For years I was being chased by Jehovah’s Witnesses (referred to hereafter as JWs). One day I finally went to see them. Freely, willingly, on my own terms.
There isn’t a corner of the world which hasn’t been covered by missionaries from this religious group, known for their door-to-door evangelism. They are also popularly known for conscientious objection to military service, refusal of blood transfusions and to salute the flag. Most people come in contact with them in (at least here in Europe) in public transport where they stand around in groups at stations distributing their Watchtower magazine and other religious literature.
There were the times when the JWs came knocking at my sister’s house in Pennsylvania and my then 8-year old niece was pretty confused as to why we told her not to answer the door, as if it were the boogeyman! Teach the child to be welcoming to strangers and be friendly, but then only selectively? What moral quandaries we experienced. They had a way of persisting and making things difficult and uncomfortable. The social fear of having to ask someone to leave, of rejecting someone in general on whatever level became unavoidable. How many times have I heard people joke about how they would or should just answer the door naked, and/or invite them in to participate in an orgy, as a way of dealing with their persistence? I even read an entire Reddit sub-thread about it! Many people are really genuinely perturbed, disturbed, and put-off by conversion efforts, myself included until recent years.
I wanted to know what I had been trained so well to avoid, so I looked up the nearest Jehovah’s Witness church and discovered how I was already very uninformed. They don’t have churches, but Kingdom Halls. They don’t have mass or liturgies, or services the way I was used to in the Protestant/Catholic tradition. I really knew nothing about them, so again went to the interwebs for info:
I will spare you my attempt at a summary and just post the recap from Wikipedia for some general categories that you can read about if you are interested:
The “distinct from mainstream Christianity” is where things get problematic with religious authorities, local and state governments, and has resulted in the denial of freedom to practice their religion already from the early days of the movement’s founding in Pittsburgh, PA in the late 1800s. In fact, although the JW now have over 8 million members worldwide, and a very professionally developed and international presence through their publications and evangelism, they are still persecuted all over the world, most recently in Russia, where it was added to Russia’s registry of extremist organizations in 2017 and had its assets seized and members jailed. In Germany however, JWs were granted official legal status as a recognized religious denomination in 2005.
So on a Sunday last spring, I found my way to the Kingdom Hall in north Berlin, past graffiti-adorned buildings, walls, subway, and trash-strewn streets and parks. Sunday mornings in Berlin often leave clues to the late-night festivities that are usually cleaned up by the sanitation workers midweek. But on Sunday mornings the broken glass and Döner kebab wrappers are still fresh.
When I enter the building I am immediately assessed by a kind, elderly greeter-lady at the door as a visitor, and assigned a young woman to be my guide for my stay. We’ll call her Rachel, the woman who became my Jehovahs Witness pal. Rachel is beautiful, in her mid-30s and wearing a skirt and conservative, tasteful outfit. I look around and realize that I am probably the only woman not wearing a skirt. Oops. The building is large and has several conference rooms, one of which is hosting a talk with discussion this morning. That is where Rachel takes me.
We sit in some very comfy chairs and listen to the lecture with 30 or so other people. I observe that everyone is reading along in their Bibles, or on their phones, iPads or other device, as the speaker quotes from the Bible. I am seriously impressed by the enthusiasm and scholarly commitment every single member displays in following along the argument and checking all the Bible quotes that are referenced. It is like a combination of Bible-study and lecture, with full audience participation. I know some other churches that would be overjoyed with even half that level of interest in scripture. Rachel does all she can to let me know what to expect, what is happening, and generally puts me at ease. After the 20-minute presentation, there is a sort of sharing, discussion period, where again, everyone chimes in with their own thoughts and points relevant to the Bible selection at hand. I also realize that the whole thing is being broadcast in some way (not sure if it was by phone or some other technology) to elderly members who were at home, who were also then able to contribute by speakerphone to the discussion afterward. No-one needed to be left out!
After the talk, I go downstairs with Rachel and chat for a few minutes about how I am interested in visiting churches, have studied theology in general but am not seeking membership in a new church. She is very sweet, kind and genuine, and I did have some more questions about whether the JW’s have communion or priests, or whether women can be in positions of leadership (my standard research questions) but there wasn’t enough time to really delve into it. I read later that in JW women are a big part of public ministry, but do not hold congregational leadership roles. This is in part based upon the ‘restorationist’ nature of the movement, which strives to restore the church along the lines of how it was in the first century after Christ, the so-called apostolic era when women and men were spreading the new faith (described in the Acts of the Apostles). I left Rachel with a grateful heart and thought to myself, “Well, that was nice, but I doubt I’ll see her again.” Berlin has over 4 million inhabitants after all. But…
Two weeks later, while shopping in Karstadt Rachel walks by and we greet one another warmly. A week after that, I saw her standing outside the S-Bahn! She was handing out flyers with two others, all well-dressed, young and equally sincere. This time I greeted her like an old friend. I only had two minutes to talk before hopping on the train, and she said upon parting, “You know, it is all based upon the Bible, the Bible is the only true word of God, the Bible is the basis for everything!”
I know she really believes what she says; with a tone of certainty and slight urgency. It became more clear to me then why I have been asked, when describing the church I attended, whether it was Bible-based. The question initially surprised me because I hadn’t found myself in many discussions about biblical accuracy yet. There are many people claiming to have revelations, insights, further wisdom to impart from the spiritual world. People who believe that the Bible is the only necessary and true revelation will, of course, care about this.
I haven’t seen Rachel again, but I now smile at the JWs I see in the metro, as they hand out their literature.
This Vice article about this same congregation in Berlin is interesting and has photos of the interior of the Kingdom Hall.