A journey through religions and their cultures.
In my head that’s how this religion was going to begin, with a simple knocking at my door. Like Field of Dreams I’d built it and now I just had to sit tight. “Let them come to me” I thought. The odds I suspected were pretty probable given that earlier in the year following a local radio show I did, I received a letter and copy of Watchtower in my letter box. That’s right; the Jehovah’s Witnesses had gone postal. Unlike the work raged, mail workers of the 80’s however; the Witnesses had delivered only kindness instead of the more traditional anger and bullets.
After the initial shock of receiving my first “fan mail” I decided this was definitely a religion I wanted to look into. If religions were about building communities and reaching out, this was a religion that was doing it properly, with lengthy letters of warm wishes along with clearly marked maps showing local Kingdom Halls and their respective timetables of worship. This wasn’t like the namby pamby Baptist Church which hung a pun on their outskirts, hoping people would drop in; this was the SAS of organised religion, dropping off pious packages at a moment’s notice. I was impressed.
Waking up far too late, I lifted some trousers over the undercrackers I had worn the day before, buttoned a stained blazer around my t-shirt (also from the day before) and tried to navigate my hair into a single direction. Jehovah would likely not be impressed with my appearance or tardiness, but nevertheless I was all set for my first Church visit. As I walked towards the Kingdom Hall I could feel the excitement building up in my stomach, any lower and it would have been ungodly so I’m glad the feeling had resisted gravity.
Arriving to the sound of harmonised hymns I looked to find a seat somewhere in the back out of the way. Unbeknown to me however, a nice man was looking to seat me somewhere directly in the way;
“Hi there, may I ask who you are with?”
Unsure if they were operating on some kind of buddy system I pulled the face that simultaneously means “I don’t know” and “how can I politely remove myself from this question?”
Smiling with a bewildering amount of understanding, the chap took my hand and began to shake;
“Well done, I’m so proud of you, let me take you to a seat next to Ken”.
There was something lovely about this gentle man being proud of me, for one very few people are proud of me, which is probably my own fault more than theirs, but more importantly it indicated that he was well aware of the perception outsiders like me must have of them and was able to point a light to it.
Leading me to Ken with a hand on my back as if we’d known each other for years, I looked longingly at an empty seat on the back row. “Not today” I whimpered, as a single tear rolled down my cheek.
Without missing a single note of the hymn, Ken took me by the hand and shared his hymn book. A short, elderly fellow with a perfectly ironed pair of trousers, a tweed jacket without a single stain and a moustache you could set your watch to, Ken appeared to be the man to direct newcomers through their first service. The “go-to” guy, if you will, and just “Ken” if you won’t.
“Who do you usually come with?” Ken leaned in and asked.
“No one” I whispered “This is my first time here”.
“Excellent” he exclaimed “I’m so proud of you”.
At this point I would usually conclude I was being patronised, but looking at his kind face led me to believe his praise was genuine. Maybe they hadn’t seen an “outsider” for several years? Or perhaps every person who walked through the Kingdom doors deserved a congratulatory pat on the back. Either way, I was happy to receive it.
While there were subtle differences in the service compared to other branches of Christianity, such as the interaction between the congregation and the Elder (like a Vicar but…nope, exactly like a Vicar) which would involve questions and answers and the fact they use God’s personal name; (“here, we use God’s personal name, which is Jehovah” Ken had told me, which had only added to my suspicion of condescension) I couldn’t really spot the difference on the first impression. What did strike me though, was the community they had. They each knew each other by name, addressed each other as “Brother” and “Sister”, listened intently to each other and had hugs, handshakes and smiles set on repeat. A particularly beautiful moment came in the service when a housebound Witness had an answer she had recorded earlier played over the speakers. The room clapped as if she were there.
As the service came to an end, I stood and smiled to Ken.
“What did you think?”
“I really enjoyed it, everyone is so nice here”.
Just as the words had exited my mouth, a crowd formed around me. I felt an orchestra of hands patting on my back like they were being fired from an AK-47.
“So what brings you here?” A voice in the crowd asked.
I told them of my project and the letter I had received, explaining that this was a religion I had a great interest in.
“Oh my word, are you that lad from the Radio?” I was asked by excited eyes.
“That’s me” I said, with a somewhat embarrassed smile. It appears I’ve become something of a local talking point.
“I PRAYED THAT YOU WOULD COME!!!” She screamed, almost as if the words had bellowed out against her will.
“A prophecy” I shrugged, bashfully.
“So, have you ever been religious?” Another lady enquired.
After answering “no” almost apologetically, the lady went on.
“Well I used to be Church of England for some 41 years but I left for the truth, how long ago now Derek?” she rhetorically asked her husband “36 years now?”
“Wow, and what made you join?”
“I remember being at home and hearing a knock at my door, I was in a dreadful mood and I was so annoyed to see it was a Jehovah’s Witness”
“She started telling me something and I wasn’t really listening, so I just asked her a question in a smart Alec kind of way and instead of answering, she just opened the Bible and said ‘read that’. Afterwards I told her she had better come in”.
“You see, I don’t believe in the Church, I believe in the Bible and she was the only person in my whole life to open a Bible instead of just answering herself”.
“And the thing is” she carried on, seemingly on a roll “the Church of England doesn’t really follow the Bible, and neither do Catholics I mean can you remember the last time the Pope read from the Bible in one of his addresses?”
I shook my head.
“Exactly, and that means you end up believing in all kinds of nonsense, like the Trinity. They all believe in the Trinity but it doesn’t say it anywhere in the Bible”.
“No it doesn’t” I agreed, although I wasn’t completely sure. I just didn’t want to spoil her flow.
“And evolution, you get so many people who believe in that, and the Big Bang, I mean, how can something just come from nothing?”
With a deep breath, I started to roll my sleeves up, I had a feeling this was going to be a long night.