would declare themselves out.

It didn’t take long for them to see a reaction. First it was phone calls, then knocks on the door.

One day, Jenny came home from getting carry-out pizza and saw an elder driving away from the house. Mike was in the house, but he says no one knocked. It felt like stalking, and that was enough for the Shemwells.

That night, they wrote their official goodbye letters to their families, Shemwell says, “which was a very difficult thing to do.” They also submitted official letters of disassociation from the religion.

Mike Shemwell by Christmas tree in Shunned shirt

Shemwell, clad in a Shunned T-shirt, posing ironically with the couple’s Christmas tree. | Courtesy of Mike Shemwell

Some miscommunications delayed the process, but a few months later, they were officially out. Which meant all the family and friends they had known, for almost their entire lives, were no longer accessible to them. Ever again.

Shemwell’s mother sent a goodbye email, but Jenny never received a response from any of her six family members.

“They rob you of the ability to have closure,” Shemwell says. “You have to learn how to grieve people who are alive, who live in the same city as you and who you could run into. But you’re dead to them.”

Shemwell ended up having one last brief encounter with his family. His father, who long had suffered from diabetes, decided to stop taking dialysis a few months after Shemwell defected. He was in Hospice care, and Shemwell’s mother contacted him to let him know.

“I’ve spoken to him,” she told Shemwell, “and he says it’s OK if you come up and say goodbye.”

“The last time I had ever spoken to my dad before then, he had called me on the phone to scream at me for, quote, ‘loving the gays,’” Shemwell recalls. It was over an incident several years earlier when apparently Shemwell had cut off one of his dad’s trademark anti-gay rants during, of all things, an episode of the show “Modern Family.”

“It was this real abusive conversation that left me shaking, it was so horrific,” Shemwell recalls.

But he decided to go say goodbye to his father.

“I had one last chance to try to end it on a better note,” he says. “I wanted to go show what an example of love was.”

The visit was awkward. He hadn’t seen his family since the last supper. At one point, one of the nurses came in and remarked, “Aww, I can almost feel the love in this room.”

“I almost did a spit-take,” Shemwell says with a chuckle. He said his goodbyes in simple terms.

“I said, ‘Man, I love you and I’m sorry it went down the way it did,’” Shemwell recalls. “He didn’t really say much. I gave him a hug and walked out of the room.”

It was the last time he would see his parents. He was not invited to the funeral, nor did he receive any notice when his father died. Shemwell says he would sometimes drive past his parents’ mobile home while out and about, and at some point later, he drove by the lot and it was gone. He has no idea where his mother lives now.

“To be honest, if I had to do it all over, I would not have gone,” he says. “It was like being shunned all over again.”

‘I try to help people now’

Mike Shemwell saw his youngest brother, Stephen, at a concert once a couple of years ago. He walked up and said, “Hi.” His brother and sister-in-law looked startled, but said, “Oh, hi.” And then they turned and looked away. Shemwell feels like their awkwardness was “their humanity kicking in for a minute.” He feels they had to forcibly shun him, even when they didn’t want to deep down.

He heard his sister Elizabeth had twins, but he likely will never know their names, “Unless Someday they hear they have a crazy apostate Uncle Mike and come searching for me.”

Shemwell and Jenny, who live in Clarksville, still have their cleaning business. They’ve become close friends with many of their clients, who didn’t know their story until they left the religion. In fact, for Jenny’s first-ever birthday as a non-Jehovah’s Witness, they threw a party and invited their clients.

Mike and Jenny Shemwell at races Shunned

Shemwell and Jenny at Churchill Downs during Derby Week 2019. | Courtesy of Mike Shemwell

“We threw our own first birthday parties and we’d never even been to birthday parties,” he says. “But we kind of got the gist of what they’re supposed to be.”

He shared his own story through his first podcast, which was titled “This JW Life.” Now, through “Shunned” and other endeavors, Shemwell is providing a platform for others to tell their stories, to hopefully find some healing.

And that’s the point — he wants people to tell their stories as a way of finding closure, not of reliving the pain.

Some of the stories he hears are devastating. One woman in the Shunned Facebook group he started, which has nearly 400 members, left the Jehovah’s Witnesses at age 66, with no savings, no retirement. She literally is starting over at an age when she should be enjoying the fruits of her life.

Stories of what children went through as part of various religions and cults are worse, he says. He says he can remember from his childhood the sounds of physical abuse that went on next door with the family who ultimately played a key role in him spending more than 30 years of his life in the religion.

Part of his horror looking back is in the preaching of themes like The Truth, which he says all boils down to an absolute belief in “the slaughter of 8 billion people” — outsiders, in the religion’s eyes, who are undeserving of being valued as equals and welcomed into the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ version of heaven.

“I try to help people now who are coming out of it,” he says. “I’ve had people listen to my podcast who say, ‘Uh oh, I think I might be in a cult,’ ” he says. “That’s the most gratifying thing, to be able to help somebody like that. It’s cathartic to tell your story.”

Shemwell is now getting some work as a life coach for other people like him. He and Jenny did a speaking engagement together, and he has another one scheduled.

Meanwhile, Jenny is pursuing some personal interests she never would have previously, like aerial acrobatics — she was interested in baton twirling and performing as a girl, but her parents pulled her from that activity when she was still young. Her goal now is to perform publicly as part of Turners Circus.

“It gives me a space,” she says, “to express that piece of myself that has been squelched for the past 25 years — I guess 30. I don’t want to do that math.” She chuckles at this.

They’re laughing together now, and doing things with their lives they never thought possible.

And Shemwell feels, in part through his efforts — which he prefers not to call “activism” — he has emotionally moved on from the experience. He insists he no longer holds any grudges. It’s all about healing now.

Jenny doesn’t seem quite as sure, but says she would definitely be “kind” if she were to run into the family who shunned her. Still, she isn’t hoping for the opportunity. (She remains in touch with some of her extended family who are not Jehovah’s Witnesses.)

“I would say my hope is that I never see them again,” she says. “If I run into them … it would just be so awkward for both of us. Unless one of them wants to leave the cult and wants to try to start a fresh relationship with me, there’s so much baggage and so much pain that avoiding the situation is ideal.”

Shemwell’s brother, Matt, has taken a similar personal journey toward healing. “The 10 years I had in between the time I left the organization and the time I reunited with Mike gave me time to lose the anger I had toward the organization and those in it,” he says. “When I first left, I was all about tearing down the cult and had some really strong resentment toward it, but I realized over time that Jehovah’s Witnesses are just people.”

“It’s messed up, but they were all doing the best they could with the tools they had from their childhoods,” Shemwell says. “A lot of people who commit into cults, it’s because they had trauma in the past; they don’t have to think for themselves. I firmly believe my mom ran to them in the first place … (because) it gave her hope.”

The underlying message is that while the Jehovah’s Witness lifestyle and belief system may work for some, it didn’t for him. Or for Jenny or Matt.

More than three decades inside the Jehovah’s Witness culture nearly robbed Mike Shemwell of his hope. Today, he not only has that hope back, he’s trying his best to balance the scales by offering it to others who have been through similar experiences in which they felt they had no control over their own lives.

“Here I am, 41 now, and just getting started,” he says. “And I’m using my story to help people. You can literally lose everything in your life, and you can rebuild it.”