Witnessing for the faith

Witnessing for the faith
Thousands arrive for an annual Jehovah’s Witness gathering.

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Baptized (BOBBY COKER, ORLANDO SENTINEL)

KISSIMMEE — Jeff and Lucia Clay, both Jehovah’s Witnesses, remember the days when their tiny Bible reading group gathered in a downtown Kissimmee home more than 50 years ago.

“It was 14 of us; and half were from Orlando. We had no central heat, no air conditioning. We’re thrilled to death by how much we’ve grown,” said Jeff Clay, 79.

On Saturday the Clays, who helped build the first Kingdom Hall in Kissimmee in 1955, joined about 9,000 people at their faith’s annual district convention at the Silver Spurs Arena in Osceola Heritage Park.

The gathering is expected to draw about 65,000 visitors from Naples to Daytona over seven weekends through Sept. 3, with three of the three-day sessions conducted in Spanish. About 10,000 visitors are likely to be newcomers.

Crowds drawn to the convention, titled “Deliverance at Hand!” are a sign of how things have changed in Central Florida since the religion made a foothold here.

Today, about 50,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses are spread out over 400 congregations in the region, which includes Tampa, St. Petersburg, Daytona Beach and Naples, said spokesman Michael Roth.

Osceola alone has 29 congregations and seven Kingdom Halls.

Growth is attributed in part to demographic trends, but also largely to the work of congregants. Jehovah’s Witnesses share the word of God by knocking door-to-door in neighborhoods to gain adherents to the faith.

“We’re very active in the ministry,” Roth said. “It’s something we do for a lifetime . . . not just for a couple of years.”

Roth said Jehovah’s Witnesses in the area have learned to overcome obstacles, such as language barriers, by setting up congregations in several languages, with Spanish congregations outnumbering English-speaking ones in many counties.

More recently, they’ve bypassed a very local problem.

“There are number of communities here that are gated,” said Roth. “So how do you reach those people? Well, you can call them or you can write them. We do both.”

During Saturday’s convention, one of 266 such events held in 73 cities nationwide from May to September, many attendees described the gathering as a way to socialize, meet “brothers and sisters” from neighboring congregations and strengthen their faith.

More than 1 million people are expected to participate in conventions throughout the United States.

Speakers preached to a full house about overcoming Satan’s temptations, keeping their marriages strong and watching for signs of the end of the current world order, which Jehovah’s Witnesses believe they must prepare for urgently.

Other topics included keeping a “scriptural view of health care,” which advised against “obsessive preoccupation with physical appearance.”

The format was similar to that of weekly meetings attended by Jehovah’s Witnesses, which rely heavily on Bible reading and are punctuated by song.

Many congregants — women in dresses and men in jackets and ties — could be seen taking notes.

RaChelle Coleman, who drove from St. Petersburg to attend, said messages at the convention were “useful” as she left a morning session.

“We are living the last days of this system of things,” said Coleman, 34. “It’s important to remember how to resist the desires of the world because Satan uses different tools to keep us away from Jehovah.”

The faith estimates its membership at 6.6 million members worldwide. Jehovah’s Witnesses are politically neutral and often refrain from “worldly activities,” such as fighting wars and voting. They often frown upon higher education if pursuing it is perceived to interfere with someone’s devotion to God.

Dozens took the opportunity Saturday to be baptized. George Harris, from Tampa, described the experience as “the beginning of a new life.”

Harris, 20, said he grew up in the religion but began to feel closer to it when he noticed events in the Bible were “coming true.”

“I never felt the need to be baptized until now,” he said. “I started to see all these things happening in the world . . . the world just didn’t seem as kind anymore.”

Iva Uzunov, a 23-year old waitress from Kissimmee, was submerged in a pool set up by the main stage. Her baptism, she said, marked the end of a search for meaning she began in earnest a year ago after hearing of the religion from a co-worker.

“I was partying and doing sinful things,” she said. “But everything felt empty. I feel today I’ve washed away some of those bad things. I’ve made some serious changes in my life.”

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