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Inside the Jehovah's Witnesses' British Headquarters

I learned why the Apocalypse isn't all that bad (as long as you devote your life to spreading the word of Jehovah).

by Adam Forrest
08 October 2014, 10:14am

From the pages of The Watchtower magazine: Jehovah's flock spared following the war of Armageddon. 

The end is nigh, and it's going to be just as fiery and painful a scene as you'd expect from the total annihilation of an entire planet. But have you heard the good news? After all the death, destruction and downed internet connections, exactly 144,000 faithful Christians will shoot up to Heaven, while anyone else who died faithful to God will be resurrected onto an earthly paradise, where everything is perfect and nobody starts wars over religion or takes the piss out of each other's haircuts.

This, in a very small nutshell, is what Jehovah’s Witnesses believe. I know because I was curious about the smartly-dressed people handing out magazines at Oxford Circus tube station and asked them what they were about.

"It’s all Bible-based,” I was told by a nice lady dressed in grey. Yet the two magazines I’m given – The Watchtower and Awake! – are a curious mixture of stress-coping strategies, advice on reducing diabetes risks and some weird, Jehovah-specific theology about Satan’s bad angels causing “the dramatic increase in wickedness and violence since 1914”.

Full-time volunteers Deep (left) and Bruce (right) witnessing at Oxford Circus.

Deep Singh and Bruce Young – two volunteer coordinators of the London magazine drive – are happy to go for a coffee to explain some more. Deep, who grew up a Sikh, became a Jehovah’s Witness at the age of 17 after being contacted by door-to-door witnesses in Milton Keynes. “For me, it was a process of reasoning, rather than any kind of sudden vision,” he says.

Deep and Bruce get out their iPad and show me the online rota system. Around 1,700 volunteers sign up for shifts at 23 central London locations – mostly tube and train stations. The “metropolitan public witnessing programme” is now a key part of the proselytising work Jehovah’s Witnesses are expected to do, alongside the traditional door-to-door ministry.

“It’s very flexible around people’s jobs,” says Deep. “Some might do one four-hour shift a week; some want to give some time every day, around part-time jobs. We both do this full-time because this is the life course we’ve chosen.”

So how do they get by, financially? “Well, we have a modest cost of living bursary for the things we need,” Deep explains. “And housing costs and bills are covered. We’re like charity volunteer workers, in effect. Something like a new suit – we might get the cost of that donated to us by a witness friend.”

And what about the stress-reduction stuff in the magazines? Isn’t that a PR ruse? A way of crowbarring into a culture where the daily anxieties of work, life and love are literally killing us

“How to cope with life – these are the questions we are often asked, rather than about Armageddon," says Deep. "The last days, as we call it, it’s very important, of course... but it’s not easy to start a conversation that way. God is a god of love, not of fear. Our motive is to help people love God, not to think, 'Oh no, the end is coming.'”

“We’re not trying to talk doom and gloom,” adds Bruce.

"The scriptures do point out a timeline to us, and where we are in the stream of time shows us we are near the end,” Deep explains. “But that is good news for us, because we know it’s an end of evil. And Jesus emphasised that as many people need to know the good news of the kingdom as possible.”

The British Jehovah's Witnesses' headquarters in London's Mill Hill

I make arrangements to visit the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ British headquarters in Mill Hill, a green and sleepy suburb on the outskirts of north London. I know I've arrived in roughly the right place when an above average number of friendly men in grey suits begin nodding and smiling as I walk past them.

Around 800 people work in Mill Hill across various buildings. Many of them also live in the area, sleeping in austere apartment buildings owned by the British branch of “Bethel”, a Hebrew term meaning “House of God”.

Rick Fenton from the Office of Public Information shows me around the large factory on the premises, where 94,000 magazines are printed each hour. On a good day, they'll cram one million copies into 24 hours (The Watchtower has a global run of 46 million copies a month, making it the most widely-circulated magazine in the world).

The printing and packing factory

I ask about the more casually-dressed workmen lifting crates and packing vans. They are all Jehovah’s Witnesses. Everyone here is a Jehovah’s Witness.

“Nobody gets a salary – everyone is here on a voluntary basis,” Rick explains. “They’re here because they want to be here. Everyone is motivated. And as volunteers giving ourselves to the work full-time, board and lodgings and expenses are all provided.”

How much does each person get in living expenses? “That’s a personal matter, but it’s safe to say it’s a small amount. Most of our needs are cared for, so not a lot of money is needed.”

The dining hall, where breakfast, lunch and dinner is served for Bethelites

In the huge dining room it becomes clear how all-consuming life as a Bethelite must be. When the flock gathers here each morning for breakfast, announcements and short lectures begin on the TV screens above the tables.   

Even outside of the Bethel hardcore, the demands placed upon ordinary Jehovah’s Witnesses are still pretty hefty. The more devoted members of each local congregation – “regular pioneers” – give 70 hours a month to ministry work.

I begin to wonder why any of it could possibly feel worthwhile. The vast majority of Oxford Circus shoppers have no interest in wild bullshit from the Book of Revelation. The vast majority of doors will be slammed in Witnesses’ faces. Can’t they just keep God’s master plan to themselves?

“We’re not trying to push it down people’s throats – it doesn’t work that way,” says Rick. “But we want to make sure they’re given the opportunity to know. The clue is in the name – we feel we are witnesses for Jehovah, and a witness tells others what he knows to be true.”

Some classic covers from both Awake! and The Watchtower magazines

But isn't all the Armageddon stuff a little off-putting? In my experience, telling a stranger, "Your entire family is going to die!" probably won't make them warm to you.

“If you think of what Jesus said – that his followers should preach the good news – then we’re talking about the end of crime, disease, war and the beginning of something else: God’s Kingdom, the kind of life we all want,” says Rick. “So yes, the end of the world as we know it is coming, but not the end of the Earth, and we’re excited about that. Because God is going to replace the way the troubled world is now with the way he wants it to be.”

A long history of failed predictions about Christ’s 1,000-year reign on Earth aside, there are further oddities which leave mainstream Christians wanting very little to do with Jehovah’s Witnesses. For example, esotericisms like the aversion to blood transfusion – something explained to me in a pamphlet as “those who respect life as a gift from the Creator do not try to sustain life by taking in blood”.

And then there's the elaborate, hard-to-unravel system of “disfellowshipping”, and the shunning of members who both cease to believe and break the Bible’s moral code in some identifiable way. “Individuals are free to leave as they wish,” Rick states. “They are not disfellowshipped or shunned simply because they no longer wish to be one, or associate with, Jehovah’s Witnesses.”

It’s all very strange, and I can't say my trip to the beating heart of the British Witness community has changed any of the views I walked in with. But, I suppose, as long as they're not actively hurting anybody, who am I to stop them from being consistently ignored by people in the street?

So I leave the Mill Hill building without saying a word, just as another truck full of crisp magazines heads out into the fallen, disbelieving world. The men in grey suits smile and nod goodbye.

@adamtomforrest

More stories about Jehovah's Witnesses:

The Jehovah's Witnesses' Annual Convention Was So Organised It Was Creepy

An 11-Year-Old Is Suing the Jehovah's Witnesses

The Wanking Deaf Vs. Jehovah's Witnesses

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