Hundreds made a kind of religious pilgrimage this weekend – for the first time since 1962, the Jehovah’s Witnesses held an assembly in Johnstown – starting Friday at the Cambria County War Memorial.
The event continues today and resumes next weekend.
Assistant news overseer Mark Watts said there are more than 300 conventions such as this in the U.S. at 103 different locations.
The organization’s venue of choice for gatherings in this region is normally Cleveland State University’s Wolstein Center in Ohio. The change of scenery gives local Witnesses an opportunity to invite more members from their community – to gain spiritually from these larger gatherings that are intrinsic to the Jehovah’s Witness organization.
The unofficial assembly coordinator, Bill Knecht of Windber, said it’s made an impact.
“A lot of people are not familiar with what’s taking place,” he said. “Being that it is closer, they are more receptive to the opportunity to come.”
Witnesses from several surrounding states descended on the War Memorial last week to prep the venue for their visit. “Prep” means a deep, top-to-bottom cleaning of the iconic arena’s facilities – for free. Watts said War Memorial officials were understandably thrilled.
“Anyone that’s involved with any of the four conventions in Cleveland had the ability to grab their buckets and rags and come up for a day of cleaning,” said Watts. “It was quite an event, really. There was a lot of joy.”
Knecht estimated there were roughly 1,500 Witnesses involved in the cleanup process.
“There were quite a few people here,” Watts said with a smile.
He said the willing volunteers came from “all over” – from Butler County to Hagerstown and Cumberland in Maryland as well as West Virginia.
“Each of us can volunteer for certain departments based on the ability we have to help in those particular areas,” Watts said.
Knecht, who runs a small construction company in Johnstown, said he helped with administrative duties, scheduling and construction phases.
“We view it as an opportunity to work on behalf of those who attend,” he said. “Everyone here provides their living for themselves. Nobody is paid for doing anything. As Jesus said, ‘you receive free, give free.’ ”
As far as construction goes, the Witnesses didn’t add a new locker room or anything major – just an aboveground pool.
Baptism happens at every Witness assembly, Watts said. It’s a rite of passage in the organization – an affirmation that the baptized set their hearts and minds on the same path as their beliefs. However, copious amounts of Bible study and internalization are involved before they can go get dunked.
“Once an individual comes to a basic understanding and they begin applying that information in their lives – that they are living a Christian life – then they would qualify to dedicate their life to serve Jehovah God,” Knecht said.
Although there were only a handful baptized on Saturday, Watts said the organization is used to having 80 to 100 at once, given the Wolstein Center’s larger capacity.
Mildred Relich of Ambridge, Beaver County took the plunge on Saturday. She’s in her 70s.
She said she started meeting with the Witnesses less than a year ago. She said all it took were a few visits before she knew she wanted to be in the ministry.
“I was convinced that this is the ‘truth’ and I want it.”
The personal, familial aspect of the organization is what draws many to the faith.
“They’re just brothers and sisters. It’s like one big family,” Relich said. “Everyone has the same belief and everyone has the same character and values.”
And this could be the beginning of a continued relationship with the arena and the Witnesses. Knecht said they were welcomed back to Johnstown “with open arms.”
“It’s been very successful this year. So that’s a good indicator,” he said. “We’re very pleased to have (the convention) here. It’s a very friendly town ... and it’s very nice to have it locally, where we can invite our neighbors to come and enjoy the event as well.”
But to Relich, with her hair still damp, it was more than “successful.”
“I just feel like I was reborn,” she said.