In the heart of Bethel (a Jehovah’s Witness monastery), where my devotion had turned to depression, I found an unexpected treasure—a connection that would shape my heart for years to come. This is the story of meeting my first love, Jonathan* whose memory is etched into my being as deeply as the scriptures were into our lives.
Arriving to Bethel at the age of 19 with the sheen of newness, I was eager to find my place among the cool guys and the well-known Bethelites. One of the best places to meet people was the giant communal dining room, it had murals of a perfect paradise earth all around. It was filled every weekday with over 1,300 devoted bethelites like me who also lived at this complex. The giant dinning room buzzed with the energy of hungry young men, and it was there that my path first crossed with Jonathan. Unbeknownst to me, he was eavesdropping on my naïve chatter about wanting to attend one of his well-known parties. With a playfulness that would come to define our interactions, he feigned ignorance and humorously built up his own reputation before introducing himself and extending an invitation that would eventually change everything.
Our chemistry was immediate, a spark that ignited despite the fact that he was dating a pioneer sister at the time. Our paths diverged after his party but reconvened in September 2008 when Jonathan found his way to the laundry department where I worked. He later sent a casual flirty text to join him for volleyball, and that was the simple gesture that opened the door to something greater. He was the self-proclaimed volleyball king, he was also alluring not just in charm but in kindness. His presence became a beacon for me—lonely and depressed in a sea of spiritual expectations and responsibilities.
Our relationship blossomed through texts that bridged the gap between camaraderie and something far deeper. We delved into our personal secrets and our desires, our needs, and our deepest wants, finding comfort and understanding in each other. It wasn’t long before we were inseparable, finding any excuse to spend time together, our bond strengthening with each shared moment.
Our “dates” were the highlights of our routine lives—times when we could shed our responsibilities and just be two young men exploring the world around us. Our weekends were often spent apart, tending to our respective congregational duties—Jonathan in Monticello, NY, and I in Franklin, NJ. Yet, the distance only seemed to amplify the joy of our reunions.
Stargazing became an activity where we could be alone close to Bethel, a pastime that earned me the nickname ‘Stargazer’ by some in bethel office. Looking up at the vast expanse of the universe, with him by my side, the world felt infinite and our possibilities endless. It was during one of these stargazing outings that we came so close to kissing, only to be interrupted by Wallkill’s night security.
The defining moment of the beginnings of our love was a night in the sugar mill cabin at Bethel—a place where time stood still and the outside world ceased to exist. It was scandalous, it was bold, and above all, it was a chapter of our lives where the unsaid was finally spoken. We shared a bed, but it was the intimacy of being enveloped in each other’s arms that cemented our bond. That night, without a word, we acknowledged the love that had silently grown between us.
In the eyes of our faith, our love was forbidden—a wicked thing according to our faith. Yet, in those quiet moments, nothing felt more natural or more right than the warmth of his embrace. We were two souls finding comfort and safety in each other’s presence, our affection a silent cry against the expectations that had defined us.
But as with all tales of first love, especially those written in the shadows, our story was not destined for a simple path. The intensity of our connection, the shared secrets, and the stolen moments came at a price. Our relationship, once discovered, unraveled the fabric of our carefully constructed realities. I lost all my privileges and responsibilities, my reputation, and the boy who had become my world. Jonathan was however ever the resilient one, he found his way through the storm, but I was left to navigate the aftermath of heartbreak that felt as vast as the night skies we once admired together. He broke up with me after confessing to elders how close we had come and what we had done. I lost everything and worse than anything, I lost him.
In the years since, his memory has become a bittersweet recollection of what was and what could never be. It’s a testament to the power of first love—how it can arrive unexpectedly, flourish in adversity, and leave a lasting legacy. Our time together at Bethel taught me that love is a force that can transcend rules, change lives, and redefine faith.
As I look back, I realize that our story was never about defiance; it was about the discovery of self, the undeniable truth of who we are, and the courage it takes to embrace that truth, no matter the cost. My first love at Bethel remains a part of who I am, a reminder of the moments when I felt the most alive, the most authentic, and the most loved. But there’s much more to this story and how I ultimately left Bethel. To be continued.
*Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals who may be impacted by high control groups.