Today, Melanie J. wants to please someone other than Jehovah. She has painted her fingernails, polished her patent leather shoes and donned a new dress from H&M. Her hair is delicately pinned up, arranged in bud-like clusters. "Do I look pretty, mom?"
Melanie, 17, was baptized as a Jehovah's Witness at 14. Like thousands of others, she has come to Dortmund with her family -- all of them strict believers, all of them dressed up for the special day -- for the annual North Rhine-Westfalia convention of Jehovah's Witnesses. Having doubts about his faith, the oldest son stayed home. It's a blow to the parents but the enthusiasm of their younger children compensates for the one son's lack of faith.
The J. family has traveled to Germany's Ruhr region for what many Jehovah's Witnesses consider the high point of the year. They arrive in caravans, bringing Tupperware, coolers, blankets and, most importantly, their Bibles. Here they can pray among peers, feeling a sense of community instead of isolation. "This is our big family reunion," says Michael Krenzer, a spokesman for the Jehovah's Witnesses in Dortmund. And since the family must expand, "many Witnesses naturally meet their future spouses here," says Uwe Langhals, another spokesman, who has been a Jehovah's Witness since he was 15.
Once decried as a cult, the Jehovah's Witnesses have managed to successfully fight for the title of "statutory public body" in 12 of the 16 German states. This gives them the same legal status as, for example, the Protestant church.
The Public Hardly Notices
In Berlin, the Witnesses meet in the Velodrom arena, in Munich, they gather at the Olympic Stadium, and in Frankfurt am Main, they plan to congregate in the Commerzbank Arena. Though they occupy enormous venues, the public hardly notices their presence.
Dortmund is home to the largest district convention of Jehovah's Witnesses in the country. The majority of those following the faith in Germany hail from the Ruhr region, which is densely populated and has relatively high unemployment. Some 40,000 Witnesses are expected to attend the event on each of the three days it will last.
The J. family has brought their two daughters to the event. Now they are standing in the Westfalen Stadium, embracing fellow brothers and sisters. Melanie is busy catching up with a friend. There are many young people, among them young straight-backed men in suits. "Look at him over there," says Melanie. The girls exchange secretive looks and giggle.
At first glance, it could be a wedding party. The girls' skirts might be a little longer and the children might look a bit more nicely coiffed, but it would be difficult to assign this group of people to any particular faith community. It's only their purple plastic nametags that give them away: Written above the name is the phrase "Let God's Kingdom Come!"
Andreas and Stefanie Georg, 33 and 34, are among those sitting on the rows of seats in the Westfalen Stadium. They have been married for 12 years. Both have been Jehovah's Witnesses since they were young. They spend 40 hours per week doing missionary work, preferably side-by-side. "It's great," says Stefanie.
They are nice, peaceful people. They offer strangers licorice and apple slices, spread out wool blankets against the cold and help old people up the stairs. They listen quietly to the speaker on the lawn below. They sit close together, still and pious in the seats usually occupied by cheering, swearing fans of the Borussia Dortmund football club.
They hold their Bible in front of them like a silver tray: the word of Jehovah. Their entire life is in this Bible. There are passages explaining why nicotine is forbidden but a glass of wine at the end of the day permitted, why blood transfusions are to be avoided and why non-believers must be converted. At least, they claim that's what the Bible says. They don't mention that the Protestant church has described the translation of the Bible used by Jehovah's Witnesses as inaccurate and uncritical.
Throughout the meeting, Bible passages are discussed at length and hymns are sung. Every so often, there is an interview with a Jehovah's Witness. These always follow the same format: Asked to tell about his missionary work, the interviewee enthuses about the experience -- it's wonderful.
There are some 165,000 Jehovah's Witnesses in Germany. The number of children and youths among them is not recorded. Yet many of them are victims of this community, which promises paradise -- but for many, becomes a hell on earth. It's a community that presumes to have a say in who its young people marry.
Markus, a student who left the Jehovah's Witnesses, says: "You try finding someone willing to put up with all of this crap!" Since his birth, he had been dragged to meetings. He was bullied at school for being a Witness. And when he brought his first girlfriend home, his father promptly sent her packing. At age 18, he moved out and hasn't been back since. Because he chose freedom and his current girlfriend, he is "essentially parentless," he says.
No Masturbation, No Homosexuals
Like many young Jehovah's Witnesses, Melanie has read a glossy pamphlet entitled "Questions Young People Ask: Answers That Work." It makes it clear that homosexuality is forbidden and masturbation demonized. The pamphlet, Melanie says, contains a lot of information on topics she is familiar with: what it's like to feel like an outsider at school, or to have false desires "for sex or self-gratification."
The pamphlet also includes a chapter on how a young Jehovah's Witness can determine if a potential partner is right for him or her. Like a faith-based dating manual, it includes tips on how to "get to know" the other person.
- "Discuss something from the Bible together"
- "Observe how the other person participates in meetings and sermons"
- "Help clean the Kingdom Hall (a place of worship used by Jehova's witnesses) and with construction projects"
How many German youths would rather sweep the floors of the Kingdom Hall than spend their summer days flirting at the swimming pool? Why are 17-year-olds spending their time in Bible Study, instead of meeting with their friends? What impact does it have on young people, when they are not allowed to try anything, are never permitted to be unreasonable, and when they see homosexuality as an aberration that needs to be treated with therapy?
Witnesses Beget Witnesses
"I fell in love with a non-believer once but it didn't work," says Melanie. It's easier to be with someone who shares the same values. There are fewer fights and less conflict -- just more silent obedience to Jehovah.
Melanie hopes to find a fellow Jehovah's Witness for a husband. Her mother told her that marriages with nonbelievers often end in divorce. That can't happen. She points to a Bible passage for support: "Do not be yoked together with unbelievers," 2 Corinthians 6:14. The community has simplified this to three simple words: Witnesses Beget Witnesses. "I am aware that it is appreciated when Witnesses marry among themselves," says Christoph Grotepass, an expert on sects who works for an advice center catering for members of religious groups in North Rhine-Westphalia.
The annual regional congresses play an important match-making role. Children typically don't find husbands at the weekly local meetings because these are kept small and, of the 70 to 100 persons who attend, most are adults. In addition to the larger meetings, there is also the option of finding a partner on the Internet, though Jehovah's Witnesses are skeptical about the Web. But on jwmatch.com, they can find fellow Witnesses to date.
"It would be a real blow if our oldest son decided he no longer wants to be a Jehovah's Witness," says Mrs. J. But their two girls are a consolation: At 17 and 12, both are baptized and firm believers.
They are good girls and faithful Witnesses. They sit in the Westfalen Stadium and pray. And Wait. For Jehovah's kingdom. And a husband.