(Photos by Michael Winters, unless otherwise noted)
Aside from the occasional door-to-door visits and that one time, which I still feel guilty about, when my brother drenched some evangelists with water balloons from our second-story bedroom window, I had never really met a Jehovah’s Witness.
Like most, I assumed they were cult-addled nuts, resistant to the progress of science and inexplicably in competition with one another for a spot on heaven’s coveted 144,000-person roster. Also, I knew Prince was a member, and any religious group that could claim Prince as one of their own was either extremely terrifying or weirdly edgy and almost cool. Knowing MTV's Pimp My Ride and the Jacksons also had connections to the Jehovah's Witnesses didn't clear up my confusion.
A South African couple. (Photo courtesy of the PR team for the Jehovah's Witnesses)
Last weekend I went to the Jehovah's Witnesses' Annual Convention, one of the largest Jehovah’s Witness events in North America. More than 35,000 were in attendance each day. Members came to the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans from as far away as Slovenia and South Africa. There was also a specific delegation of French-speaking guests.
Upon entrance, I got a colourful pamphlet called "God’s Kingdom Rules!"
As I moved through the entrance and tried in vain to mix with the crowd, I realised that there were several men in suits with Secret Service headsets following me. Initially I thought it was paranoia, plain and simple, until I heard one of them communicating my whereabouts.
“We have a journalist at gate H,” he whispered as I turned my first corner. I pretended not to hear him. “Yes, H as in hotel,” he said.
Someone gave the guard an order, and he politely stopped me. "A press person is coming down for you," he said.
The guards were volunteers for the convention, as was everyone else. For convention purposes, congregations divided themselves into various committees in order to oversee everything from security to media relations; they even took care of cleaning, despite the Superdome’s retainer on dozens of janitors. It's a style of planning and teamwork that must be well practiced after decades of carving up a neighbourhood into sectors and knocking on every door.
Apparently the Jehovah's Witnesses' volunteer security force had been in New Orleans since Thursday, learning the lay of the land and planning everything. At every entry and exit, there were at least two guards posted. One Superdome employee said to me, “These guys are guarding the elevators like Obama is here.”
The main floor of the convention was like the front yard of a funeral home, complete with an enormous display of houseplants shaped to look like the continents of Earth. Plus, their floral-printed dresses and charcoal suits made most guests look like they were dressed for a wake.
As a further sign of their top-down control of every aspect of the convention, or maybe just a tight budget, none of the concession booths were open. Ordinarily, there would be nachos and sodas for sale. At noon attendees walked around with plastic Walmart bags filled with food. I distinctly smelled peanut butter and egg salad throughout the aisles.
As one woman in a wheelchair sat there eating a raw hot dog from a lunch box, she asked me how long I’d been part of the “fold”. When I told her I was just checking it out, she smiled and nodded. “My brother passed away before accepting Jehovah into his life. It’s never too late… until it’s too late,” she said.
Mass baptism. (Photo courtesy of the PR team for the Jehovah's Witnesses)
It’s a bit unsettling to realise you're one of the only people in a room of nearly 40,000 who think you’re not destined for heaven, and not even destined for the earthly paradise that the remaining Jehovah's Witnesses will inherit after all the other degenerate heathens like me are abruptly taken out by the apocalypse. Their beliefs are their beliefs after all, but I don't often contemplate the afterlife in the presence of a group whose faith is so relentless. It’s convert or burn, and that’s heavy shit, man.
The music was also super eerie, like some kind of dystopian deep cut from The Sound of Music soundtrack.
There was a big, climactic event on the bill that sounded like it was supposed to be a live drama depicting something from the Book of Something. Upon taking my seat in the vast Superdome, and staring down at what I expected to be an elaborate stage setup, I realised that there wasn't a set or a cast. Instead, when the lights went down, a film began playing on the stadium’s enormous video screens.
The cast delivered each line in a flat deadpan, and everyone was wearing way too much make-up. It was like a B-movie made by the Bible Channel. I found it hard to keep myself from laughing.
To their credit, though, I heard a few snickers during the film from what I assume were believers. To make matters funnier, a bunch of men walked around holding “Quiet Please” signs that had already been made, as though they knew this was going to happen.
Leaving the convention I realised that a lot of what I'd just been through had been somewhat normal, though only in an uncanny valley kind of way, or like in a David Lynch film. But while I still don’t understand the Jehovah’s Witness faith or its people, and while I may still think of them as cult-addled nuts, they’re still just people.
They happen to like renouncing hellfire more than the average person. But they also like peanut butter sandwiches, and they'll laugh at a terrible movie, just like anyone. And they especially like organising conventions.
More conventions we've visited: