by Alexia Krinitis
The annual international convention of Jehovah's Witnesses took place in
on 27 – 29 June, at the Olympic Stadium (a.k.a OAKA). If
you live in Athens Athens or if you visited the “famed
city” the weekprior to the convention, probably you noticed groups
of Jehovah's Witnesses, from different nations and countries, wearing their badges and walking around . Also, you
might noticed anincreased activity in the field
service. Within 5 days, I received three times the
invitation to their international convention! Athens
On these invitations, please add the invitation from a friend of mine, who is Jehovah's Witness. He had invited me last year too, but something came up and I could not attend it, even though I hadsaid I would. However, this year I went to the Olympic Stadium for the convention accepting the invitation. The motivation was rather common: pure curiosity. When my friend invited me, he gaveemphasis not on something doctrinal or spiritual, I would hear, but on the fact the convention is international and it would be interesting for me to see how thousands of people from different cultural background coexist without the police or other safety measures (I try to quote his words).
In addition, other important elements that would motivate me to attend are that Jehovah's Witnessestruly live as one (as Christians should do) and that they volunteered to clean the Olympic Stadium inone day, something that surprised even the administrative team of the OAKA. Moreover, full of joyand pride, he said the Athenians Jehovah's Witnesses would accommodate many of the visitors.
It is quite interesting that as soon as I accepted the invitation, my friend’s behaviour changed. We have known each other for almost 15 years. He never had some time to spare me for a cup of coffee; if we managed to meet, it would be for only 15 minutes just to say a quick “hello” to each other. However, once I said I would attend the convention, he suggested we should meet for a cup ofcoffee, share our news, and he would better explain to me about the convention; he would also give me the program! Indeed, we met, we discussed general matters of faith; he did not bring me the program, because I told him that I would find it online. We met on Tuesday, June 24, a few daysbefore the convention. He even recommended me to go on Sunday, because they would have a play(amateur theater with stories from the Bible). I explained that I could not, because on Sundays I goto church and we agreed that I would go Saturday (on Friday I worked so I could not go anyway).
For the sake of truth, because my aim is to write down my impressions without distorting anything, I have to say that since Tuesday and on, he did not bother me or forced me whether I would eventually make it to the convention. Also, he did not write down my personal data and my intention to attend it.
I have already mentioned that Jehovah's Witnesses from across the country and all over the worldhad overflown Athens. The hotels were overcrowded. On Thursday, just one day before the convention, I attended a conference held at one of the most central hotels of our city. Jehovah's Witnesses kept arriving from the airport. Why do I mention this minor incident? Because Jehovah's Witnesses proud themselves of how they stand out from us, the "worldly people". In fact, they do not stand out at all. Some visitors who attended the same conference with me, they got confused and they approached the reception of Jehovah's Witnesses until they saw the signs and realised their mistake.
Another point that drew my attention: the Jehovah's Witnesses say that there is great love betweenthem, and it is obvious even if they meet for the very first time. Of all those fellow believers, who were waiting in the foyer of the hotel, some approached and greeted each other, some did not, as it normally happens between strangers. I could not trace or feel some special expression of love between them. They were all wearing their badges. Depending on their country of origin, they were dressed. For the Greeks, the black trousers, the white shirt, the tie (even on an extremely hot day)and the black briefcase were mandatory. The Asian (probably Japanese) wore colorful shirts andbaggy pants. Women were not dressed so identically.
So Saturday came and I decided to keep my promise and to attend the international convention ofJehovah's Witnesses. Despite my curiosity, I admit I had regreted that I had accepted the invitation!The day was extremely hot (thankfully not as much as Friday), the Olympic Stadium, which does not have any trees for refreshing shadow, did not appeal to me, the thought I would listen to boringand heretical speeches discouraged me. I also had in my mind some of my friends had gone to a nicebeach bar in Athens. Moreover, I kept thinking that the next day, Sunday, I would go to theByzantine church of Saint Apostles in the ancient Agora of Athens for the vespers! I would have the pleasure and honor to pray together with other Christians in one of the oldest and most importantchurches in my city. With all these thoughts in mind, I had a strong feeling that I was wasting mySaturday morning. However, I did not want to cancel my visit, since I told Dimitris (my friend’s name) I would attend. I did not want him to think that I was afraid of something theological –religious or that I'm biased and that would give him an excuse to accuse the Orthodox Christians.So, at 10.30, I arrived at the Olympic Stadium.
In their leaflets and magazines, the Jehovah’s Witnesses tell us they welcome the guests warmly, loveis obvious among them, everyone is thrilled for having the opportunity to attend these conventions.They also write about the order and the dedication to what is said, the fact that Jehovah's Witnessesdo not do discriminations based on the race and of course the all- time classic slogan "no collection will be taken." I would say that almost none of these is true!
None of the "assigned attendants” (as I learned the title of the people responsible to offer help and information is) approached me. All the Jehovah’s Witnesses wore badges with their names and the"church" to which they belong (something similar to our parish). They knew that I am notJehovah's Witness, since I was not wearing a badge. I walked by one of the gates, I was standing there listening, but no one approached me. In fact, I had begun to feel an outsider and after 15 minutes I was getting ready to leave! Just in time, however, Dimitris called me to let me know towhich gate he was (I notified him by SMS that I had arrived; after all, since I was there, he had to know). Then, in order to find out how to go to that gate, I asked the assigned attendants fordirections; they replied without any enthusiasm or joy, just like any person giving some information!Actually, an assigned attendant told me indifferently "ask the attendant who is assigned here, I'massigned somewhere else" and continued on his way, while someone else got annoyed becauseaccidentally I walked in front of him, while he was taking some photographs.
I stayed about two hours in the Stadium. All this time, I saw the Jehovah’s Witnesses walking up and down the stairs to buy some coffee and to return, to gather in the bar and in the parking lot to discuss, to come and go regardless of what time the speeches started or finished. A dad threatenedhis little daughter that ... he would slap her if she did not behave herself. A very large number ofthose who sat in the stands looked terribly bored. There were those who listened and kept notes, butthey were few. I was impressed that the Watchtower provided its members with notepads printedwith the theme of the convention, the title of each speech and the dates! Moreover, the Jehovah’sWitnesses whispered to each other and talked on their mobiles as well! At the gate from which Ientered the Stadium, there were three Gypsies, probably a mother with her daughters, but no one ofthe Jehovah’s Witnesses approached them.
I was impressed with the contribution boxes labeled "the worldwide work." They were placed at thegates and at almost every other row of seats in the stadium. To make a long story short, they weretoo many contribution boxes. It seemed to me the men required to wear long-sleeved shirt, tie, pantsand, some of theme who were really courageous, jacket despite the extremely hot day. The girls werevery neatly dressed and with excellent make-up. Something that it did not come as a surprise but rather expected due to their sex and young age. Besides, I had taken care of my style and make-up.There were women dressed more simply, usually the older.
I did not see any police or other safety measures around and inside the Olympic Stadium. However,I did not see the crowd I was prepared for by my friend who told me that 50,000 Jehovah’s Witnesseswould attend. The stadium appeared to me nearly empty. Jehovah’s Witnesses from other countrieswere sitting in the section of the stadium, just across the Greeks, based on their national languagefor the needs of the translation. There were many empty seats among these national groups. I fullyunderstand that was necessary for better organizing the translation, but it gave me a feeling of keeping the Jehovah’s Witnesses from other countries isolated. My friend told me that the first day of the convention, they exchanged souvenirs.
I asked Dimitris why Athens was chosen as the city were the international convention took place.He explained that different European cities are selected to help the “brothers” (i.e. the Jehovah’s Witnesses) feel the joy of unity. The last international convention in Athens took place 12 years ago. I wonder if the Watchtower select cities when they see a stagnation or decline in the statistics (of course I did not share my thought with him, after all, he would not know the answer.)
I would like to add that no one added my name on a list, as one of the attendants, not even thefriend who invited me and they did not give me leaflets or magazines. My friend kissed me when wefound each other and he told me he was very happy I made it to the convention. His family also expressed their pleasure for my presence, and his sister pointed out that it mattered the world to herthat I was there. A detail: his sister and his mother commented on my style and they said I wasbeautifully dressed. The welcoming that Dimitris and his family saved for me was warm, but it was not any different from the cordial greeting when we met in other occasions which had nothing to do with the Watchtower. I make this comment, because there is a rumour that Jehovah’s Witnessesreserve a warm welcome in their conventions with the purpose to impress their guests, so it will bemore easily for them to be converted. In the evening, my friend text me to thank me for my attendance.
I risk to become boring and tedious, but I have to say I do not write all these comments in order toblame the Jehovah’s Witnesses as indifferent to their religion, noisy or rude. Besides, they were not any of these! They were ordinary people with all the faults and virtues that every man has and whohad gathered together for an important, to them, religious event. What I am trying to show is that what happens in their meetings and conventions has nothing to do with the heaven-on-earth situation as described in their publications.
Last but not least, I will try to describe the most important part: the spiritual. It is extremely difficult to describe how far the orthodox congregation worshiping is in quality, spiritual speech, evenreligious art from the conventions of the Watchtower.
While I was there, several speakers made a series of prepared speeches (the titles of the speeches hadbeen announced well before). I heard a speech about who will inherit the kingdom of God. I had never before heard so many heretical theories within 2-3 sentences. For example, the main topic wasthe words of Christ "Come, you whom my Father has blessed, take as your heritage the kingdom prepared for you..." (Matthew. 25, 34). The speaker did not read the whole passage, he just gave asummary of what Jesus said and then he concluded: "Did Jesus refer to some benevolent act? Of course not! Whom does he refer to? Of course, the 144,000 anointed brothers"! How he came to this conclusion, no one seemed to wonder and of course, the speaker went on explaining his theory thatthe Jehovah’s Witnesses are supposed to take care and support these 144,000 (at least those who arestill alive).
What I noticed was that when the speakers referred to the Bible, they used only isolated phrases not even a complete sentence! Thus, the audience could not judge whether the speaker’s interpretationwas correct or not. Particularly striking was the fact that the public was reading from their Bibles (as far as I could see,they all had the New World Translation), only if the speaker asked them to! Allspeakers sometimes said "let's open our Bible at passage X" or they simply quoted the verse,without asking the public to refer to it. Eventually, I decided to open my own New Testament and read a passage when the speaker would not ask. I do not know if it was a coincidence, however,when I checked, the verse in the Bible said something completely different from what the speakertold. Iam refering to John 14, 26. The speaker said that in this passage, Jesus told that the Spirit of God will come to those baptized. What does the verse actually say? Let's see immediately: "but the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all I have said to you.."
Moreover, the symposium (the Watchtower uses the term "symposium") included interviews from “brothers and sisters” (Jehovah’s Witnesses) from different countries talking about their amazing experiences as pioneers or missionaries. These interviews created a very strong impression on methat they were staged! The interviewees seemed to have memorized the answers to questions they already knew and made no effort to hide it.
The climax of the whole theater was the role playing on how to be more effective in the “door-to-door ministry”! Indeed, a Witness was on the small platform stage, where the speeches were made,pretending he was knocking on the door and the speaker portrayed the tenant who received “thisgood news”. Of course, the conversation was successful and the worldly person, impressed, madeanother appointment with the Jehovah’s Witness.
All these seemed very dull. As described above, the Jehovah’s Witnesses did not seem to have had a very different opinion. I did not feel the peace, the prayer, the joy and the gladness I feel in ourChurch or even when I am reading on my home solicitations to the saints and to Our Lady. Thesedull and sloppy speeches can not even be compared with the deep theological meanings and thepoetry of the hymns in the Christian Orthodox Church.
The big shock for me, however, came at the end of this program, when the baptism of the new members of the Watchtower took place. With the discourse on baptism, the morning part of the program was completed. It was followed an by a one-hour-break and it started again in theafternoon. I was very happy, when I left during the break. However, let's talk a little more about thebaptism and how it is performed by the Watchtower.
At one end of the Olympic Stadium, there were three pools placed for the occasion. Candidates forbaptism were in the lower rows of seats, depending on their nationality for the needs of translation.The speaker began to talk and he said the candidates decided to be baptised on their own free willand he welcomed them to the Jehovah’s family with great pleasure; the Lord will send his spirit to those who ask for it (at this point, he referred to John 14,26 for which I wrote above). At the end of his speech, he addressed two questions to the candidates, who they had to respond with one voice, everyone in their own language and so loud so they would be heard in Cyprus and Brussels (so hetold them).
I did not listen to the first question due to problems with the sound system. I was taken aback by the second question: "Do you understand that your dedication and baptism identify you as one ofJehovah's Witnesses in association with God's spirit-directed organization?” They answered with a loud voice "yes," while the audience applauded.
Then, the speaker asked Jehovah’s Witnesses to pray for their brothers who would soon be baptised.Silence prevailed in the Stadium. They crossed their hands, they bowed their heads and they closedtheir eyes while the speaker began to say a prayer to Jehovah which I thought it would never end! It was finished with an "amen" repeated by everyone and they opened their eyes. All this time, I was very worried about two little children, nearly 3 years old, playing at the top of the stairs; I kept an eye on them, so they would not tumble down the rows of the Olympic Stadium while their parentshad closed their eyes to pray.
Finally, the audience stood up and sung the hymn 60 (it was also announced in the program). Musicbegan to play and everybody was singing from the booklets “Sing to Jehovah”. The lyrics aresimplistic, corny and in accordance with the heretical teachings of the Watchtower: " With Jesus’ blood He bought you,/to God you now belong./So he will make you firm,/and he will make you strong.
And then, having completed the hymn, the candidates started one after the other walking towards the pools, while the audience was applauding rythmically as if their favorite band came on the stageto sing! At the same time, too many people got up to leave the Stadium, so there was tremendousnoise at the time of baptism! I did not understand that upon the completion of the hymn, the ceremony of baptism was also completed! I thought we should remain in our seats to watch the precipitation of the new members. Also, I had the faint hope that I would here the phrase "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit." In vain! My surprise for all of this was sogreat, that Dimitris had to repeat three times that the program was over, it was a break and I couldgo!