RALEIGH — Jehovah’s Witnesses flocked to the PNC Arena over the weekend in search of fellowship and “spiritual food.”
That spiritual sustenance was served up buffet-style – including songs, prayers, lessons from the Bible and more – Friday, Saturday and Sunday at the religion’s annual regional convention, which has been held in Raleigh every year since 2007.
For the uninitiated, spiritual food is “information you need,” said Roxana Harper, a 17-year-old Witness from Cary who attended the convention. “You would correlate it to your need to eat food every day. You need to read the Bible each day. It’s a necessity.”
The three-day convention attracted an estimated crowd of more than 38,000 from across North Carolina, and parts of South Carolina and Virginia – although that number includes many people who attended all three days. Suits and ties for the men, and dresses for the women, were the rule rather than the exception – teenagers included.
The conventions are so important to Witnesses that Roxana and her sister, both fluent in Spanish by virtue of having a mother who’s a native of Guatemala, attended a Spanish-language Jehovah’s Witness convention in Winston-Salem the weekend before.
Although the conventions were essentially the same except for the different languages, Roxana said she wanted to come to Raleigh’s convention as well because, for her, learning in English is easier.
Donald Austin, 44, an electronics technician from Tarrboro, viewed the convention as “a spiritual paradise.”
“In the world today, we have a lot of races and factions fighting,” Austin said. “You won’t see that here.”
Many African-Americans, including Austin, were among those who attended Sunday.
Those who attend, Austin added, are invariably “real social, hospitable. They show that real Christian love that people talked about when he (Christ) was on Earth.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses are Christians, but with their own distinctive stamp. They don’t celebrate Christmas, they reject blood transfusions and they reject the notion of a Trinity in which God is three beings in one – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are probably best-known for going door-to-door to spread their faith to others. Indeed, during the month before the Raleigh convention Witnesses from throughout the region participated in a “massive” door-to-door campaign to deliver invites, said convention spokesman George Spratt.
“We prepare this months in advance,” Gene Barnett, chairman of this year’s regional convention, said in an interview Sunday. “It’s not just a last-minute preparation. There is lots of rehearsal. We want to give people the best we can. Of course, the focus is on the Bible.”
The theme for the weekend’s program was “Keep Seeking First God’s Kingdom!”
That’s a reference to the famous Sermon on the Mount.
“Right in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount is where Jesus taught the prayer, ‘Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,’ ” Barnett said.
“So we believe that prayer was given to the human family to pray for the kingdom, which is a government,” he continued. “When we pray ‘thy kingdom come,’ we are actually asking for a change of government, away from human government to a rule by God. That’s what this convention is all about.”
The convention relied on well more than 1,000 volunteers who did everything from helping attendees park and find seats to cleaning up after them.
Volunteer cleaning crews attended to spilled coffee and water throughout the day, then spent nearly two hours afterward cleaning the bathrooms and taking out the trash.
“Jehovah is a clean God and one of the requirements is that his people must be clean,” said Charles Taylor, 58, a truck driver from Littleton and co-captain of one of the cleaning crews.
The down side of volunteering at the convention is that the volunteers are too busy to soak up much of the program. But they can attend a repeat of the program next weekend – also at the PNC Arena – or watch videos of the event that are made for them.