Thousands of Jehovah’s Witnesses meet in Gainesville
By KIM WILMATH
Charles Roop / Alligator Staff
Bill Carpenter, a resident of Palm Coast, speaks to a group of Jehova’s Witnesses during a conference Sunday afternoon.
Twenty-eight years ago, Roy Abrams prayed for salvation. Back then, at 42, he said he’d sunk lower than his conscience would allow.
Then suit-clad liberators, as if nudged by Jehovah himself, knocked on Abrams’ door and changed his life forever.
On Sunday, Abrams smiled as he joined more than 6,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses for the Follow the Christ! district convention at the O’Connell Center. While the event was free and open to the public, donations were accepted.
According to Watchtower.org, the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ official Web site members are part of a worldwide Christian sect of about 7 million. They believe living by the Bible is the way to God.
Because Jesus devoted his life to preaching, Witnesses believe they must also spread the Bible’s message.
Usually they do so by knocking on doors and offering free Bible lessons.
“It’s not meant to irritate or annoy,” said Tony Fowler, a convention coordinator. “We just want people to be better Bible students.”
Fowler said there are hundreds of similar conventions around the country each year.
From Friday to Sunday, Witnesses listened to speeches, sang songs and watched dramatizations of scripture stories, clutching Bibles all the while.
Young people shook hands and took photographs. Little girls in lacy dresses and boys in suits skipped through rows of chairs singing hymns.
But like 70-year-old Abrams, many wrinkled and weathered adults stood in quiet contentment. Unlike the children, many chose this faith, and in some cases, turned from lives they believe were filled with pain and suffering.
“I was pretty rough in the world,” Abrams said, peering over his aviator sunglasses and straightening his patterned maroon tie. “Drugs, alcohol, women – that’s not what life is about.”
He rose from his seat to grab a second prayer book. Fervently leafing through the pages, he repeated, “The Bible is the only truth.”
He jabbed at a passage with a finger sporting a large silver ring. He paraphrased, “One Bible, one God, one true religion.”
Abrams said he believed the righteous should help God save the world from sin.
“Man is going downhill,” he said. “With so much unrest in the world, it’s gonna explode.”
He was careful to specify he didn’t think the world was ending. “If your home is infested with rats, do you burn it?” he asked. “No, you cleanse it.”
Aggie Lee Moseley, a 72-year-old former UF custodian, is one of about 800 Jehovah’s Witnesses who live in Gainesville, according to Fowler.
Moseley said she’s been a Witness since age 11.
She sat quietly in the chilly dome on Sunday watching a Bible reenactment, called “Clothe Yourselves with Lowliness of Mind,” which preached about the dangers of greed and pride.
Looking to her friend next to her, Moseley took off her green jacket and placed it on her friend.
As the actors onstage parodied the foolishness of coveting lavish garments, Moseley covered her own shoulders with a white towel she’d been using as a chair cushion.
“I like being a Jehovah’s Witness because there are a lot of friends you can trust,” she said as she adjusted her black straw hat and smiled.
She turned to listen to a Witness tell the moral of the story, his voice booming through the speakers.
He said women should not be upset by privileges of their husbands or sons, adding that men should avoid promoting themselves ahead of women.
According to an informational pamphlet provided by the Witnesses, a husband is the rightful head of a family, and his wife should be a good helper and respect him.
The pamphlet states the only grounds for divorce is adultery, and “Jehovah hates it” when couples separate for other reasons.
Other serious sins listed by the pamphlet include premarital sex, homosexuality, gambling, fits of anger, magical spells, drunkenness, smoking, belief in a trinity, receiving blood transfusions and celebrating holidays and birthdays.
Fowler said the most important part of the faith is spreading God’s word.
“Go therefore and make disciples of peoples of all nations,” he read from a small, leather-bound Bible.
He closed it and shrugged his shoulders. “That’s the key,” he said.