Baraboo to Bonne Terre
A joyful heart is good medicine,
But a broken spirit dries up the bones. (Proverbs 17:22 NASB)
When I was one of Jehovah’s Witnesses, my summer’s were full of meetings at the Kingdom Hall, studying my Watchtower, door knocking, and of course, the District Convention. I had little time left for fun. But six months after my disfellowship announcement in 2004, I was at a week long Clown Camp in La Crosse, Wisconsin and have been filling up my weekends with parades and festivals ever since. I was released from my bondage and became a clown and caricature artist. Oh, I still attend “meetings” for spiritual instruction and worship, engage in Bible studies, share the good news of the kingdom, and attend summer conventions, but I’ve also learned to extract the F-U-N from what once was a dysFUNctional religious life. Based on these activities, some people might think I’ve not changed my ways all that much, but I beg to differ. Now when I begin a Bible study with someone, my purpose is not to get them to join an organization or “get religion,” my prayer is that through the love and grace offered in the gospel they will discover who they are in God’s kingdom because there is no greater joy than being released to become who God created us to be! When that happens, there’s no holding back the fruit of His Spirit.
When I first met Sharon at a conference for ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses in 2013, she was slumped over as she hesitantly introduced herself through tears. Thirty years in the Watchtower had taken away her joy. But that weekend five years ago was a turn around for her as she met other released ex-JWs at the Witnesses Now for Jesus event in Pennsylvania. By the end of the weekend, we saw glimpses of a very funny person emerging from that shell. After we went home to our respective states of Maryland and Wisconsin, Sharon and I kept in touch through a telephone Bible study in Galatians and became close friends. On her first visit to my home in 2014, she announced her desire to clown with me. I had also arranged for her to milk a cow. What else does one do when they visit the dairy state? So I invited her to rummage through my costumes and wigs but she laid her eyes on a cow outfit first and asked if she could milk the cows dressed as “one of the girls!” The conservative dairy farmers who agreed to have us over for milking chores that night were in for quite a surprise! She also grabbed a wig and colorful clothes and developed a clown persona for our event. When she made a return visit in 2016, we both were invited to clown at a birthday party at a local campground which we ended with a jump in the lake! This girl loves to clown around! And so, it seemed only right this year on our way to Bonne Terre, Missouri for the annual Witnesses Now for Jesus – Midwest conference to schedule in a trip to the Circus World Museum and Big Top Parade in Baraboo, Wisconsin!
I welcomed Sharon at the airport with a Green Bay Packer jersey, official cheesehead hat, and green and gold flag to wave. She’s used to these creative arrivals since this was her third visit to Wisconsin. After a few days of kayaking, playing with my dog, and dining on my husband’s famous and fabulous venison steaks, our road trip began on Friday, July 20. We first pitched our tent in Baraboo to prepare for service that Saturday. Yep, service. We prayed that morning as I strapped on my book bag and Sharon put on her make-up. We were set to “informal witness” at the parade. Our service was spreading JOY. After all, we received freely, so we gave freely. One exJW in her clown face and pig tails and another with a service bag full of paper and markers to draw caricatures on the spot. Sharon surprised children of all ages with her squirting ketchup bottle and clown antics as I stood back and created quick draw cartoons of them.
Instead of going from house-to-house, we went from lawn chair to lawn chair along the parade route spreading joy.
Therefore do not let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil;
for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking,
but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.
(Romans 14:16-17 NASB)
As the time drew near for the parade to start, we took our seats. No one had claimed the empty lawn chair beside me yet, so I left my spare set of dentures in it hoping for a good reaction. A gentleman eventually came to sit down and noticed them. “Are these yours?” he asked rather matter-of-fact. Sharon covered her own teeth and quipped “Oh, you found them!” and that’s how we met Dale — by leaving a set of dentures on his chair. For clowns like Sharon and I, that’s a Divine Appointment. Throughout the parade, Dale and I talked about life in the town of Baraboo. I pointed out the toy store across the street and said my dream would be to work there and volunteer at Circus World. He mentioned that his son used to work at Just Imagine Toys and even lived in the apartment above it when he was younger. Heaven!
I told Dale how much I love Baraboo and need to visit there more often. I also mentioned that Sharon and I were looking for a church to attend that Sunday and he invited us to his. So after our day at the parade and Circus World on Saturday, we slept in our tent and found Walnut Hill Bible Church on Sunday morning. We arrived early enough for coffee fellowship but while still in the parking lot, a woman came out of her car to hug Sharon after recognizing her from our pre-parade entertainment. She wasn’t the only one who noticed us either.
Upon our arrival inside the church a young man pointed at me and asked if we were at the parade on Saturday. I nodded and told him we were camping in the area and visiting Walnut Hill per Dale’s invitation. I asked him if he knew Dale and it turned out I was talking to his son! “You’re the guy who used to work in the toy store!” I exclaimed. Tyson explained they were having a special Sunday service to highlight experiences from a recent mission trip and also doing baptisms at Devil’s Lake State Park later that afternoon and we were welcome to come and share their picnic.
What a blessing to watch 14 people baptized in the lake and eat more than the granola bars I packed for camp! As we enjoyed the potluck, several people sat down and listened to our testimonies as we explained the purpose of our trip to Missouri. Some mentioned their experiences with Jehovah’s Witnesses and asked questions of Sharon and I. Dale gave me his card and urged us to keep in touch. We left knowing we’d found a “church home” in Baraboo, Wisconsin. The next day, after seeing my post about it on Facebook, a friend of my mother’s messaged me. She said her sister and family attend that church. Small world.
We stayed a few more days in Baraboo and then headed for our destination of Bonne Terre, Missouri where we camped at St Francois State Park with another exJW friend Amy and her daughter. We enjoyed the usual things of camping for a few days and then met other conference attenders for dinner on Thursday night, July 26 (which also just happened to be my birthday!) Since my first WNFJ conference in 2010, I’ve met many exJWs and Christians called to minister to them. Meeting for dinner before the conference is like a family reunion. The next day, we headed to the Sonrise Baptist Church in Bonne Terre, Missouri for the weekend conference. These brothers and sisters outdid themselves treating us to morning coffee and donuts as well as a full lunch buffet both days in their cafeteria/gymnasium. They made us all feel very welcome. As with all these conferences, Friday morning began with an opportunity for everyone in attendance to introduce themselves as the microphone got passed. What a difference from five years ago when Sharon introduced herself through tears at her first conference in Pennsylvania. This year, she confidently declared her joy in Jesus Christ among His family gathered there in Missouri. The fruit of His Spirit was evident.
Charles Smith, the organizer of the Midwest conference, has become familiar with Sharon and I through these gatherings and requested that we do a few skits in addition to our scheduled talks. So on Friday, after I presented a talk on the importance of studying the book of Galatians, I brought out some props to illustrate how what we focus on, enlarges.
As Jehovah’s Witnesses, our minds were trained to focus on the negatives. We “said” we were at the door to “proclaim Jehovah’s kingdom” but really, we spent an awful lot of our time concentrating on the negatives of this world. In Philippians chapter 4, our brother Paul encouraged us to dwell on “whatever is honorable, right, pure, lovely, of good repute, excellent and worthy of praise” promising that as we practice these things it would guard our hearts and minds leading to peace. (Phil 4:7-9) I am not ashamed of having such an abundance of joy in God’s kingdom so I focus on this. So much so that I had to become a clown to handle the overflow of joy! And it was good to hear surprise and laughter from the audience as I performed my little skit.
My camp mates Amy and Sharon were scheduled to give their talks on Saturday. Sharon had shared her testimony before in Pennsylvania and also taught on the effects of shunning, but this would be Amy’s first time on stage. Her raw tears touched us all as she explained the pain and separation the Watchtower has caused in her family. As difficult as it was for her to relate these experiences, it was a refreshing addition to this particular conference dominated by teaching points and apologetic presentations. After her presentation, a group of brothers surrounded her in heartfelt prayer. Then after the lunch break, Sharon took to the stage and shared her theme, “blessings that come from freedom” offering hope from her testimony of loneliness, poverty and despair to the abundant life and freedom God called her to in her exodus from the Watchtower.
When she finished, I got up on stage with her for another humorous skit. (For a complete line up of testimonies and talks presented that weekend and from other conferences, be sure to subscribe to the WNFJ2008 YouTube channel – https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCUEVJnBCK7rYXAmKNlV83tA.)
That evening after the conference ended, we invited everyone to our campfire. Ed Haviach, one of the speakers at the conference, asked me if anyone would be offended if he showed up with a bottle of wine. I told him I’d be offended if he only brought ONE bottle! We didn’t have any s’mores or hot dogs, but thanks to Ed we had enough wine. I counted 14 of us having casual conversation around the fire pit at campsite #68. More connections and memories were made. On Sunday, Sharon and I hugged Amy and her daughter good-bye as we all set out on the road again to go home. Camp was good. As Sharon and I drove through the farm country of Iowa, we reminisced about all we experienced in our Baraboo to Bonne Terre 10 day trip. It was all good, but when pondering her most favorite part, Sharon said it was the parade. She loved being a clown for a day and adding more joy to the atmosphere. I wasn’t surprised. It’s who she is. As the psalmist said, we are fearfully and wonderfully made. God made each one of us unique as He formed us in the womb. He knows who we really are before we do ourselves. Life takes us down many roads before we look up and ask for His help. When we’ve had enough of the false self, we’re ready to trust Him as we become who He intended us to be and show up for our own lives. For some of us, it took the depression and despair of being lost in religion to realize the freedom held out to us in the gospel. During the worst season of my life, six months after my disfellowshipping, I was at a clown camp learning to laugh again. As if that wasn’t enough, God introduced me to Sharon five years ago during the worst season of her life and together we laughed all the way from Baraboo to Bonne Terre and home again. God is good, life is good. Laughter is good medicine.
Keep yourself in God’s love,