Framework for faith: Industrious spirit fuels Jehovah's Witnesses' growth

Sacramento Bee/March 22, 1999
By Jan Ferris

Building a house of worship from scratch can take weeks, if not months. But not so if it's done Jehovah's Witness style.

Over the course of six days this month, 350 to 400 faithful are putting up a 4,200-square-foot Kingdom Hall in Del Paso Heights -- one of at least three new construction jobs and several remodeling projects for the denomination planned in the Sacramento region this year.

From the snaking of heating ducts through rafters Sunday morning to the orderly dishing up of beef stroganoff for the lunchtime crush of volunteers, Jehovah's Witnesses have tackled the Kingdom Hall effort with the same industriousness they use door to door, "educating" nonbelievers about the end of the world and the hope-filled prediction of a new life soon to come.

All of that proselytizing appears to be paying off. While the California Regional Building Committee typically organizes six "quick builds" a year, the volunteer crew is overseeing 11 new Kingdom Halls this year, including one in Laguna that could hold as many as eight separate congregations.

Dick Bisbee, presiding overseer of the Kingdom Hall in Colfax and head of the committee, estimates local growth at 3 percent to 4 percent a year. National and overseas figures are similar. The number of active Jehovah's Witnesses in the United States surpassed the 1 million mark in 1998 and is nearing 6 million worldwide.

"Our growth is generally good in all countries," said James Pellechia, a third-generation Jehovah's Witness who runs the office of public affairs at the denomination's Brooklyn headquarters.

With each new construction project, Witnesses hope a better understanding will be cast upon a faith group known more for shirking blood transfusions, birthdays and flag salutes than for its scriptural interpretations and contributions to constitutional law, which include nearly 50 defenses of religious freedom this century.

"Most people think Witnesses are strange," Bisbee said. "A lot of people think we don't believe in Christ and all that. We probably believe in Christ more than people we know. Our lives are directed by what we get out of the Bible."

Since Pittsburgh haberdasher Charles Taze Russell founded the religious group in the 1870s, followers have interpreted the Bible in what many Christians would call unorthodox ways: Denouncing the Trinity, the belief in God as father, son and holy spirit; dismissing Christmas as a holiday because Dec. 25 was not Jesus Christ's true birthday; and declaring the imminent arrival of an "earthly kingdom" by setting specific end-times throughout the 1900s, with the last stated date in 1975.

"It's a subtle point, but they don't want to talk end dates anymore," said Joel Elliott, who wrote about Jehovah's Witnesses for the Encyclopedia of Religion and Society last year and is completing his dissertation on the sect at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. "Most Witnesses don't consider 1975 to be a failed date, though historically it was."

Above all, most of the sect's work goes into preaching, as encouraged by a Book of Matthew verse "declaring the good news of God's kingdom." Jehovah's Witnesses do so as often as they can. Toni Wallace of Orland, on the kitchen crew at the Del Paso Heights site, goes door-to-door three times a week in the hopes of initiating at-home Bible studies. Rejection is part of the job, she says.

"We have our different attitudes," explained Wallace, who says she became a Jehovah's Witness largely because she believes the religion holds hope for her children's future. "But we keep going back because people's situations change."

All "publishers" -- as those who work the neighborhoods are known -- hone their preaching skills and command of the Bible three nights a week, with classes, public-speaking sessions and even mock living room visits followed by peer critiques.

"(Initially), 99.9 percent of us say, 'I'll study the Bible, but I'll never go to the door,' " said Dan Nelson, a muffler shop owner from Redding who accepted the faith at age 20. That changes quickly. "It's not something we just do on the weekends."

Nelson helps out on the "quick build" food crews. The latest massive effort began taking shape Thursday in Del Paso Heights. By Sunday morning, the building was in place, the ceilings were insulated and the sound of hammers filled the air.

Crews will do finish-up work next weekend, including the 176 chairs for two separate congregations. Like all other Kingdom Halls, this one will be devoid of crosses, depictions of Jesus Christ, stained glass or other religious artwork.

Jehovah's Witnesses believe the Battle of Armageddon is soon to come. That so much time and money is going into remodeling or crafting new Kingdom Halls with mass destruction possibly at hand is not a contradiction, according to Bisbee.

"The buildings might be destroyed, but all the things the friends are learning, they will know how to work in unity," he said. "They'll know how to rebuild whatever needs to be."

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