I had never met a Jehovah’s Witness before. From my small rural upbringing in the British countryside to my studies in bustling London and now after many years here in Chiang Mai, never have I had my door knocked nor been stopped in the street by Witnesses trying to push a copy of The Watchtower (their monthly publication, the widest circulated magazine in the world with an average print run of around 50 million copies) into my hands. Like many, all I knew of the Jehovah’s Witnesses were based on rumours, snide comments and the odd sensational news; I thought they were a strange cult-like sect of Christianity who enjoyed door-to-door harassment and knew that they refused blood transfusions. While I had heard funny stories of people having to contend with their door being knocked here in Thailand, I thought their numbers to be nominal – that was until I heard that this month over 7,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses would be attending the biggest non-sporting convention Chiang Mai has ever seen.
In all honesty, after sending an email to the organisers of the event, I thought I would meet a brick wall, as we so often do when wanting to write about something vaguely contentious here in Chiang Mai. Looking at the event website (www.thailand2015.org) very little information was shared in the public area, and I wondered how they would feel about bringing a ‘person of the world’ (their actual term for non-believers) into this loop. That and I really wanted to see how they would react to having a non-believer come knocking on their door for a change.
I was pleasantly surprised with the forthcoming response I got from one of Bethel’s legal department. Bethel is what Jehovah’s Witnesses call their HQ in each country, in our case, in Bangkok. We were to meet their event organisers at Maya Shopping Mall, and soon I found myself shaking hands with two clean shaven men in crisp white shirts, pressed suits and with little ‘JW’ badges on their lapels. Assistant event coordinator Pasarn Choatkaew, and a representative from the Jehovah’s Witnesses media office, Sarawut Thamta, outlined the event for me, excited to share the news.
But let’s look at the big picture first.
Doing a bit of research prior to my meeting, I learned that Jehovah’s Witnesses are Christians who ‘strive to adhere to the teachings of Jesus through teachings from the Bible,’ specifically, but not limited to, the New World Translation, their very own version. First Published in 1950, they claim it to be the most accurate translation of the original texts – which also helps support some of their more unorthodox opinions. Witnesses try to associate only with other Witnesses and have a range of traditions and beliefs that persons of the world often find strange, such as not celebrating birthdays – which even extends to Jesus’s birthday – and any national celebrations. This is because of the taint attached to these festivals following their replacement of paganism past. Jehovah’s Witnesses find pagan roots sinful and condemn the use of magic, divination, spiritism or “anything like this.”
While believing the Bible is the word of God, Witnesses do not accept the Trinity. From an 1882 Watchtower publication: “Our readers are aware that while we believe in Jehovah and Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, we reject as totally unscriptural, the teaching that these are three Gods in one person or, as some put it, one God in three persons.” The only contact with non-believers is restricted to ‘necessary interaction’ be that in the work place, with non-believing family members or through their infamous tradition of door-to-door evangelism.
Interestingly, Chiang Mai was the first home of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Thailand when they arrived in the north of Thailand in 1939.
Americans Kurt Gruber and Willy Unglaube decided to set out on a mission to the ‘East’ and soon settled in Chiang Mai. Around 25,000 books and pamphlets were distributed in that first year alone. For many years there was tension between the newly arrived Jehovah’s Witnesses and Presbyterian missionaries, who had laid claim to the area for decades prior.
The first Thai member to enter the church was a translator by the name of Chomchai Inthaphan who was the headmistress of the Presbyterian Girls’ School who converted to Jehovah’s Witness after she felt what she was translating spoke more truth to her than Presbyterian teachings. A few more Presbyterians, including a nurse from Phrae and another nurse from Nan province, moved to Chiang Mai after meeting with Kurt and Willy in search of the ‘truth’. A Presbyterian church elder, Kham Raksat from San Kamphaeng then invited Kurt and Willy to preach at his church, but they were literally chased away by angry Presbyterian missionaries defending their territory. All three, along with some of their family members converted and soon the first ever Kingdom Hall (The name they use for their churches) in Thailand was founded in Sankampaeng (in Kham Raksat’s house) following the new convert’s 1940 baptism.
Soon, four congregations had been founded, three in the north and one in Bangkok. Kurt Gruber was appointed as circuit overseer in 1948 and held the first ever circuit assembly in Chiang Mai in April of the same year. 67 years later, with 110 congregations in almost every province (five in Chiang Mai) another assembly is being held, this time with over 7,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses from both Thailand and abroad all heading to the Chiang Mai International Exhibition and Convention Centre this month.
“This year, Chiang Mai is one of seven cities around the world to host the Jehovah’s Witness’s annual Special Convention” said Pasarn. “Anyone in Thailand can come to this event. Just turn up and there will be volunteers there to help.” Lasting three days, from 6th – 8th November, the convention’s offical programnme is called ‘Imitate Jesus’. From what was explained to me, the convention looks to follow a series of teachings, very much like a prolonged Sunday service, in between prayers and songs. Talks cover a range of themes from “Arming Yourself with Christ’s Mental Disposition” to a talk titled “Go away, Satan!”
“As a lead up to the conference, there will also be a series of door-to-door invitation ventures,” said Pasarn, who says there will be an escalation of home visits in hopes of attracting more visitors. I was curious how such a large event could be funded and Pasarn explained that “the whole event has been funded by donations” and only those who can support themselves financially will be invited from overseas.
Following a meeting with the governor of Chiang Mai and Thailand’s Convention and Exhibition Bureau, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have estimated the conference’s economic input for Chiang Mai at 605,895,290 baht. Call us cynical, but it seems like a rather generous number as, for comparison, the Tourism Authority of Thailand estimates a daily expenditure per tourist in Chiang Mai in 2012 to be 3,617 baht _ quite a lot less than the predicted 12,365 baht daily expenditure quoted for each visitor to the Special Convention, especially since around 5,000 of them will be Thai nationals.
This year’s convention is of great importance to Thailand’s Witnesses as there is a sense of urgency within the church itself as Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that the end of times are upon us. They believe that ever since 1914 when Jesus became King of Heaven, the end of days period has already arrived and must be prepared for. When the day comes, only those who are true Jehovah’s Witnesses will be saved. To date, there have been five end of world dates predicted, with the last one in 1975. Once the end arrives, all evil will be eradicated and only the purest of pure (read: Jehovah’s Witnesses) will continue life with Jesus as their King forever more. In Thailand, this sense of urgency is even more pressing, as the religion has not yet managed to be recognised in an official capacity. Many years ago they applied, but at the time the Department of Religious Affairs had to consult the alreadly recognised organisations of Christendom – Roman Catholics, Baptists, Church of Christ in Thailand, the Christian and Missionary Alliance and Seventh-Day-Adventists – who unanimously rejected the legitimacy of Jehovah’s Witnesses due to coflict of beliefs.
For non-believers, much about Jehovah’s Witnesses tenents and beliefs sound farfetched and outrageous. But for the 8.2 million followers around the world, this is the only true way. Sure there are horror stories of unfriendly excommunications, and many of us find their rules far too controlling to follow. Yet for me, the two representatives I met were charming and sensible, and had no interest in pushing their religious agendas onto me. To be fair and balanced, I did spend some time trying to find evidence of the good things that Jehovah’s Witnesses provide to the community, such as charitable work and disaster relief.
According to their website, congregations near disaster zones reach out and try and provide assistance and ‘supply what is needed’ to believers as well as non-believers. However, according to many accounts written by ex-Witnesses, this assistance is often just giving out scripture and other ‘spiritual’ aid, and according to them, the church claims that the best charity to give to is the ministry itself which ‘save’ people’s lives every day.
In the end, it is clear to me that without faith, it is very hard to understand the motives and beliefs of many religions, Jehovah’s Witnesses included. For me, a trip to the conference could be an interesting exploration. I am curious enough to enjoy it but sensible enough not to be taken for a ride. Why not take a look yourself, it could be a fascinating day out.
Members in Thailand: 4,400
Members Worldwide: 8.2 million
Founded: 1870 in Pittsburgh, PA, USA
World HQ: Brooklyn, NYC, USA
Official Website: www.jw.org
Location: Chiang Mai Exhibition and Convention Centre
Date: 6th – 8th November (9.40am – 5pm)
Expected Turnout: 7,000 people (5,000 Thais, 1,344 Americans, 285 Japanese and 408 people from other nationalities)
Event Website: www.thailand2015.org