Jehovah’s Witnesses Gather in Journal Square for Annual Convention

All photos: Edwin Hadi

Earlier this month, thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses descended on Journal Square for their annual convention, this year centered on the theme “Remain Close to Jehovah.” Similar meetings will take place at a variety of locations all around the world throughout the rest of 2010 and into 2011. In the tri-state area the gatherings will continue through September.

At the Jersey City location, however, attendees had the unique opportunity to meet in a very special place, the historic Stanley Theater.

The Witnesses acquired the Stanley in 1983 and renovated it in time for the formal dedication of the building in 1985. Remarkably, because no one in the organization is paid, all the work was done by thousands of volunteers.

Though the Stanley is used regularly as the Assembly Hall for Jersey City Witnesses, it was especially effective in providing an elegant as well as spacious setting for the convention, which gathered an estimated 3,000 attendees on each meeting day, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Nearly every space of the expansive theater was put to use for the convention, with the main events taking place in the auditorium. There, on any given hour of each day, attendants could hear symposiums and sermons relating to the theme, as well as experience some special events such as baptisms and a drama production.

According to Howard Carroll, a news service overseer for the Hudson County circuit of Witnesses, an effort was made to make non-members in the area aware of the conference and to welcome them, via a flier emphasizing the free admission and the lack of collections taken. “How can you draw close to God?,” it read.

Although it is unclear how many guests responded to this invitation, if they did attend, they’d likely be easy to spot. Even on the balmy Saturday afternoon when I visited the convention, all the Witnesses were dressed in formal attire — suits for the men and dresses for the women. Carroll explained that Jehovah’s Witnesses dress up to show respect, similar to the way people used to dress up for ball games and, appropriately for the venue, movies.

Yet, despite the serious, solemn dress, every Witness I spoke with was full of joy and excitement for the conference.

Many, like 19-year-old Britney from Paterson, cherished the opportunity to reconnect with old friends that they may not have the opportunity to see often. She was born into the organization and baptized 11 years ago.

“I get to see a lot of the friends that I only get to see on these occasions,” she said. “Even if you don’t get to personally talk to them, you do feel a certain kind of spirit just being around them.”

Shawn from Clifton, another lifelong Witness, expressed a similar sentiment.

“Getting to see all the people who are doing the same thing as you is very encouraging,” he said, adding that the actual information was a big draw as well. Many of the other attendees referred to the support that comes from the various speakers, who give them tips and advice on how to be a better Witness.

Perhaps one of the most striking things about the convention from the perspective of an outsider was the diversity represented by the attendees. People of all ages and races filled the theater and the adjoining rooms, including overflow seating for those who could not find a seat in the main auditorium.

Bobby Irvin, a Jamaican musician and old friend of the late Bob Marley, summed up the experience of the convention using a famous phrase of Marley’s.

“Everybody is just in one love,” he said. “In Oneness.”

Irvin looked around the theater as crowds began to pour out of the auditorium and as a line of new converts shuffled into a shallow pool for baptism.

“It’s very beautiful,” he added with a smile.

© Harmony Media, NJ. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced without written permission.

a writer and educator living in Jersey City with his wife Stephanie, a painter. He teaches composition at New Jersey City University and works as a Writing Center Specialist at Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken. He is the managing editor of Patrol.