Jehovah's Witnesses busy inviting everyone in region to convention in Tacoma

Seattle Post-Intelligencer/June 19, 2006
By John Iwasaki

An elder from a local congregation, dressed in a coat and tie and bearing religious literature, was headed up the walkway of a Ballard home when a woman sketching on the porch spotted him.

"That's far enough," she called out.

Learning that the visitor was a member of the Jehovah's Witnesses, the woman said that a previous visit by group members annoyed her: "I'm a nice person, but they pushed me to the limit."

These face-to-face encounters last week -- some hits, some misses -- marked the beginning of a massive campaign by Jehovah's Witnesses to personally invite Western Washington residents to their upcoming district convention in Tacoma next month.

The group printed enough invitations to hand out at 900,000 homes from Bellingham to Vancouver, bold and ambitious even for a religion known for its persistent door-to-door visits and divergence from certain bedrock Christian beliefs.

Though Jehovah's Witnesses annually hold district conventions around the world that are open to the general public, they usually don't seek attention. This year, that changed.

"Why now? Because we recognize how close it is to the culmination of the entire world system," said Peter Michas, the elder who encountered the Ballard woman last week.

Wars, natural disasters and other tumultuous events around the globe indicate that "the kingdom (of God) is like a freight train. It's on its way," he said.

Such discourse draws mixed reaction from the general public, said Chris Mahla, an elder with Michas at the North Park congregation in Greenwood.

"If I had to summarize the perception, I'd say that people who do not know anything about the Bible probably think we're quacks going door-to-door," he said. "People who know about the Bible probably respect our knowledge."

About 20,000 Jehovah's Witnesses live in Western Washington, said Henry Schwerdtfeger, a local spokesman and minister in the Issaquah congregation.

Jehovah's Witnesses -- Jehovah is a name for God in the Old Testament -- usually meet at buildings called Kingdom Halls and do not call themselves a church.

Mahla led 10 members in a brief prayer one morning last week at the North Park Kingdom Hall before they broke into small groups and fanned out into the neighborhood.

As a light rain fell, Mahla and Michas walked around the block, gently rapping on front doors. They handed invitations to a man sitting in his car, a woman scurrying after her child on the sidewalk, a construction worker repairing a house.

Because most residents weren't home, the two elders left folded invitations at the door.

At one empty house, nine silver, artistic crucifixes were on display near the porch -- "a tell-tale sign" about the spiritual interests of the owner, Michas said.

Though Northwesterners are known for their low church attendance, "it does not mean they are unspiritual," Mahla said. "They do not like what they've seen in religion."

Neither do Jehovah's Witnesses, who do not have paid ministers. They generally disagree with churches that seem overly concerned with money and fancy facilities, or those that take pulpit positions on the Iraq war or otherwise engage in political activism, Michas said.

But those are relatively minor differences.

"There is one central theological disagreement between Jehovah's Witnesses and nearly every orthodox form of Christianity, and that is the person of Jesus," said Michael Hamilton, who studies American religions and is chairman of the history department at Seattle Pacific University.

"Orthodox Christianity says Jesus is fully man and fully God, that he's part of the Trinity -- Father, Son, Holy Spirit," he said, while Jehovah's Witnesses say "that Jesus has a divine nature but is not part of the godhead."

Or, as Schwerdtfeger puts it: "We believe Jesus Christ is God's son and not God Himself, which some religions believe."

Other distinctive beliefs -- that Jesus was created, died on a pole and was raised from the dead in spirit and not in body -- are based on the Witnesses' version of the Bible, called the "New World Translation."

"We always go back to what the Bible says," said Mary Crowley of Shoreline, who planned to go door-to-door last weekend in Magnolia with the Queen Anne congregation. "That's the last word on everything. We try to live life the best we can."

When she talks to a stranger about her faith, "people sometimes tell me they have their own religion," Crowley said. "I can appreciate that. I think it's marvelous. I say, 'How does your church think about conditions on Earth today?' Some are just not interested. Some are very polite."

Many of the world's 6 million Jehovah's Witnesses have undergone persecution.

"All around the world, they've won freedom of religion cases," Hamilton said. "In the U.S., Canada, India and the Philippines, they've been hauled into courts and been vindicated."

The beliefs of Jehovah's Witnesses have "led to significant differences in lifestyle and ethics: pacifism, downgrading public education and refusal to accept blood transfusions and to salute the flag," said Roger Finke, a sociologist at Pennsylvania State University who studies religion and society. Though not known for seeking attention, "knocking on 900,000 doors is exactly what we would expect from the Witnesses," Finke said. "They tend to encourage public engagements whenever they think it will offer them a chance to share their 'truth.' "

Mahla said that Jehovah's Witnesses are simply offering answers about life.

"We all have similar questions, whether we're religious or not," he said during a break from going door-to-door. "People have some expectations that things can be different."

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