Sunday, March 8, 2009

Church #10: Jehovah's Witnesses

I have three memories of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

One, I remember attending junior high school in Shreveport, Louisiana, and meeting a student named Ricky Jenkins. Ricky didn’t celebrate Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, or his birthday. He told us it was because of his religion, which I later found out to be Jehovah’s Witness. As a sixth grader, it sounded like the worst religion ever.

Two, I was living in an apartment in Montgomery when I heard a knock on my door. For some reason, I had my shirt off. Don’t ask me to explain why, but I answered the door with my shirt off. (Imagine Lou Ferrigno on steroids. That was me in my early twenties.) Two women stood in front of me. One was around my age, and the other was probably in her thirties. They were both very attractive. They gave me Jehovah’s Witness literature, and I apologized for having my shirt off. The older one said it wasn’t a big deal, but I felt awkward. I am 99 percent sure my sexiness caused them to leave the church. Damn this physique chiseled from granite.

Three, I mentioned my church experiment in class in late February, and a student approached me after class to invite me to her Jehovah’s Witness church. Since I continually tried to follow God’s lead, it seemed like a good next stop.

Now, number four …

My first impression was simple: The Jehovah’s Witnesses seem like they don’t want anyone attending their churches. I searched every square inch of the Internet and couldn’t find one personalized Web page for any Jehovah’s Witness church in Cincinnati. I found addresses, but I had no idea what time a service started. Last week, I drove to two different places, but both services had already started, so I settled for the Lutheran church (which was a great experience).

This week, I knew the service in Kenwood began at 10:00 am, so I was ready to go.

Until …

I strolled inside the building, grabbed a seat, and noticed there were a lot of Mexicans. I like Mexicans, so I just assumed the Jehovah’s Witnesses did a lot of recruiting from the Mexican population. No big deal. Two minutes later, someone walked up to me and asked if I spoke Spanish.

That’s a weird ice breaker, I thought.

After telling him I spoke a little Spanish, but not fluently, he informed me the 10:00 am service was in Spanish.

Son … of … a … gun.

Luckily, their 1:00 pm service was in English, so I went back later in the day. But seriously, how would anyone know that? There are no Web sites with any information, and even the times posted on the building were wrong. The information concerning the ten o’clock service said nothing about being in Spanish, and there wasn’t even a one o’clock service listed. Maybe Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t want people visiting to their churches. Although, in all fairness, the very nice gentleman who told me about the Spanish service did sincerely ask me to come back at 1:00 pm. He didn’t make me feel like I was intruding at all, but nonverbal communication means a lot to people, especially when they are first-time visitors.

No matter how friendly the people in your church seem to be, are you nonverbally welcoming people to your church and making them feel comfortable?

So, three hours later, take two.

Before I jump into the service, here are some details:

The main room was actually very nice. It had a lot of dark wood and comfortable seats. There were six flat screen televisions scattered throughout the room, which sat 150 people. About one hundred seats were filled. It felt like the banquet room of a hotel—a place where businesspeople might give sales presentations. Every single male, including little boys, wore a tie (except me), and women were in dresses.

I knew almost nothing about the Jehovah’s Witnesses, so I expected a freak show. I was shocked to learn the Jehovah’s Witness faith is actually very similar to the Christianity with which I am accustomed. That reminds me that chimpanzees and humans share about 97 percent of their DNA. But that three percent is the difference between writing Hamlet and flinging poop at your siblings.

The service began with a hymn and a prayer. I didn’t bring my Jehovah’s Witness hymn book (I knew I forgot something), and none were provided, so I was lost for the first few minutes. But then a very nice guy behind me handed me an extra book, allowing me to join in. Very kind of him to notice my predicament and come to my rescue.

Next, someone stood up to deliver that week’s message. From what I could understand, he was visiting from the Jehovah’s Witness church in Springdale. Seemed like a nice guy, and his message was fairly straightforward. He basically presented a “court case” (his words, not mine) that proved the United States was Babylon, and we were about to be destroyed. He cited lots of scripture, talked about the collapse of the American economy, mentioned global earthquakes, discussed child molesters in the Catholic Church … okay, let’s pause there for a minute.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t like Catholics. There were a handful of criticisms of the Catholic Church. I mentioned the child molestation, but he also pointed out the Catholic Church’s budget (he claimed it was $270 billion).

In fact, the Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t seem to like any religions. Or our culture as a whole, for that matter. He kept making the point that the current system is collapsing, and people must separate themselves from false religion and the culture’s practices. He specifically called people to not celebrate holidays or join “worldly” organizations.

He closed the message by saying the United States is going to be annihilated very soon. A cheery thought to launch me into the new week. But … if you are a Jehovah’s Witness, you will be given a paradise Earth without crime, or fear, or any other bad stuff. Good for them, but not so great for me.

The service closed with another hymn and prayer. Forty-five minutes, in and out, and I was off to … wait a second.

There was a second meeting—the Watchtower study. Everyone stayed, so I remained in my seat.

There is a booklet called the “Watchtower.” It is released every month, and in that book, there are four lessons. Each week, the church does one lesson together as a congregation. It’s basically a Bible Study that happens immediately after the church service, and everyone stays to participate.

Again, I was without a booklet, but again, a dude in front of me gave me his extra. Very kind of him as well.

The book was a commentary that included scripture references. So, the “pastor” called someone from the congregation up front to read. The reader recited a couple paragraphs from the commentary, then the pastor would ask the congregation questions based on the reading. People raised their hands, someone brought them a microphone, and they answered. This went on for another hour. The reader must have recited twenty paragraphs, and the congregation answered about twenty questions based on the readings.

I sat there terrified the pastor would call on me to answer a question, but he only picked the people who volunteered.

I didn’t find the experience overtly creepy, but the creepiest part was listening to their answers. Every answer was included in the booklet, so people simply raised their hands and read. But they tried to make it sound like an original thought. It felt very strange, as though they had been brainwashed to believe whatever was in the booklet, whether they actually understood it or not. I wondered if the congregation could have answered the questions without their booklets. I especially didn’t like hearing small children answer the questions. There is nothing wrong with teaching your children about faith, but little kids were mindlessly repeating phrases they didn’t understand. Again, it felt like a subtle form of brainwashing.

But here’s the thing: Everyone seemed genuine in their faith. Almost everyone who spoke seemed to love Jesus deeply. They were just so critical of other Christians. I agreed with many excellent points that were made. Some of my favorites:

The main speaker said, “False worship takes people in the wrong direction while making them think they are going in the right direction.” Agreed. The trick is getting people to believe they are doing the right thing. Eventually, most people will stop doing the wrong thing because they know it’s wrong. But if you get them doing a wrong thing that they wholeheartedly believe is right, then they are toast.

Someone from the congregation said, “Before Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice, he made daily sacrifices to build momentum.” I thought that was a great thought.

Overall, the Jehovah’s Witnesses were much more “normal” than I imagined them to be. They seemed to passionately love Jesus, and they put that belief into action by knocking on our front doors with Watchtower books in hand. They seem really bitter towards other religious folks, especially Catholics, but I’m sure they are just reacting to the hypocrisy that frustrates all of us. While I never plan to go back, I definitely have a new respect for the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Something I have learned since beginning this experiment—I didn’t realize so many religions are rooted in Christianity. I had no idea the Jehovah’s Witnesses are so “Christian.” The same can be said of the Christian Scientists (not to be confused with the Church of Scientology. They are very, very different). That leads me to next week’s stop.

Until then, brothers and sisters, be well.