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Jehovah’s Witnesses bring millions of dollars to Long Beach
2013 "God's Word is Truth" District Convention
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By Rebecca Kimitch, Long Beach Press Telegram
POSTED: 08/29/13, 8:36 PM PDT |
Fast cars bring a lot of cash to Long Beach. But religion brings even more.
Every year, 150,000 to 180,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses hold their conventions here, generating an estimated $64.5 million in economic impact, according to the Long Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau.
By comparison, the economic boon of the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach is a mere $40 million.
In fairness, the Jehovah’s Witness gathering isn’t a single weekend. Instead, a series of conventions are held over 15 weekends during the summer, including this weekend.
Each draws 10,000 to 12,000 Witnesses from throughout the Southland. And anyone who is downtown this weekend will be able to recognize them — well-dressed, sporting badges that read “God’s word is truth” and perhaps carrying their trademark Awake! and The Watchtower pamphlets.
“We have a great relationship with Long Beach. The city fathers have been just wonderful to us,” convention spokesman Howard Martinez said. “And we’ve been good to the city. We are very respectful. We hope to set an example on human living, and I think that has led to the fine reception we get in Long Beach.”
Local businesses say they see an uptick in business, though spread out over 15 weekends it doesn’t feel anything like the annual weekend packed with racing enthusiasts.
“We see a bump in revenue. It can be up to 15 percent when (the Witnesses) are in town, but it is not every time,” said Ken Stewart, general manager of Broadway Pizza and Grill.
“It’s noticeable but not substantial,” agreed Ernie Romo, general manager of King’s Fish House on Broadway. Romo said the restaurant gets a handful of additional tables in for early dinner when the Witnesses are in town.
Still, collectively the conventions are directly responsible for an estimated $335,000 in transient occupancy tax collected by the city every year, according to the visitors bureau.
Years ago, the Witnesses’ Los Angeles region had one large convention at Dodgers Stadium, but as it grew in popularity, in 1994 leaders moved the gathering to Long Beach and broke it into several smaller events.
While Jehovah’s Witnesses only make up 0.7 percent of U.S. population, according to a 2008 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, the faith is thriving.
Long Beach alone has more than 2,500 Witnesses, and the organization boasts some 17 million participants internationally. Long Beach is just one of 105 cities in the U.S. to hold conventions this year. The next nearest is in San Diego. And similar events will be held all over the globe. All will have the same message, Martinez said.
“In Africa, Latin America, the content will be exactly the same: the need for husbands to be good husbands, wives to be good wives, for us all to be good in our communities – these are values that transcend borders,” he said.
The conventions feature short Bible-based talks on everything from being a better forgiver to “the dangers that lurk on the Internet,” Martinez said. They also feature skits and re-enactments by members showing how they have applied the Bible to their lives and two stage plays presenting events from the Bible. And new members will be baptized in an above-ground swimming pool set up inside the arena.
Each local convention is attended by Witnesses from different cities in the region. This weekend’s event is for members from Long Beach and a handful of other cities.
The public is invited to attend to learn more about the faith, which, Martinez says, is sometimes misunderstood.
“Some people think we don’t believe in Jesus ... or that we are anti-social, or that we are a cult. People think of cults as secret. We are not secret. We go door to door talking to people,” Martinez said, referring to the faith’s practice of knocking on doors to discuss the religion with potential new members.
Jehovah’s Witnesses believe the Bible is the word of God. But they are different from most Christians in several key ways. While they agree Jesus is the son of God, they do not believe in the Holy Trinity — in Jesus as God. And their interpretation of the Bible is sometimes more direct than other Christians: They don’t accept blood transfusions based on Bible passages and they don’t celebrate Christmas, Easter or many other holidays because they are not celebrated as holidays in the Bible. In addition, while they believe in heaven, it is not what awaits most of the faithful after death. Instead, heaven is reserved for 144,000 anointed ones. Most of the righteous — including some non-Jehovah’s Witnesses — will be rewarded with a sort of heaven on earth.
That earthly paradise will only come after the event Jehovah’s Witnesses are most known for: Armageddon.
Witnesses have prophesied Armageddon multiple times since 1914. But as those dates — 1916, 1925, 1975 — have come and gone with no activity, they now speak of Armageddon coming soon, absent a specific date.
“The understanding is not that prophecy has failed, but that ... more preparation is needed,” explained Jon Stone, a professor of religious studies at Cal State Long Beach.
After the last big prophecy in 1975, a lot of members left the religion, having finally lost faith, Stone said.
“(The leadership) response was to purge the movement, separating the wheat from the chaff. They got rid of dissenting elements and streamlined themselves,” Stone said.
Some of those former members have grown into a voice critical of the organization.
Downey resident Cynthia Hampton is among them. She was part of the exodus following the failed 1975 prophecy.
“There were lots of false prophecies. I knew there was something wrong with the organization,” she said.
Hampton now leads a support group in Downey for former Witnesses. She says such support is necessary because the organization condoned the physical abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband and told her mother, brother and other family members who remain Witnesses not to speak to her.
“I might as well be a ghost,” Hampton said. “They don’t look at me. They don’t talk to me. They turn their back.”
Such shunning of former members is common. Members of the faith are discouraged from speaking to anyone who was once a baptized Jehovah’s Witness but left, even if that person is a parent or a child. They broke their vow to God, Martinez explained.
Hampton and other Jehovah’s Witness critics reach out to communities where conventions are taking place to raise public awareness.
“For the most part they are good people, but they have some policies that must change,” said Richard Kelly, director of Advocates for Awareness of Watchtower Abuses, who grew up in Venice as a Witness. “We just want people to be aware of what is going on. I don’t think (Witness leaders) are going to change their policies unless the outside world says what you are doing is wrong. Right now they have a captive audience. They tell people that God calls for these policies. It’s about mind control,” Kelly said.
Martinez brushes off criticism.
“A lot of people may not be interested. They are busy. They have their own religion. But there are many people searching for help. They may be depressed. And they find a comforting, soothing message,” he said.
The Jehovah’s Witness convention will be held at the Long Beach Convention Center Arena today and Saturday from 9:20 a.m. to 4:50 p.m. and Sunday from 9:20 a.m. to 3:35 p.m. It is free.
Shared on Sep 1, 2013 8:15 am by
Edited last by Miss_Moneypenny on Sep 1, 2013 8:15 am
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