Shunned in Sheboygan, a former Jehovah's Witness shared her story. Her YouTube videos are watched worldwide.

Ali Bautista says family and friends abandoned her after she left the faith. Speaking out online, she finds a new community that spanned the globe.

Sheboygan Press/November 4, 2019

By Diana Dombrowski

Sheboygan -- When Ali Bautista started posting videos on YouTube describing some of the most difficult times in her life as a Jehovah's Witness, she didn't realize how many people would see them.

People around the country and the world would view her videos and leave comments.

She was even reaching the people who felt furthest away: her own community.

At 40, Bautista has severed ties with the Jehovah's Witnesses. She says she's now shunned by the Witness community.

Although leaders of the religion say the church encourages elders to stay in touch with former members and that no one is required to cut off contact with them, Bautista says some of her own family members and lifelong friends no longer associate with her. People she knew since she was a baby avoid eye contact.

Her YouTube videos became a way to document her departure from the religion she followed her whole life and to connect with former Jehovah's Witnesses who feel similarly.

"I would've been pleasantly surprised and thrilled if it reached a couple hundred," Bautista said. She was shocked when several hundred comments and thousands of views followed. Fellow former Jehovah's Witnesses and members of her congregation in Sheboygan took notice of the local woman with a global reach.

Bautista was raised a Jehovah's Witness, a Christian religion with beliefs rooted in the Bible. Witnesses believe in God, also called Jehovah, and follow the teachings of Jesus. Those in the faith also believe God will resurrect billions of people from the dead during Armageddon, or the end of the world as we know it.

Active members participate in rigorous Bible study and track hours spent knocking on doors to evangelize.

According to the U.S. spokesman for the Jehovah's Witnesses, Robert Hendriks, Wisconsin is home to 156 congregations and groups and over 15,000 members. There are 8.5 million members worldwide.

At her most devout, Bautista felt special for being born into "the one and only true religion," she said. She enjoyed feeling like she was right, and having a sense of belonging.

But the tenets of the religion presented challenges as her life unfolded.

When she graduated from Kohler High School in 1998, she had scholarships lined up to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison. But friends told her she'd "fall out of the truth" if she went, and she started having panic attacks. So she didn't go to college.

In 2003, when she was 24 years old, she had premarital sex with the man she would marry soon after.

For that, she was disfellowshipped, or kicked out, a practice many former members say includes shunning.

Bautista had suicidal thoughts while she grappled with being cut off from her family and friends. Her depression was brought on, she said, because she believed she was a bad person for having premarital sex. She didn't seek professional help because she didn't want to speak poorly about her religion.

She'd had suicidal thoughts in high school, when she was bullied about her weight, but this was different.

"I would wake up every day just not wanting to be alive," Bautista said. "My whole world was being a Jehovah's Witness."

After 18 months of writing letters asking to be let back in, she was finally reinstated into the religion and continued to be a member for over 15 years.

Then, she lived through it again.

She'd wanted a true spiritual baptism as described in the Bible's Book of Acts, she said, and had been baptized in Lake Michigan in November 2017 by a friend who wasn't a Witness.

Bautista saw the baptism as a spiritual experience and still considered herself a Witness. But this August, after Bautista had been posting videos critical of the church, church elders announced she was no longer a Witness — they told her she had made the choice when she was baptized by a non-member.

Because Bautista was disfellowshipped when she married, her mother didn't come to her wedding at the Sheboygan County Courthouse. When she got sick with a kidney infection shortly after the wedding, her mother sent her father — an inactive member — to the hospital.

"It fractures something in you when you're cut off from your family and all of your friends," Bautista said.

Lee Evans is a former Witness who has known Bautista his whole life. Their mothers studied the Bible together.

When Evans began to have his own doubts in the religion, he found a community of people who could relate on the online forum Reddit.

Evans said he saw the difficulty of being shunned a year before he left the religion, when one of his friends killed himself. His friend had made previous suicide attempts after being disfellowshipped, Evans said. When Evans went to visit him in the hospital after one of those attempts, his friend's mother turned him away.

As Bautista experienced, Evans' Witness community no longer associates with him. Family and friends with whom he used to be close cut off communication. The separation is made more difficult, he said, because there are still people in the community he loves and respects — people who watched him grow up and felt like family.

"All of a sudden, just like that, they no longer want anything to do with you," he said.

After Evans left the religion, he went to therapy and worked on his self-esteem. He married a non-Jehovah's Witness and has a small group of friends.

"I had to rebuild everything," he said.

Religion expert Shawn Peters, a professor in the Integrated Liberal Studies program at UW-Madison, provided more detail on what many ex-Witnesses call shunning after they're no longer part of the religion — whether that's through disassociating (leaving on their own) or being disfellowshipped.

Disfellowshipping is a sign to other members they should reconsider how they interact with somebody like Bautista or Evans. While many former Witnesses say they weren't explicitly told to shun outcasts, they say it was often implied.

"The idea partly among the groups is to keep just a level of purity and cohesiveness amongst themselves," Peters said of religions whose members don't associate with those who commit certain sins. The Amish and Mennonites, among others, have similar practices.

While Bautista and many people on YouTube describe their experiences being shunned by their Jehovah's Witness communities, Hendriks, the church's U.S. spokesman, said shunning isn't part of the religion.

"We don't shun," Hendriks said. "Shunning would be cutting somebody off and pretending they don't exist. That's just not the case."

Elders are encouraged to stay in touch with disfellowshipped people and to approach them if they see them in public or at meetings, Hendriks said. Disfellowshipping, he said, is an act of love and considered a form of shepherding.

Bautista said elders had minimal contact with her, mostly related to her efforts to be reinstated. When she saw them in public, she said, they wouldn't acknowledge her.

Other than elders, members aren't instructed on how to treat disfellowshipped people, Hendriks said. "Everybody makes their own decision," he said.

But Witnesses are supposed to follow what one of Jesus' apostles, Paul, described in the Bible in 1 Corinthians 5 about interacting with immoral people: not to associate or eat with them. Based on another letter from Paul in 2 Corinthians 2, disfellowshipping also includes forgiveness.

"The thing that we want most is for that person to come back," Hendriks said. He isn't aware of any statistics on how often people are disfellowshipped, he said, but in his experience, it's been an infrequent occurrence with some congregations going years without it happening.

Steve Knowles, a Witness for 45 years and an elder at the Sheboygan congregation to which Bautista used to belong, doesn't have an issue with the word shunning. Those who are disfellowshipped are just that — they're not fellowshipping, he said.

The shunning happens because Witnesses don't want to associate with people who aren't living up to the standard they set, he said. Part of it is natural — the person is no longer coming to meetings, so some members just don't see them anymore.

"We don't travel in the same circles," he said of Bautista, adding that he hasn't seen her since she cut ties this summer.

Knowles believes people's morals have generally eroded, but the message in the Bible is timeless. Asked if he was concerned about what happens to people when their families and friends cut them off, Knowles said hopefully they would come to their senses and return.

When she started posting YouTube videos critical of the church, Bautista said it was because she'd reached a threshold.

She remembered her depression and suicidal thoughts vividly and didn't want to go down that road again. She wanted to document her experience for herself and organize her thoughts.

She was nervous. She felt like holding back. There were many people in the church she loved and it felt like she was jumping into the unknown. But she was done caring about a religion more than she cared about herself, she said.

Bautista remembers secretly searching other ex-Witnesses' videos on YouTube before she ever posted her own. She worried they, as apostates, would ruin her relationship with God. She watched with trepidation and fear as an older couple talked about their experience after being marked apostates, a word for people who abandon their religious principles.

"They didn't say anything I didn't already know, and they're not evil," Bautista said.

After that, she thought, "I'm going to listen to whatever I want and without fear."

She posted her first public video in December last year.

She'd posted another one before that — privately, because she looked like "a mess." In it, she explained she'd been crying. On that May morning she recorded herself, she had found out she had been "marked" an apostate, meaning she wasn't acting in line with the religion.

Her offense, she said, was expressing doubts to other members about specific beliefs in the religion and shunning.

As she posted more videos and people left comments, Bautista said the comments she's appreciated most are from people who see hope in her story. People from all over the world began to connect with her via YouTube. She heard from people in Sweden, Australia, Israel, Costa Rica, the United Kingdom, Russia and Canada, among others. Her videos received up to 14,000 page views and hundreds of comments.

She voiced concerns over the practice of shunning in the religion, doubts about her own faith, and recent lawsuits over sexual assault in the church.

And Bautista's YouTube channel caught the attention of both former and current Witnesses in her own community.

Cindee Wright watched Bautista's YouTube videos and heard her talk about Lake Michigan. So Wright, from Sheboygan, messaged her online to ask Bautista where she was.

Finding out Bautista was in the same city brought special significance for Wright, who listens to YouTube videos from ex-Jehovah's Witnesses from all over the U.S. and abroad on her drive to work. She likes knowing someone who knows what it's like to be an ex-Witness is nearby.

Bautista's doubts about the religion and her description of the culture in her Jehovah's Witness community resonated with Wright, as well as "just how real she was," Wright said.

Wright, 50, is originally from Missouri and hasn't been a Witness for 12 years. She was disfellowshipped twice, but the third time she separated from the church, it was her choice. She severed ties by writing a disassociation letter, quoting several Bible passages, telling her church leaders not to contact her or her children.

Part of the reason she had rejoined the religion was because she wanted her family members, who are devout Witnesses, to speak to her again. They would cut off communication with her when she was disfellowshipped, and talk to her again when she was reinstated — "It's like a light switch," she said.

Occasionally, one of Wright's sisters will update her on their dad's health, but the rest of her family won't speak to her.

"I love my family. I wish I could talk to them every day," Wright said.

Peters, at UW-Madison, said many people have had unfortunate experiences with religion, but "the advent of the internet has allowed those people to create a community and ways for those people to connect in a way that 30 or 40 years ago they weren't able to."

Those connections happen all over the internet, not just on YouTube.

Michael Shemwell was a Witness from age 8 to 38. Sept. 4 marked four years since he and his wife's congregation announced the couple were no longer part of the religion — Shemwell calls it their "shunniversary."

About six months after Shemwell and his wife left the religion, Shemwell's dad died.

"I was allowed to see him one last time in hospice, but I was not invited to the funeral," he said.

On his podcast, Shunned, Shemwell has interviewed more than 40 people and has consistently had more than 30 people on the wait list to share their stories of being shunned — from any faith.

Based in Clarksville, Indiana, he's interviewed Amish, Mennonites, Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints and Pentecostals, but most have been former Witnesses. He's interviewed people from as far away as the United Kingdom and Australia.

"I know that it's extremely cathartic for the people that I talk to," Shemwell said. "It's inspiring. It helps me to process my own story."

There has been a whole spectrum of emotions since Bautista's final separation from the Jehovah's Witnesses this summer, but in recounting the past couple of months, she emphasized the relief she feels and freedom she has.

She still loves many people in the congregation and likens the whole ordeal to a big battle where both sides lost.

In the past several months, including before her separation with the religion, Bautista has explored churches of other faiths.

Her mother has kept their relationship and has also stopped going to Witness meetings. Bautista's once-detached relationship with her dad has improved. She said they've gotten to know each other better.

But Bautista's brother remains an elder in the religion and won't talk to her. She worries the next time she'll see him will be at their dad's funeral.

Another ex-Witness from Georgia who met Bautista through her YouTube channel came to visit over Labor Day weekend. Her friend decided she also wanted to be baptized in Lake Michigan, and after she and Bautista met people at the Sheboygan farmers market and out at lunch, about 20 showed up for the ceremony.

These days, Bautista is a waitress and massage therapist. She's thought about going back to school but doesn't have definitive plans.

She isn't sure what the fate of her YouTube channel will be, but she said she doesn't want her life just to be about ex-Witnesses.

She noted, "Life is now about exploration and freedom."

At her most devout, you might have met Bautista when she knocked on your door trying to start a conversation about the Bible. Now, you might find her at a coffee shop, hanging out with her mom or meeting new people of all faiths.

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