This article originally appeared on VICE Germany
Melanie is a 34-year-old dental assistant from Berlin, and she has been a Jehovah's Witness since she was 17. She grew up within the community, but made the decision to be a full-fledged member at that age by being baptised. While to her it's simply her community, outsiders often consider Jehovah's Witnesses close to a religious sect. That reputation likely springs from Witnesses missionary zeal, their direct interpretation of the Bible and Jesus' words, and the fact that breaking their rules – like having sex before marriage or undergoing blood transfusion – could lead to expulsion from the church and the community. According to some Jehovah's Witnesses you're still allowed to maintain your relationship with your family and visit gatherings if you're expelled – but there are countless accounts of former members who have been shunned by their loved ones completely.
To understand what it's like on the inside, I met Melanie in the Kingdom Hall of the Jehovah's Witnesses assembly in the Berlin area of Gesundbrunnen. The hall is really a sparsely furnished room with rows of chairs alongside more rows of chairs and a small stage with a rostrum. It doesn't look like a church much – only the posters with Bible verses in four languages give away the fact that this room has a religious purpose. Melanie's husband Thomas stayed near during the interview, and a church elder was also present.
Melanie tells me that she's dealt with people thinking her community is a sect since she was still at school, but according to her, people are just misinformed. Twice a week, she meets other Witnesses and they all go around town to hand out information at train stations. She also goes door to door. Throughout my conversation with her, she held a small Bible bound in black leather close, citing verses from it from time to time. Many of them had to do with Judgement Day – Jehovah's Witnesses believe that God wants to purge to world of all evil to give way to paradise, where good people can live in peace and harmony. Melanie says that she has never considered leaving the community.
VICE: How does it feel to stand in a public place and try to convince people of what you believe, while knowing that many people passing by think that what you're doing is weird?
Melanie: I'm proud of what I do. Of course it takes courage to go out and stand there. At the end of the day, I'm not harming anyone. I only offer information and don't force anyone into anything. Everyone can decide for themselves if they want to talk to us or not. But besides that, I don't actually think that people generally have a negative opinion about Jehovah's Witnesses – or about me as a person. Most people just aren't interested in what we do.
But is standing on street corners with a literature cart, an efficient way to get them to join your side?
There are different forms of preaching. What you see us do on the street with our trolleys, that's a passive form of preaching. We offer people reading material and give them the chance to ask questions or just have a chat with us. We get approached by all sorts of different people. Lots of people ask: "What does the Bible actually teach? Can you explain it to me in a nutshell?", or they comment on the cover image of The Watchtower, our monthly magazine. You've probably heard about our active missionary work too – Jehovah's Witnesses go from door to door. That's when we talk to people about specific topics or offer selected literature, for example for teenagers or families.
How many people talk to you on a day?
That's hard to say, it often depends on the weather. Sometimes loads of people approach us to ask for specific information about the Jehovah's Witnesses or they are looking for a certain book. Or they just need someone to talk to. But there are also days when no one talks to us.
Do people ever insult you when you're doing your work?
It happens. But I mostly feel that people are trying to insult us by the looks they give us. My husband and I once got spat on. This guy walked past us twice, came up closer from the side and spat on our cart. It happened so quickly that neither of us got the chance to react. We just wiped down the trolly and carried on with our work. That same day, another man walked past and said that people like us should be gassed. [During the Second World War, an estimated 1,200 Jehovah's Witnesses were murdered in the concentration camps.] Things like that happen sometimes, but it's rare. Thankfully, I've never been physically attacked.
Do you hate non-believers?
No, of course not, why should I? I respect others and don't judge them for their beliefs. I expect the same thing in return. I would never force anyone to join my religion.
Will God punish me for not believing in him?
I can't answer as to what kind of decisions God will make. I would never put myself out there and say that only Jehovah's Witnesses will be saved and people who hold other beliefs will perish. Only Jehovah decides who can enter His paradise.
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Jehovah's Witnesses don't celebrate their birthdays. Don't you even celebrate in secret?
I'm 34 now, and I've honestly never celebrated my birthday. It's just not important to me – it happens that on the day itself, I even forget that it's my birthday. I never felt like I was missing out. You can always eat cake and there are plenty of other opportunities for presents. When I was younger, my parents gave me presents if I came home with a good report card.
When was the last time you couldn't do something because you were a Jehovah's Witness?
There are some events I can't partake in because of my beliefs, like Christmas parties at work. But that means I just don't go. I try my best to live my life as God would want me to, and I don't have the desire to do anything he wouldn't approve of. It just wouldn't do me any good. I don't feel like I'm not allowed to do certain things, it's quite the opposite. Because God is my friend, it's important to me not to do anything that would hurt Him. I don't want to disappoint Him.
How much money do you donate to the community on a monthly basis?
You probably want to know about the membership fees – we don't have any. We only have a little wooden box at the entrance of the Kingdom Hall where everyone can put in a donation as often and as much as they like. We never talk about the amount. That's private. The money is used for printing The Watchtower for example, which has a circulation of about 61 million and is translated into 300 languages – it's the most widely circulated magazine in the world. Because donations are managed and divided internationally, they can be put to use in different countries – for example for disaster relief or the maintenance of assembly buildings in other parts of the world.
When do you expect the world to end?
According to the Bible, we're not expecting the end of the world in the sense that the whole planet and all the people on it will be destroyed. The word "World" often implies people – for example people within a certain society. The Bible says that one day, Jehovah will destroy all evil and let the righteous carry on living. In Psalm 37:10-11 it says: "In just a little while, the wicked will be no more [...] But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace."
We don't know when exactly this will happen, but the Bible mentions a few events that will occur just before God takes action. "And you will hear of wars and rumours of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places." (Matthew 24:6-7)
When I read that to people, I've heard them say that it sounds a lot like what's currently in the news. When I read it, I realise it won't be long now before God takes action. That's exactly why us Jehovah's Witnesses keep informing people about what's in the Bible.