The plan last Sunday morning was to hit a “regular” church but on the way I saw a few people enter the Assembly Hall of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in North Falmouth on Route 151 near the Massachusetts Military Reservation. I turned around and casually slipped in for what may be one of the more novel religious experiences since I started lurking in strange churches last autumn.
I try to find a new denomination everyweek so I don’t fall into the lazy trap of repeating the tried and true. With three Episcopalian visits on the board and two more scheduled I could easily be accused of sticking to what I know when the point of this exercise is to check out the mystery religions I may never have cause to visit again. With this entry I officially cross the one-third mark in my 52 churches and need to start seeking out the significant Protestant holes in my experience as well as the religions that are going to be tough to track down (Buddhism, Hindu, and Sikhism are the big ones on the list now).
My prior experience with the Jehovah’s Witnesses has been a few random door-bell-ringing-points-of-contact where well-dressed young men, travelling in pairs, come bearing pamphlets and prayers. The second was when I worked as an orderly in suburban Boston hospital and witnessed a drastic surgical procedure on a child who’s spleen had ruptured in a school bus accident and had to have surgery without the benefit of a blood transfusion which Witnesses prohibit due to a specific Biblical admonition against third-party blood. I believe, but can’t confirm, that one of my great-great-grandfather’s four daughters was a Witness, but that is based on faint hearsay and some found copies of the faith’s signature publication, The Watchtower.
Of course the Witnesses’ headquarters in Brooklyn is a familiar sight across New York City’s East River, and according to my brother-in-law Jim, the Witnesses dominate the dry wall trade in NYC in the 1980s. I have no reason to doubt his word on this, but at the same time I have no evidence that this is still the case today.
The Assembly Hall is a neat, trim single story building with no rooftop steeple or other overt religious contrivance. I parked and walked back around to the front of the building, up a few steps and into one of two doors. Two gentlemen dressed in suits immediately made me feel under dressed in my Merrill snow clogs, green corduroys, and blue blazer sans necktie. I scanned the tables for some sign of collateral (pamphlets, programs, etc.), saw none, but heard a man’s voice amplified through the sound system. I said hello to the two deacons and entered the main room in the Hall.
It had three banks of chairs, about ten rows of 15 each, and was more than 75% filled when I entered. A man in a suit stood on the dais behind a lectern and was preaching on the topic of the Sabbath. As I walked to my seat in the last row of the farthest bank of chairs he told the congregation to turn to a specific place in their Bibles. Immediately I was at a disadvantage as I don’t own a Bible and none were furnished. I took off my coat, sat down, and started to take notes, not sure what I had missed as I obviously was entering late.
The first 30 minutes of the service (at least the part I watched) was delivered by a gentleman on the topic of the Sabbath. It was an interesting lecture on the historical and Biblical origins of the Sabbath concept under the Jews, with a detailed discussion of attempts by the Jewish elders to codify exceptions to the Sabbath code. I have little in the way of a formal theological or biblical education, but being a fan of ancient history found the talk very interesting. I noticed, as the lecture started to transition into the conclusion, that some odd figures of speech began to resonate. Example: whenever the speaker referred to God — he used the term “Jehovah God.” When Jesus was cited he was referred to as “Jesus Ransom Sacrifice.”
Things were going to be different. I could tell. More than a dozen church visits and I am starting to trust my sense of a church’s vibe as soon as I walk in the door. The Assembly Hall had all the glamour of a dentist office, with a low ceiling racked with flourescent lighting, a dais backed by a dark-rose colored swatch of cloth, comfortable padded chairs out of an office products catalogue, and a rugged wall to wall carpet tinted to match the wall covering. No stained glass. No crosses. By the doors, set into the walls, were locked metal panels with slots for the upkeep of the Hall and the expansion of missions overseas. Both wings of the main hall had small rooms, almost booths, with glass walls looking out on the main area. The one behind me was vacant. Over the dais was a plaque that bore the words from Corinthians: “Love Endures All Things. Love Never Fails.”
Now would be a good time to point you, dear reader, at Wikipedia for a quick background education in the concept of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The Wiki kicks off by describing the faith as a “restorationist, millenarian Christian denomination.” Restorationism is the movement in Christianity that seeks to go back to a more fundamental, primal form of the faith and Milenarianism is basically the belief the world is going to end and there will be a Second Coming of Christ. The Witnesses believe 144,000 “elect” will pass “through the narrow” door to heaven where they will rule with Christ. Earth will be transformed into paradise.
Following the first speaker’s lecture on the history and transformation of Sabbath regulations (a Jew was only permitted to travel, or walk, X number of paces from his or her meal, thus enterprising Sabbath breakers planted “meals” around the city so they could perambulate freely from one meal to the next)we stood and a hymn was sung. The sound of a piano came through the speakers but I saw no pianist. I had no hymnal, but a nice man two rows ahead of me stood and handed me his booklet. I was surprised he was able to determine I was without a hymnal as he faced the stage, but I was grateful and read along with the words.
When the hymn was finished two gentlemen went to the stage. One, who I assume was a pastor or leader, announced that it was time for the weekly Watchtower lesson. In the back of the hall stood four deacons with cordless microphones. I had no copy, but again, another nice man offered me his copy and opened his briefcase which contained another.
The lesson was eight pages long. One of the men on the stage would approach a microphone and read one of two paragraphs out loud. Then the pastor, cued by footnotes in the text, would ask the suggested questions printed in the pamphlet. Hands were raised in the congregation, a person would be recognized by the pastor, a deacon would approach that person with a microphone and the person would answer the question. This lasted for 45 minutes. The topic was vague to my ears, to paraphrase it was about knowing when to move on from an intractable situation, how to make a negative situation better by giving one’s time and assistance to those who need it, and how Jehovah-God is going to make it better for us eventually therefore he won’t be dismayed and we shouldn’t be either.
The questions were fairly basic. This was not advanced biblical analysis. The pastor was encouraging and supportive of the answers, saying things like “Excellent” and “Yes, that’s so true” in a kind, Mister Rogers (who was a minister) type of tone.
I was worried I might get called on so I mentally rehearsed simple answers and made a note not to ask difficult and obviously impertinent questions if I was called on. I was under dressed and very out of place, but that has been the norm in most of the churches, so I was relaxed and not too agitated. The discussion and the language were sufficiently off the beaten track that I wasn’t bored. I did find my mind wandering, mostly giving into conjecture about what it must be like to accept such a faith, to be raised in it, and to explain it (or not explain it) in society. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are not without controversy — few faiths are — but when things like blood transfusions and conscientious objector status come into the mix, the faithful can find themselves in the newspaper. I imagine being in such a faith — Christian Scientists come to mind, so do the Amish — serves to bind the faithful closely together.
So, while the Watchtower lesson proceeded — slowly — I did a lot of thinking about extreme faith, fundamentalism, cults, and the outliers in modern religion. From the Taliban blasting ancient stone Buddhas out of some Afghani cliffs with artillery because Islam prohibits “graven images” to whatever faith led people to drink poisoned Kool-Aid under Reverend Jim Jones directive in Guyana …. Waco …. the web developers in their jogging suits and running shoes in San Diego waiting for the space ship ……
I don’t mean to paint the Jehovah’s Witnesses as a cult or as extremists. I am just reporting on where my mind wandered during their service. They seemed like a tight group of very nice, responsible people. I never felt threatened. No one spoke to me or urged me to do anything (which has happened elsewhere). I have no right to judge or ridicule anyone engaged in their faith,but I do have to admit my own prejudices and biases in what is one of society’s touchiest topics.
When the Watchtower lesson concluded another hymn was sung. Some announcements were made, mention was made of getting “your times turned in” as the “circuit overseer” was coming soon. Apparently, based on my reading, there is some degree of synchronization among all Assemblies from one week to the next. Parishioners are required to preach from door to door in some Assemblies and those efforts are dutifully noted and reported back to headquarters in Brooklyn. Witnesses do congregate in large gatherings from time to time.
- Jehovah’s Witnesses do not observe typical religious holidays — Christmas and Easter — but their high holy day is concurrent with Passover.
- Their scripture is specific to the faith and was compiled by the church founder and subsequent leaders
- Witnesses practice something akin to shunning
- There was a higher percentage of pick up trucks in the parking lot than elsewhere
- The congregation was more racially mixed than any other I have visited
- I assume, from the names cited — Gomes, Gonsalves and Montero — that some of the congregation are Cape Verdeans which is a strong portion of East and North Falmouth’s population.
- Why do the newer and more esoteric religions favor the outskirts of town?
I may try for a triple header this coming weekend and get three in. Then again I may clam.