Sunday, November 28, 2010

Q: Can I get a Witness? A: Yes. I would be delighted.

In the spirit of my friend Megan Highfill's blog 10 Churches,, in which Megan writes about different churches that she visits each week, I am devoting this post to a group of religious folks about whom I knew little before coming to Puerto Cabezas: the Jehovah's Witnesses, or Testigos de Jehova (which gives rise to the most offensive moniker "Testiculos de Jehova," employed by some of Bilwi's more vulgar constituents).

Today, I attended part of a two-day conference, one of many being held around the world by various gatherings of Jehovah's Witnesses, which featured various speakers and a "full-costumed drama"(!). Michael invited me to come along, since his family are Jehovah's Witnesses and had asked him to attend. I was ready to shake up my weekly religious regimen, so I accepted.

First of all, I will put forth several terms as I understand them to differ from those used by other Christian sects:

1) The meeting-place is the Kingdom Hall (Salon del Reino in Spanish, Asla Aidrubanka Watla [something like "House of the Mission Done Together"] in Miskito), not the church.
2) The body of believers is referred to as an "organization," rather than a denomination or church.
3) Like the Society of Friends, they call their regular gatherings "meetings," rather than worship or Mass.
4) Like the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, their leaders are called elders.

What strikes me the most about Jehovah's Witness meetings is how cerebral they are. It feels more like a religion class than a worship service. There is very little prayer. Rather, if you want to seek the presence of God, if you have any question, you are exhorted to read the Bible. In the part of the conference I attended, a series of speakers came to the microphone, each expounding upon a different quality of God: empathetic, forgiving, generous, impartial, loyal. They drew from various parts of the Bible, citing exactly one verse in each example, in effect constructing scripture by stringing verses together. I tend to be open-minded when it comes to strategies for interpreting sacred text, but I find this sort of sound-bite exegesis jarring and somewhat irritating. It works well, however, for creating the cogent, accessible theological treatises that are the hallmark of the Jehovah's Witnesses. They work very hard to provide understandable and relevant guidance for believers in all aspects of life, an effort I very much admire. In doing so, they provide both the questions and the answers: no muss, no fuss. No existential angst. Every speech was followed by a sort of conversation-testimony in which an elder asked another member of the church how they had overcome some life challenge through their faith. The exchanges were so succinct and rehearsed, with no show of emotion or struggle. I was unsure if these were the actual life stories of the people involved or if they were doing a dramatization.

If I had to sum up the Jehovah's Witnesses in one phrase, it would be "quality control." They pump out a truly impressive array of materials in hundreds of languages on every possible subject. The missionaries they send to Puerto are already conversant in Miskito, which makes me a tad envious. This raises their esteem in the community. Their meetings feature a discussion based on articles in the Watchtower ("Atalaya" in Spanish). The intent of every presentation is overtly didactic, and they take pains to make it as easy to understand as possible, flatly rejecting any ambiguity or complication that might muddy up their message. The "fully costumed drama" was actually a pantomime to an hour-long Spanish-language audiotape furnished by Jehovah's Witnesses central. I laughed at first, but soon came to appreciate how much easier it was to follow the well-annunciated and well-broadcast dialogue than the audio nightmare that is the typical church drama. Leave it to the Jehovah's Witnesses to have the audacity to shun the mediocrity of the traditional church pageant (perhaps there's something to the "testicles of Jehovah" thing).

The message of the drama was that we walk by faith and not by sight, and if we trust God and obey God's commands, good things will come to us, and if we don't, we will be killed by the incoming Roman army. It was quite uplifting, actually, except for the part with the Roman army. It reminded me of coming to Nicaragua and how it's both super uncomfortable and challenging but also makes me feel able to follow Christ in ways I had never experienced before, and that is truly joyful.

Coming from the American Christian scene, without realizing it I had come to believe that I should either agree with theology or be offended by it. My experience with the Jehovah's Witnesses gave me the delightful gift of utter bafflement. For example, they believe that communion, originally only offered to the apostles, is reserved for highest members in the order who are part of the 144,000 believers who will go to heaven to reign with God, while ordinary believers will live in the new earth under God's reign. This is an entirely different way of viewing communion that I certainly don't agree with, but it is so far away from anything I had previously considered that it can't help but provoke thought. Though I was a little irate when the whole message on the importance of generosity was about giving to the worldwide mission of the Jehovah's Witnesses despite the economic crisis.

I'm definitely not okay with all of the practices of the organization, like shunning former members. I think it's unfortunate that Michael's dad will not be escorting him down the aisle at graduation because the ceremony will be held in a church building that does not belong to the Jehovah's Witnesses. However, my experience at the convention taught me that there is a way to disagree with theology without being offended by it. Bewilderment, rather than righteous indignation, can be a wonderfully healthy response. In no way does it impede relationship. The Jehovah's Witnesses will be happy to continue attempting to enlighten me, and I will joyfully choose to remain bewildered, by them, by God, and by my own murky faith that lacks any means of quality control.

It also leads to some wicked games of Who can find the Bible verse faster: Jehovah's Witnesses vs. Baptists.

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