By Liz Kaempf
Imagine living twenty-nine years of your life by the word of God. Now imagine that one day you waited for your wife to get into the shower and then left your entire life behind with only the money in your pocket and the clothes on your back.
That is only the beginning of the story behind Emmanuel “Mani” Garcia’s life. He was born May 28, 1973 almost immediately into the life of a Jehovah’s Witness (JW), and on August 1, 2002, he left everything he knew behind: his friends, his family, his religion, his culture, his identity. Then in 2006 he started a research project to delve into the power of belief and how it can shape, help or control the people it captivates. Garcia, an admired student of Stony Brook University, debuted the first episode of his miniseries belief Wednesday, April 14 on campus. Entitled “Sacred Ground,” he creates the first of a series of steps to begin a healing process: a process he likens to the steps generalized for the LGBT community on “coming out.”
Garcia takes the audience through the timeline that led to his eventual departure from the cult-like religious group. Garcia’s father was a rebellious child of the 70s. He heard a knock on the door one day and decided to accept Jehovah’s teachings, as told through the Watchtower Organization (the main source of information and leadership for JWs), and this turned his family’s life upside-down. There was a drastic move from Chicago to Alamogordo, New Mexico (during the times of nuclear bomb tests) and the tragic and sudden death of a friend were just some of the events that took place in his early years as a JW. It is edited almost like a French auterist film with its quick cuts and spliced scenes, and then brings the audience into long takes of interviews with other former JWs, that would now be referred to as apostates, or traitors.
Garcia is one of these traitors, but he found the courage to reach out to others like himself. He does not condemn the religion. He is not looking to expose it. But rather, he is trying to make something so that others will not feel so alone. Many of the former JWs he interviewed would not reveal themselves on camera, as others had done, but did communicate with Garcia through phone calls, e-mails and text messages. Garcia stressed how important it was to understand that, just because they did not show themselves, these people were still as brave as the others because they found a way to say their piece about the religion that was controlling them.
The mode of communication though proved insignificant, as it was the message sent that was most telling. One that hit particularly hard was from someone who contemplated suicide because of the strains and difficulties the organization imposed on his/her life. Many said that if someone knew they were speaking with Garcia they would be ostracized, basically from their own lives. The threat of being found out was extremely serious and could have dire consequences on those that were speaking to Garcia against the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
As described by those interviewed, nobody else but a current or former Jehovah’s Witness could even possibly begin to understand the toll the organization took on them. It encompassed their whole lives, everything they did, everyone they knew, and everything they believed. A JW was essentially shut up from the entire rest of the world and sought to preach and teach their use of the Bible. The idea was that taking up this practice of the Bible was to sacrifice yourself completely to God, as Garcia informed the audience when he presented Matthew 16:24-25, a verse used popularly by the Watchtower: If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it.
Garcia’s first episode of his miniseries proposed finding a “sacred ground” in order to begin the healing process. He goes back to the beginning of his life, to his Spanish roots, he thinks of the sunset, and he thinks of…Joe Versus the Volcano. Believe it or not, he referenced a quote from the movie. Patricia says, “I wonder where we’ll end up?” and Joe [Tom Hanks] answers, “Away from the things of man.” The miniseries does not necessarily look to bring the audience “away from the things of man,” but rather to be aware of the things that try to seize control over us.
Mani Garcia heals by reaching out, and by helping others to start the process of healing. The scars that belief leaves do not have to be forever, and Garcia empowers an audience of any race, gender, or religion to see that you do not always have to believe what you are taught and you are not always alone when you think you are.
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