After 37 years with Jehovah’s Witnesses, Meridian man finds his way home to the Catholic Church
Forest Dipzinski, at Risen Christ Catholic Community in Boise. (Courtesy of Forest Dipzinski)
By Gene Fadness
for the Idaho Catholic Register
MERIDIAN – His dad’s 50th wedding anniversary approaching, Forest Dipzinski decided it was time to make amends. It had been long enough.
“I had not spoken to him in 16 years,” Dipzinski said. In fact, he had not had much contact with his two brothers and sisters, either. Over the course of many years, they had all been disfellowshipped from their former family faith, the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Dipzinski, the only one who remained faithful to the sect, was not allowed to have contact with them because they had been disfellowshipped.
Up until the moment he made amends with this family, Dipzinski was used to being alone in defending the faith of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. “I was the only one in my high school who didn’t stand for the National Anthem.” (Jehovah’s Witness believe that saluting a flag, often in conjunction with an anthem, is a religious act that ascribes salvation, not to God, but to the state or to its leaders.) Dipzinski also was not allowed to participate in sports because “bad company ruins good morals,” he said, referring to the Witness interpretation of 1 Cor 15:33. Birthdays and Christmas were not celebrated.
“It was tough being different but, at the same time, it cemented the fact for me that I was on the right path because I was being persecuted for righteousness’ sake,” he said quoting from the Sermon on the Mount.
Even among family members, Dipzinski was the only one left standing. By the early 2000s, his parents, siblings, even his children, left the faith. But not Dipzinski who, from his earliest memories, took faith very seriously. He attended the Methodist church as a boy in the early 1960s. “I would walk to church, going to Sunday School every week. I got perfect attendance three years in a row. I cried if I had to miss church.”
While he was attending the Methodist church in their northern Michigan home, his mom was taking Bible studies from the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Initially, his dad did not approve. “He would take her [Jehovah Witness] books to the attic and tell her he had burned them.” However, in 1968, when Dipzinski was 12, both parents were baptized as Jehovah’s Witnesses. (Before Witnesses are baptized, they serve the organization – it is not called a church – as “publishers.” As Dipzinski explains it, “As publishers, we go door-to-door publishing the good news by preaching and conducting Bible studies.” Then, after some time demonstrating their faithfulness, Witnesses are baptized. When the organization releases its membership numbers, it does so by publishers, not by baptized members. According to its website, there are about 8.7 million publishers worldwide.)
As a young adult, Dipzinski decided he would paint houses with his dad. This wouldn’t require a college degree, which, at the time, was frowned upon by the Witnesses. “Higher learning can turn you away from truth, so college is discouraged,” he said. When the painting didn’t work out, he became a manager at a self-service gas station and auto parts store. Later, he was a production supervisor at an iron foundry.
In 1981, when he was 25, he was laid off from the foundry. Dipzinski married by age 20 and became a father almost immediately, so a steady income was necessary. Despite the Witnesses’ caution against college, Dipzinski enrolled at North Central Michigan College to study respiratory therapy, his chosen profession to this day.
The first faith crisis in the family occurred when Dipzinski was 19 and his dad was the Presiding Overseer of the local Kingdom Hall. One of the new Jehovah’s Witnesses who had been brought into the congregation by Dipzinski’s father was murdered by a 15-year-old member of the congregation. Dipzinski and his dad were distraught that the congregation appeared to be more interested in defending the family of the assailant rather than supporting the victim’s family. “It was hard on my father. He felt responsible because he brought the woman who got killed into the congregation.” His father’s commitment to the faith soured after that.
The incident troubled Dipzinski as well. Despite the incident, Dipzinski stayed active in the faith. “You are so indoctrinated with the fear that if you don’t believe, you will die at Armageddon.”
After Dipzinski’s first marriage failed, he met another woman at the Kingdom Hall – a former Catholic school student who was one of 13 kids. She had a child from a previous marriage, and they later had two children together. To care for his growing family, Dipzinski took two jobs, working 70 hours a week, which left him only about four to five hours a week “publishing,” or door-knocking, far below the minimum asked of publishers. His Circuit Overseer told Dipzinski he wasn’t a spiritual person, a comment that seared into his conscious. “I went home and took antidepressants, enough to overdose. It knocked me out for three days.” He was 28 at the time.
The near-death incident “made me really start looking at life. I realized I was a mess and that I needed to be more spiritual.” Rather than withdrawing from the Witnesses, he says he “doubled down,” putting in enough hours publishing each month to be elevated from a Publisher to a Pioneer. A Pioneer, or one who “leads the way,” devotes about 900 to 1,000 hours a year knocking on doors and leading Bible studies.
He became a “ministerial servant” (kind of like a deacon) to the elders in the congregation. That qualified him to teach from the platform during services. He helped train fellow Witnesses in their public speaking abilities and in how to handle objections at the door. He hosted Bible studies at his home. Then, at age 35, he became an elder, at last a “spiritual person” in the eyes of his overseers.
The family moved from Michigan to Virginia to be nearer his wife’s family. He became the Presiding Overseer, the head of his Sterling Park, Va., congregation, taking over from an elder disfellowshipped for adultery. His fellow leaders thought it would take two to three years to get the congregation back on solid footing. “I got it cleaned up in 18 months,” Dipzinski said.
No matter how hard he tried to serve Jehovah, varied circumstances caused him to question his faith, particularly the idea of cutting off contact with those whom the congregation disfellowships.
Why Jehovah’s Witnesses disfellowship
According to the Jehovah Witness website (jw.org), the “judicial excommunication, or disfellowshipping, of delinquents from membership” is “a principle and a right” inherent in religious communities “and is analogous to the powers of capital punishment, banishment, and exclusion from membership that are exercised by political and municipal bodies. In the congregation of God, it is exercised to maintain the purity of the organization doctrinally and morally. The exercise of this power is necessary to the continued existence of the organization and particularly so, the Christian congregation. The congregation must remain clean and maintain God’s favor in order to be used by him and to represent him.”
The website explains that some of the offenses that could merit disfellowshipping are fornication, adultery, homosexuality, greed, extortion, thievery, lying, drunkenness, reviling, spiritism, murder, idolatry, apostasy, and the causing of divisions.”
Members are warned twice before action is taken, and two or three witnesses must provide evidence against offenders. “Those who have been convicted of a practice of sin are reproved Scripturally” with an announcement before the congregation so that the congregation may also “have a healthy fear of such sin.”
To those expelled, the Witnesses cite their interpretation of 1 Cor 5:11 “to quit mixing,” with offenders and 2 Jn 1:10-11 to “never receive him into your homes or say a greeting to him.” The congregation is also admonished to stop socializing “with those who are disorderly and not walking correctly” even though the offender may not have yet been “deemed deserving of complete expulsion.” Those expelled may be received back into the congregation if they manifest sincere repentance.
“Shunning really bothered me,” Dipzinski said. “You don’t abandon your children because they have rejected God. Both of my brothers and my sister were disfellowshipped, so I couldn’t have any contact with them.”
The issue surfaced again when a male secretary of the congregation and close friend was expelled. “He needed my emotional support, but I couldn’t give it to him. He had one chance (with the congregation) and that was it. That didn’t set well with me. It bothered me for years. I called him 10 years later and apologized.”
His wife suffering from depression, the family decided to move back to Michigan, where Dipzinski took over for a Presiding Elder in ill health. He describes it as a “misfit congregation,” that his children did not like. So, Dipzinski started a job search that resulted in his hire in Boise in late 2000 as a respiratory therapist at St. Luke Hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit. As in Michigan and Virgina, Dipzinski quickly moved up the ranks of leadership in his Meridian congregation. By then, however, his two older children were no longer active. “Even smoking gets you disfellowshipped,” he said.
He resigned as an elder for the Meridian congregation when his marriage dissolved. “I couldn’t tell people how to live a family life if my own family was falling apart.”
Then, two incidents changed Dipzinski’s life.
He met a “brand new Christian,” whose wife had a premature baby in the NICU unit where Dipzinski worked. “All he could do was talk about God,” Dipzinski said of the new believer. But when it came to a debate over Bible passages, “I beat him up one side and down the other with my knowledge of the Bible, but he had something I didn’t. He had peace. His face glowed with peace.”
Shortly thereafter, while on business travel, Dipzinski found a Gideon Bible in a hotel room where he says he accepted Christ as his savior.
A changed man, those encounters prompted Dipzinski to return to his Kingdom Hall after not attending services for a lengthy period. However, returning to the Kingdom Hall was not the same anymore.
He struggled with the Jehovah Witness’s rejection of the Trinity, particularly their teaching that Jesus is Michael the Archangel. He also began studying the history of his faith and found instances where the Jehovah Witnesses said Christ would return, but then would not later admit they were wrong. “They were telling us (members) to admit it when we were wrong and had sinned, but they wouldn’t admit it when they were wrong. I walked out and never went back.”
It was an emotional time for Dipzinski. He took a sabbatical from work, going to Denver as part of a traveling therapist program. While there, he attended different churches, including the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception. After befriending a Methodist pastor in Denver, Dipzinski returned to Boise and began attending Eagle United Methodist Church. His knowledge of scripture resulted in his teaching a Bible course at the church. He was also a lector and involved with music ministry. He took online Bible studies, earning a degree in ministry, and started attending more conservative nondenominational churches.
The quest for truth seemed to ripple through the Dipzinksi family. In 1991, Dipzinski’s mother – the woman who first became interested in Jehovah’s Witnesses when Dipzinski was 5 – left the organization to join a charismatic Christian church. In 2013, while Dipzinski was attending nondenominational churches, his brother, Mark, also a former Jehovah Witness, was headed in a different direction. In phone conversations, Mark enthusiastically shared with Forest his experiences taking an RCIA class (now OCIA) at a Catholic church in Michigan.
Forest Dipzinski and his granddaughter DJ are part of the music team at Risen Christ. Dipzinski also teaches DJ’s Confirmation class. (Courtesy of Forest Dipzinkski)
The calls from Mark refreshed Forest’s memories of his visits to the basilica in Denver. “I loved the way the Church was structured, and how the Mass was structured. I also like the fact that the Catholics had the Magisterium to help us interpret scripture,” he said. “A lot of people with Type-A personalities are Catholic. We like structure; we don’t like chaos.”
Weary of the chaos in his own spiritual life, Dipzinski enrolled in the OCIA classes at Holy Apostles Parish in Meridian. In 2014, a year after his brother became Catholic, Dipzinski entered the Church.
Accepting Catholic teaching that was so different than what he was accustomed to as an evangelical and especially as a former Jehovah’s Witness was not difficult for Dipzinski due to the historical authority of the Church.
“Catholic history didn’t just go back to the 1870s like the Jehovah Witnesses or even to the 1500s like the Protestants, but back to Irenaeus and Augustine. I embraced this as the Church Jesus founded.”
His religious belief was new, but his desire to serve and become part of the community had not changed since his Jehovah Witness days. He immediately joined the Knights of Columbus. Today, he is Grand Knight of the council at Risen Christ Parish, a sacristan and part of the music team with his granddaughter, DJ. He’s also teaching DJ’s Confirmation class.
A Catholic now for nearly a decade, Dipzinski knows his search is over while conversion, as for all, is ongoing. “For the first time in my life, I am spiritually settled,” he says.
After 37 years in an organization that would not admit error, Dipzinski finds a different experience in his Catholic home. “I love that this is the Church Jesus founded, but I also love the fact that we admit we’re not perfect, not by a long shot.”
He is also attracted to the universality of the Catholic family. “I love the fact that we are a community. Whatever parish you belong to, you are part of a community that is the same everywhere.”
Not only is Dipzinski’s relationship with God made whole, but with his own family members as well. He reconciled with his father before he passed away in 2009 and apologized to all his siblings.
“I remember when I was a Jehovah’s Witness, I would often say that anyone with intelligence could not be a Catholic. So, God, with His sense of humor, had His way of humbling me and leading me into the Church.
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