There has perhaps never been a better-dressed crowd filling the seats of the Spokane Arena than there was Saturday, when thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses gathered for their annual regional convention.
The men and the boys wore ties, while the women were unfailingly dressed a day early in their Sunday best.
But some of them – 44 to be exact, according to David Scott, a Spokane-based media host for the convention – weren’t afraid to get their clothes wet, descending down steps into a large basin of water on the arena floor to be baptized while footage of the rite was simulcast on the jumbotron above them.
One of those who took the plunge was 12-year-old Ashton Mendez, who was feeling good about what he’d just done.
“I feel very welcome,” Mendez said. “I feel very loved. It feels like a brand new life ahead of me.”
But Mendez noted his baptism was just a public expression of something he’d already done: dedicated his life to Jehovah, as the Witnesses refer to what other Christians call “God.”
David Keegan, a Seattle-based spokesperson for the group, said this is a key aspect of how people come to the faith – namely, of their own volition.
“These are individuals that have studied the Bible and through their personal Bible study they … make that decision on their own,” Keegan said.
But Jehovah’s Witnesses are well-known for bringing their faith to others, including by knocking on doors.
That, Scott said, is something members view as an “obligation and privilege.”
“We don’t want to ruin anybody’s day,” he said of the perception that the door-knocking can be considered invasive. “We want to give people the information so they can make an informed decision.”
Sharing that message has a special urgency, Scott and Keegan said, because of Jehovah’s Witnesses’ belief that the apocalypse is near.
“We believe that, according to biblical prophecy, we are living deep in the times of the end,” Keegan said.
“Our time is limited,” said Mitchel Brehm, another local media host from Spokane. “We want to take every advantage we can to point toward the happy hope.”
To that end, the faith is famous for its willingness to not only knock on doors but also to translate their message into hundreds of languages to reach potential believers.
Brehm, for example, said Saturday that he learned American Sign Language to reach people who are hard of hearing. Keegan said he learned Chinese and spent six years in Taiwan seeking converts.
As for Scott, he said he is in the process of learning Arabic “expressly” for the purpose of reaching a group closer to home: Spokane’s growing Arabic-speaking population.
He’s not alone in that effort. Gabriel Abadashi, who attended the convention Saturday with his wife and two children, is a fluent Arabic speaker who is helping with the effort. Their aim is to begin holding weekly meetings entirely in Arabic for believers and potential believers in Spokane.
But as they seek to convert nonbelievers, they and their brothers and sisters, as members refer to one another, have to contend with some recent revelations that have damaged the reputation of the long-controversial religion.
Earlier this year, The Atlantic reported that the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, the nonprofit that oversees the Jehovah’s Witnesses, maintained an expansive database of information about alleged child abusers and has refused to comply with multiple court orders to share that information. And alleged victims of abuse they say were shielded by church leaders have come forward and filed suit. A Montana jury awarded a woman $35 million in damages last year after finding the Jehovah’s Witnesses church failed to protect her from a sexual predator.
Asked Saturday about those allegations, Scott acknowledged their seriousness and said it was the sect’s aim to “handle rather than hide” instances of abuse.
Pointing to a recently released church document that outlines the church’s “scripturally based position on child protection,” Scott said the group works to educate parents about how best to protect children.
That church document states that “Jehovah’s Witnesses abhor child abuse and view it as a crime” and that “in all cases, victims and their parents have the right to report an accusation of child abuse to the authorities.” But the document seems to suggest there are limits on when abuse should be reported to authorities outside the church.
“When elders learn of an accusation of child abuse, they immediately consult with the branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses to ensure compliance with child abuse reporting laws,” the document states. “Even if the elders have no legal duty to report an accusation to the authorities, the branch office of Jehovah’s Witnesses will instruct the elders to report the matter if a minor is still in danger of abuse or there is some other valid reason.”
Keegan said the group doesn’t “tolerate people that do that (abuse children) on purpose,” but added, “Like any collection of individuals, we don’t control the actions of others.”
But at this weekend’s convention, which started Friday and runs through Sunday, organizers and attendees were focused on a “positive message,” Scott said.
That message came from 1 Corinthians and was displayed on reader boards around the arena: “Love never fails!”
In a series of videos – some instructional dramatizations, others reenactments of scenes from the Bible, others reports from church branches all over the world – the estimated 5,000 attendees received lessons on everything from how “creation reveals Jehovah’s Love” to how to “display unfailing love in your family.”
“We’re gathered here to be instructed,” Keegan said.
“We train them to show love,” Scott added.
That training and instruction continue Sunday at the Spokane Arena, where the convention, which is open to the public, will continue from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.