For 14 years they were devoted Jehovah's Witnesses, but after a heart-rending dispute which saw them lose all contact with their only daughter, a Norfolk couple have launched a determined campaign to highlight the pitfalls of joining the church.
Where their daily routine had once involved zealously knocking on doors to spread the word of Jehovah, retired David and Brenda Gibbons have taken to touring the streets warning people away from what they now regard as a “mind-controlling cult”.
They take with them a cherished photograph of their daughter Leah, looking radiant on her wedding day, whom they have not seen since they were thrown out of the Jehovah’s Witnesses last July following a family bust-up.
An accompanying letter reads: “We are not appealing to you for sympathy. What we are doing is begging you to be careful when these people knock on your door.”
The couple agreed they had been attracted at the beginning by the “overwhelming love” shown them by Jehovah’s Witnesses.
But Mr Gibbons, of Kingfisher Close, Bradwell, who went on to hold a senior post as ministerial servant, said: “Now we have seen the other side and we would not want anyone to go through what we did.”
Members of the church in Bradwell, near Yarmouth - including Leah, 25, and her husband Ben - have been forbidden from speaking to the couple since their expulsion for writing a letter containing personal criticism to their daughter’s mother-in-law.
A judicial committee at Yarmouth Kingdom Hall decided on their “disfellowship” after declaring them “revilers”, people who speak ill of others.
Mr Gibbons, 62, a full-time carer of his wife who has rheumatoid arthritis, said: “I have not committed a crime like adultery or theft; I have simply spoken my mind and I can’t apologise for that. You should not expel people for that.
“I want to warn people about the way Jehovah’s Witnesses can make or break a person’s life. Since our ordeal started, we have learned of several others in the area who have gone through disfellowship, with the same implications for their family and friends. We were a close family. To lose a child who has died is bad; to lose a child who does not want to talk to you is quite heartbreaking.
“We know our daughter loves us dearly but she even moved house without telling us her new address. Like the rest of this cult, their minds are controlled through what I would describe as loving manipulation.
“Ninety-nine per cent of Jehovah’s Witnesses are lovely people. But now if we come across friends from the congregation in Gorleston High Street, they do an about-turn or dive into a shop. One of our best friends hung up when we rang them.”
Trevor Gaskin, the town’s presiding Jehovah’s Witness, insisted the church was very family orientated and “put great store in that”.
He said: “The Gibbonses know what they need to do to heal the breach. To be reinstated in the congregation they would need to show a repentant attitude.”
But he questioned whether talking to the papers was “the way to get their daughter back”.
He said disfellowship did not prevent Leah contacting her family, for example if one of her parents was ill.
Leah told the EDP that she agreed with what had happened to her parents because when you joined a church, you knew the rules.
However, she said their relationship could be restored if they made amends in the right way for what they had done - even though they had made life difficult for the congregation.