Paying a visit to the Jehovah’s Witnesses

After 15 years of attending Anchorage churches, I still look forward to visiting new denominations or congregations. Recently I was able to add a new group to my list: Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Many of us have been visited by a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses distributing their literature and trying to engage us in conversation about religious issues. Recently, I visited a Jehovah’s Witnesses congregation to see firsthand how they present themselves to one coming in unannounced. My primary motive was to see if they represented the degree of diversity, noted in Pew Research data and my last column, which ranked the Jehovah’s Witnesses as the second most diverse religious group nationally.

It was difficult locating local JW churches on the Internet. Instead of websites, I found Facebook pages for several Anchorage congregations. The closest congregation to me was the Sand Lake Kingdom Hall on Strawberry Road. Their Internet presence is an unofficial Facebook page without information about service times. Confused about meeting times, I finally resorted to the national website, jw.org, and used their locator. It’s not a friendly website, but eventually I found seven sites for Anchorage and Eagle River. That’s deceptive, though. Several congregations meet in the same Kingdom Hall but are listed separately. For example, Parkway, Sand Lake and Anchorage South listings meet in the same Kingdom Hall on Strawberry Road. All are shown as English language meetings, but some are conducted in other languages.

The website showed a 1 p.m. Sunday English service, which brought me to the Kingdom Hall on Strawberry Road. The grounds were spacious and attractive, with plenty of parking, and I saw many people streaming into the building. Jehovah’s Witness commenters had previously noted that I would be warmly welcomed, but no one greeted me when I entered, or during my visit. By mistake, I went into the first meeting room. Upon asking, I discovered I’d entered the Spanish language meeting by mistake. Directed to the other side of the building, I entered, but no one greeted me. People were talking with each other but I was ignored. One always wonders, when this happens, if they are in the right place — clearly an awkward feeling.

The meeting started on time with a leader announcing an opening hymn. People sang to music played by digital piano recordings. The leader didn’t introduce himself or welcome visitors, but referred to all as brothers and sisters. Members used a thin hymnbook to sing to the music. I noticed some parents pointing out the words to their children following the song. A speaker, Brother David Bresky, was introduced to give a talk about comfort. His talk frequently referenced to scripture — and frequently used the word “Jehovah.” This term supplants many other scriptural references to the deity.

I was surprised, though not unpleasantly, by the manner in which both the Spanish- and English-speaking congregations were dressed. It was quite formal with suits and ties for the men and dresses or suits for the women. Even the children were dressed up in their best.

Bresky’s talk lasted 30 minutes, after which another song was sung. Then Brothers Chip Boyle and Michael Tuminella took the platform to review that week’s Watchtower lesson. The Watchtower is a semi-monthly magazine published by JW national headquarters. It contains updates, inspirational articles, and four study lessons used during services. Brother Boyle read the lessons, and Brother Tuminella asked congregation members questions contained in the lesson, calling on those who wanted to answer. Several men had portable microphones to give to those answering the questions, a great practice so all could hear clearly. Amazingly, parents and children eagerly raised their hands to answer. I’ve never seen so much attention to a Bible lesson in any Anchorage church. It was great. The lesson, in which one or two paragraphs were read, and a response then called for in the form of a question, lasted more than 45 minutes and was comprehensive. Its theme was “Meditate on Jehovah’s Enduring Love.” After the lesson, announcements from JW headquarters were read.

A final song was then sung and the meeting adjourned.

I approached meeting participant Chip Boyle to introduce myself and ask several questions. He was helpful in answering question for this column. He and other participants function, without titles, as elders of this congregation.

I enjoyed my visit here. Their stancess on private scriptural interpretation, biblical translation and health issues, such as blood transfusions, have brought them into the spotlight nationally. Their voluntary witnessing has some detractors, but I applaud them for courage in sharing their faith. They are a culturally diverse group with 3,000 to 4,000 members in Alaska.

Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith on his blog,churchvisits.com.

The views expressed here are the writer’s own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.