Drive through the Northwest on any weekend and you will see sandwich-board signs dotting the roadways that invite drivers to "come and worship" with any number of newly-founded churches meeting in school gymnasiums or senior citizen recreation centers. In an effort to report what is available by way of religion to residents of Oro Valley, Marana and the unincorporated areas Northwest of Tucson, the Northwest EXPLORER is publishing an occasional series introducing religious communities of the area. This month's story is on the Jehovah's Witnesses.
They have suffered death in the Middle East, persecution in Africa and ridicule in much of the civilized world. They have been party to a multitude of religious freedom cases heard by the U.S. Supreme Court and have helped pioneer non-blood surgical techniques. Their women cannot serve in any form of leadership ministry and their children are forbidden from attending birthday parties or pledging allegiance to the flag.
If any group could claim to be misunderstood, it would be Jehovah's Witnesses, a religious denomination known to the public mostly through the door-to-door ministry where they go out to proclaim the Gospel and the imminent end of the world.
But you won't find them complaining. Jehovah's Witnesses take great pride in their faith and remain peaceful in the face of derision, convinced that persecution is just one more sign that they are on the right path, evidence that they are doing God's will.
The Jehovah's Witnesses denomination was founded in Pittsburgh in 1872 by Charles Taze Russell who was raised in the Congregationalist tradition. It started out as a home Bible study - still a core tenet of the Witness practice - and eventually became group meetings in Kingdom Halls.
They take their name from the Bible's book of Isaiah: "Ye are my witnesses, saith Jehovah, and my servant whom I have chosen." They read a translation of the Bible called the New World Translation, which was published in 1961 by their parent organization, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc.
Some Christian denominations claim that Jehovah's Witnesses are not Christian because they do not believe in the Trinity, but Barry Mishkind, news service coordinator for the Tucson area Witnesses said Jehovah's Witnesses are Christian by the very definition that they follow Jesus Christ and "absolutely believe" he died for the sins of people on earth.
Witnesses come together for five meetings each week at Kingdom Halls and in homes. Some of the meetings are held back-to-back and feature prayer, singing, training for door-to-door ministry, Bible study and talks on articles in the Watchtower Magazine, second only to the Bible in importance to Witness faithful.
There are more than six million Jehovah's Witnesses worldwide in 94,600 congregations, according to the religion's official media Web site, www.jw-media.org. Over the past decade, the Witness membership has grown by 10 percent in the United States, with nearly one million members now in this country. Mishkind said about 4,500 Witnesses live in the greater Tucson area, with about 1,100 in the Northwest.
There are four Witness Kingdom Halls in the Northwest, serving 11 congregations, Mishkind said. Each congregation varies in population, but Steve Tipton, an elder with the Pusch Ridge Congregation meeting at the Ina Road Kingdom Hall just east of La Canada Drive, said congregations tend to have between 70 and 150 members. Witnesses are not counted in population rolls unless they are "active in the field-service ministry," Tipton said; therefore, more people may be attending Kingdom Hall services than are counted as Witnesses in the area.
The central tenet of the Witness faith, said Mishkind, is that God wishes "for a perfect mankind to live forever on a earth restored to paradise conditions." To that end, Witnesses believe that Jesus Christ came to earth in 1914 and was installed at that time by Jehovah as king of heaven. Satan was cast to earth and has been ruling since, which is the Witness explanation for negative things happening on earth.
"Jesus is waiting at his Father's right hand to execute judgment on a world that is alienated from God," Mishkind said. "All people have the opportunity to demonstrate whether they live according to God's standards that are set out in the Bible. Jesus will judge each individual (on the last day), not a specific religion."
However, while Witnesses say that everyone has the chance to be saved, they readily admit they believe their religion is the true religion, said Dan Ellis, also an elder with the Pusch Ridge congregation.
"If we didn't believe that, we would be hypocrites going out in field ministry," he said.
Witnesses believe that, as noted in the book of Revelation, 144,000 people - called "the anointed" by Witnesses - will go to heaven to rule with Jesus once the current world comes to an end. At that time, earth will be restored to conditions found in Genesis' story of the Garden of Eden. Everyone who has died will be resurrected and given a chance to "live according to God's will," Mishkind said, and if they do, they will live forever in this earthly paradise. If they do not choose God's will, they will die. Jehovah's Witnesses do not believe in hell.
Some of the 144,000 are already in heaven, Tipton said, because the Apostles were of the anointed since they shared in Jesus' memorial meal. The only holiday Witnesses celebrate is the anniversary of the Last Supper, because no other holiday has biblical origins (see related article, page 15). At that holiday, all Witnesses come to a memorial celebration of Jesus' Last Supper, but only the anointed partake in the bread and wine that is passed among those in attendance.
"I'm not of the anointed," Tipton said, "so I cannot tell you how they know they are of the 144,000, but they know. And if they know, they receive and then we report that number to the Governing Body … the number is decreasing because Witnesses are dying and of course the anointed have been counted since the time of Jesus' memorial meal."
Witnesses believe so strongly that they are the true religion that they practice what they claim to be a biblical principal, but what outsiders consider a controversial practice: shunning.
Also called "disfellowshipping," this behavior involves turning away from Witnesses who chose to leave the religion. Jehovah's Witnesses do not shun non-Witnesses, "because they have not had the Truth, so they don't really know any better," said Ellis.
While some might view disfellowshipping as a negative practice, Mishkind said it is actually a loving behavior.
"I liken it to a sick child," he said. "If you have a child who is sick, you take it to the hospital to undergo a painful operation and you don't want to harm your child or cause him pain, but you want him to be cured, so you take him for the operation. This is the standpoint we have. Disfellowshipping is painful, but we want someone to realize what they have done, what they have lost, in hopes that they turn around and come back."
Disfellowshipping offenses are anything that would "cause reproach on the name of Jehovah," said Tipton, such as adultery, continual drug or alcohol abuse, speaking out against the Witness religion or fornication.
"Yes, it is a hard thing to do," said Ellis about disfellowshipping Witnesses. "But our first desire is to do what God says. It says in first Corinthians, chapter 15, verse 33, not to have bad associations. Disfellowshipping keeps the congregation clean."
Disfellowshipped Witnesses can return to the congregation if they are "truly repentant" said Mishkind, adding that they can always attend Kingdom Hall services while in the disfellowshipped position, but "in general, they will not be spoken to."
"When someone wants to be part of a group, say they want to be an environmentalist, they can't go out and spill oil on the ground and still call themselves a member of Greenpeace," Mishkind said. "It is the same with disfellowshipping, these people have demonstrated they don't want to live according to the standards set by Jehovah."
Disfellowshipping is one example of how serious Jehovah's Witnesses take their belief that the world is in the "end times."
"If you lived in a town and the dam was breaking, wouldn't you want to warn your neighbors?" Mishkind asked. "It is the same with all we do - we see the signs of the times, we know the end is near, we know people need to have the chance to hear the truth. This is what drives our field ministry. But no one is forced to do field ministry."
John Brown spent a decade in the Jehovah's Witness religion and said that door-to-door ministry was never presented as an option.
"They make you keep track of your hours and report those hours to headquarters in New York," he said. "Unless you are sick, it is very much encouraged that you will log a certain number of hours for the work. If you aren't, you are made to feel like you are not a good Witness. I never felt I had a choice." (See boxed story)
Critics of the religion will say Jehovah's Witnesses have claimed the end of the world at least five times, beginning with 1914 and proceeding to 1941. Former Jehovah's Witnesses such as Brown said 1975 was "alluded to as being the end," but Ellis said Witnesses have never given an exact date for Armageddon.
"I hear that, but no one has ever shown me a Witness article that says the end of the world is a certain date," he said. "It says in the Bible we will not know the exact time … but we can say from the signs around us that we believe we are in the end times because the Bible tells us what it will be like."
Tipton emphasized, however, that while Jehovah's Witnesses "take hope" from what they read in the Bible about what will happen after the death of this world, they "are not rejoicing when bad things happen … we are not happy when we see war and such things."
Witnesses are organized into congregations, which meet at Kingdom Halls overseen by elders who are appointed by the Governing Body of the religion at the New York headquarters. There are no paid or ordained clergy members, but elders are expected to be men of exemplary Godly character, said Tipton. Each congregation is divided into small territories that are assigned to individual Witnesses who try to meet and speak with people at each home in that territory. Groups of congregations are gathered into "circuits" which are supervised by a circuit overseer; circuits are gathered into districts supervised by a district overseer and the districts are gathered into regional branches with small committees that oversee the work of the Witnesses in their branch. The branch committees report directly to the Governing Body in New York, which currently consists of 18 male members.
Each Kingdom Hall is self-supporting by donations given in a box at the entrance to each Hall. Most Halls also have a box for donations to be sent to New York. At a recent Wednesday night service, when the finances were read, it was reported that the congregation meeting that night had approximately $3,000 in the bank and had sent no money to New York in February. Donations cover utility expenses, said Mishkind, and miscellaneous costs such as printing.
A May 2002 broadcast of Dateline Magazine focused on child sexual abuse among Jehovah's Witnesses and brought some negative publicity to the religion, although Mishkind said there have been no local cases. The broadcast quoted heavily from William Bowen, a Jehovah's Witness for more than 40 years who once worked at the religion's New York headquarters. He labeled the religion a "pedophile paradise," saying that congregation records at headquarters show there are "hundreds of molesters" among Jehovah's Witnesses. He started a website devoted to those abused by Witnesses (www.silentlambs.org) in 2000 and claims to have heard from more than 5,000 victims in the past three years.
"I would say, no, we haven't had this problem, but I would add that you will find, among any number of people, some people who live what we would call a double life," Mishkind said. "The Witnesses have always said that if these people are found out, they are isolated so they can't be a problem for others.
"But it is a very difficult issue because of the possibility of false accusations. Over the years, how many young people or wives have made claims (of abuse) that might have been prompted by a psychiatrist or perhaps even was a false memory?" he continued. "Would you put someone in jail on uncorroborated evidence? For over 10, 15 years our standard has been non-acceptance of this behavior. But the question becomes, you have to look into the accusation, but if no one can corroborate, how far do you want to err?"
The Witnesses follow the biblical decree that two witnesses must accuse someone of sinful behavior before a person is disfellowshipped, but Bowen argues on his Website that most child abuse is done in seclusion so the biblical demand of having two witnesses to a sin is an impossible requirement.
"I can tell you that if someone is accused, the elders would observe him carefully. If two different people accuse the same person, we have more evidence," Mishkind explained. "And generally, these people are not allowed to go in (door-to-door) service alone because we want to protect the community."
One thing Witnesses are proud of in addition to their door-to-door ministry is their "Quick Build" program for constructing Kingdom Halls, said Pusch Ridge Congregation elder Tipton.
The Quick Build program utilizes Witness volunteers from a certain region to build a Kingdom Hall over two weekends. Halls "are not fancy, but functional," Tipton said, adding that Witness professionals volunteer their skills as architects, electricians and designers to build the halls.
"Hundreds of Witnesses show up from all over Arizona for two weekends and get it built," he said. "It is truly an amazing thing to see."
All four of the Northwest Kingdom Halls were built with the program; the one at 1743 W. Wetmore Road is the oldest hall in the area, built in the early 1970s, Mishkind said. The Ina Road Kingdom Hall is just over 10 years old. A new Kingdom Hall is supposed to be constructed this fall in the area of Linda Vista Boulevard and Camino de Oeste, but due to complications with regulatory permits, the building may have to be delayed or moved to another Marana site.
If someone is interested in learning more about Jehovah's Witnesses or joining the religion, Mishkind said that person can call any of the Kingdom Halls listed in the phone book on Sundays and ask for a free in-home Bible study or schedule of worship.
"We are a group of people who are very concerned with worshipping God in a way he approves," said Mishkind. "If you buy a car, you don't put ketchup in it just because it is convenient - you read the manual. That is what we do, we study the Bible on a regular basis to make sure our worship and lives are how God wants and we believe this will bring blessings to our lives."
WHAT THEY BELIEVE
Deity: According to Barry Mishkind, news service coordinator for the Tucson area Jehovah's Witnesses, the Witnesses believe in the "one, true, almighty God, Jehovah." They do not believe in the Trinity, believing that Jesus is the first creation of God and a "god-like creature." They believe that the Holy Spirit is "an active force of God." They reference the Bible (Colossians 1:15-16) to prove that Jesus created all other things, including Satan, who is a "powerful spirit creature." They do not, however, believe in hell.
Codes of Conduct: Witnesses strive to live a biblical lifestyle, eschewing everything that is condemned in the Bible. They don't directly forbid divorce, but discourage it, and forbid premarital sex, adultery, criminal activity of any kind, homosexual activity and drunkenness. They do not pledge any nation's flag, believing it to be a form of idolatry and do not celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, birthdays or any cultural holidays since they are not of biblical origin. The only holiday they are commanded to celebrate is the memorial of Christ's Last Supper, held each year on the date of the Jewish Passover. They do not take whole-blood transfusions, but are allowed, as a matter of conscience, to take blood-clotting factors, plasma proteins and hemoglobin. Service in the armed forces is also a matter of conscience. Women are not allowed to be leaders in the congregations.
Governing Structure: The governing body of Jehovah's Witnesses is the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., located in Brooklyn. They function based on the Book of Acts, Chapter 15, with a president and a general council deciding doctrine and passing it down to the local levels. Each Kingdom Hall normally serves a number of congregations and those congregations are run by a small group of elders appointed by the Governing Board in New York. Each region of Jehovah's Witnesses is divided into circuits and then districts, each of them coordinated by a circuit and district overseer, respectively.
History: Jehovah's Witnesses were started in the late 1870s by Charles Taze Russell. Witness publications say the religion was an independent movement; non-Witness publications say it was an outgrowth of Seventh-day Adventist and Congregationalist traditions.
Clergy: There are no ordained clergy in Jehovah's Witnesses and none of the elders are paid.
Worship: Held on Sundays, worship begins with prayer and song, followed by a Bible lecture, a study of a Watchtower article and ending with a prayer and song.
Population: Worldwide there are about 6 million Jehovah's Witnesses, with nearly 1 million of them residing in the United States. There are approximately 4,500 in the greater Tucson area; about 1,100 attend Kingdom Halls in the Northwest.
Number of local Kingdom Halls: There are four Kingdom Halls in the Northwest, from Wetmore Road north to the city of Oracle, serving 11 congregations.