A sea of well-dressed men, women and children covered the main floor and most of the second floor of the Columbus Civic Center on Friday, the opening day of the three-day district convention of the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
About 4,900 are in attendance, with a second convention scheduled next weekend with roughly the same number to attend. Delegates are in town from west Georgia, east Alabama and north Florida.
All told, 81 conventions are taking place in 81 U.S. cities through the month of September. This year’s theme is “Keep on the Watch.” “We’re here learning all we can about our Creator, Jehovah God,” said Jerry Bylsma of Columbus, a volunteer in the news service area who serves as an elder in a Cataula Kingdom Hall. Elders are teachers in the congregations, but no one is paid. Similar to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormon faith, there are no clergy or paid staff.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses worldwide office is in Brooklyn, N.Y.
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Friday’s opening message came from William Adams, the convention chairman. His message was for Witnesses to be ready for Jesus’ return. Many took notes and consulted their scriptures while Adams spoke.
“Jesus warned of his coming, but no one can figure out the precise time Jesus will come,” Adams said. In the meantime, he added, Witnesses should not be complacent or inattentive or fall into “a spiritual sleep.”
Irving and Andrea Jules are attending this weekend’s gathering. They became Jehovah’s Witnesses through the influence of Andrea’s mother, Hyacinth Brome. Andrea, who had been an Anglican then a Lutheran, converted in 2000. Irving came to the faith in 2003 and had been a Catholic.
“My wife slyly left some (reading materials) around,” said Irving, who’s an attendant or usher this weekend. “I also had a good friend when I was younger who was a Witness, and then I asked an elder to start instructing me,” he said.
The couple have two boys, ages 14 and 10.
Similar to the Baptist tradition, Witnesses are baptized when they claim the faith as their own. Most Witnesses are baptized as teen-agers, Bylsma said.
“Baptism is a symbol,” a ritual that follows a decision, he said.
But there are doctrinal differences between Witnesses and mainstream Christianity. A primary one is that Witnesses deny the Trinity; according to their teachings, Jesus was the son of God and was a ransom sacrifice but is not the same as God.
“We’re Christian but we are not part of Christendom,” Bylsma said.
The faith is in the lineage of the Restorationist organizations which include the Church of Christ, the Church of God, Independent Christian Churches/Churches of Christ and Seventh-day Adventists.
These groups teach widely divergent theologies, but all arose from the belief that the true pattern of the Christian religion died out through apostasy many years before and was finally restored by their churches.
Some believe that they alone fully embody this restoration exclusively. Jehovah’s Witnesses continue to work on what they believe is a restoration of first-century Christianity. Another belief is staying neutral in politics. As such, Witnesses don’t vote.
“We appreciate the government, yes. We drive on the roads and go to schools,” said Ron Evans, a teacher from Cairo, Ga. But if a politician does something underhanded, and a Witness voted for that person, the Witness would be culpable, Evans said.
As their name suggests, Witnesses spend a bulk of their free time testifying about their faith. Members of each congregation are divided into neighborhoods; and they call on those area residents by knocking on doors and sharing their materials. A main teaching tool is a magazine called the Watchtower.
“The door-to-door preaching is hard work, talking to people who don’t know you’re coming. There can be rejection,” Bylsma said. “But one, Jehovah has commanded us to do it, and two, it’s because of our love for our neighbor.”
Meetings continue today and Sunday. The public is welcome. Offerings are not taken, but boxes are set up around the Civic Center for donations. Sessions are at 9:20 a.m. today and Sunday; the afternoon session begins at 1:50 p.m. today. At 1:20 p.m. Sunday, the afternoon teaching begins.