Not of this World
Think of it as a factory town.
As you approach Brooklyn on the Manhattan Bridge from Outside (from Manhattan, from anywhere), buildings bearing company names, sometimes not, line the exit ramp. Terminally gray, active or inactive, the buildings lie in the shadow of a structure, perhaps factory, floating like an island on an island: the Watchtower.
If you forget to pretend you aren’t home and bother to ask, there are any number of things a Jehovah’s Witness can tell you: traveling from door to door is but one of their missions as witness to Jehovah’s word; The Watchtower (“Announcing Jehovah’s Kingdom”) and Awake! are biweekly publications with a combined circulation of 22 million worldwide; Jehovah is God’s “real” name; Armageddon is upon us; Jehovah has, in His Kingdom here on earth, a warehouse that contains a printing press and a supply of food; the administrative offices of the World Headquarters (including video display) are located at the foot of Brooklyn Heights; Charles Taze Russell of Allegheny, Pennsylvania, began publishing Zion’s Watchtower in 1879 based on a “non-denominational” reading of the Bible; any contribution would be appreciated.
In image and text the Witnesses’ pamphlets parallel, almost exactly, the impression received strolling through the World Headquarters, its grounds or dormitories. It is a world of hyperrealistic but muted color; words so banal in their insistence on rhetoric as expression that they glide off the page, past the ear, and remain difficult to decipher; and faces, primarily white, that respond to the Outside visitor with the forced good cheer reserved for those who inhabit a world that is not their own.
The custodians in the main building of the World Headquarters go about the business of wiping off any publicly used surface — the receiver on a telephone, a water fountain, doorknobs — silently, methodically. They dress in much the same manner as their coworkers (skirts below the knee for the women; crew cuts, suits and ties for the men) but wear pink plastic gloves as a safeguard against “what others might bring in.” Sometimes, as they work, they will exchange greetings with other Witnesses, but mostly their dedication to the work at hand is complete. Which may explain the complete lack of reference to any surface being touched. It might also explain one’s reluctance to touch any surface.
“In Heaven there is no class. Heaven is made up of only 144,000 members of Jehovah’s Kingdom. They get to go because they’ve been anointed,” said Bob Balzer, a spokesman at the World Headquarters. Balzer has been with the organization since 1939. He has the appearance of one who’s been cut from the space surrounding him. His tidy features, white skin, and smooth complexion are fixed and untroubled by expression. “Everything we preach or witness to is the literal truth as recorded in the Bible. We carry out the law as Jehovah has set it down.” Among the rules Jehovah has not set down but which make, as one Witness said, “the organization run smoother,” is the method by which volunteers are chosen to live in a section of the Kingdom established at World Headquarters, the living space called Bethel. As Balzer explained, applicants are screened by a “traveling overseer” who reviews their homes, families, and commitment to living a “righteous life.”
Although there has been an increase in the number of Witnesses who live at Bethel, due, in part, to the rise in the number of Witnesses skilled enough to take part in the publishing and production side of the industry, the various congregations still gather together “at the morning prayer and breakfast meeting,” Balzer told me. “Video cameras monitor us and allow us to see the other congregations within the complex. There is no one person that officiates. We do, however, have a governing body made up of, oh, 13 people. The racial mix? I believe there are several Polish people.” Balzer blinked his eyes twice. On the table before him were several issues of The Watchtower and Awake! He turned to an issue of Awake! containing a feature entitled “Using Your Head — The African Way!” The article was accompanied by photographs of African “youngsters” and, presumably, adults, “toting” loads on their heads. “We are growing,” Bob Balzer said. “In Africa alone there are 10,000 Witnesses.” He nudged the magazines across the table. “You should enjoy your visit with the congregation in Crown Heights. It’s one of our largest.”
On the face of it the Kingdom Hall on Montgomery Street in Crown Heights does not feature any of the visual lures that most other houses of worship in that neighborhood do. It does not boast neon, slogans, or size as a means of attracting an audience. It is set apart, on a side street, from the large West Indian community that began to edge its way down Nostrand Avenue in the ’60s. The children of that generation of immigrants are now dread — praise Jah, blast reggae, sell Rasta wear, and pretend to have no understanding of the Seventh-Day Adventists or Jehovah’s Witnesses, even though relatives might have embraced one or the other. On the surface Crown Heights is a community at odds with its own faiths as well as the dominant neighborhood faith, Hasidism. The synagogue, located on Eastern Parkway just a stone’s throw from the Kingdom, looms larger than all the crosses and billboards, reggae and botanicas. It’s bigger than them all.
In case it’s hard to believe just their witness, Witnesses will reinforce their take on the way things are lived on the Outside by quoting, accurately, a surprising amount of scripture, often listing chapter and verse. Such knowledge is their anchor in the world; it reinforces them. So to see emblazoned across the wall of the main meeting hall “As for me and my household, we shall serve Jehovah,” is to be made conscious of a community in search of not only a language of belief but a system of support.
“Without Jehovah it is like living without Life,” said the young minister to his congregation. “Let us sing praises to Jehovah.”
The congregation rose and began to sing as if the tune were familiar but they didn’t quite know the hymn’s words. Faces the color of volcanic ash, faces the color of bleached dark stone, filled the hall. The congregation was dressed in the same manner as their “brothers and sisters at the Headquarters,” but in fabrics less finely woven if woven at all. The hair, too, was cut to similar length and style but made brilliant by hair conditioners or tonics.
After the singing was over a young, attractive woman with a West Indian accent named Esther passed her hymn book along to me. Following our exchange of greetings, she said that she’d been a Witness for three years and had come to Jehovah when she learned that, as a Witness, one never dies.
“You know how it is,” she said. “You come to this country and work and thing and everyone dies. Your relatives, they work and die. It’s sad. Jehovah promises you eternal life. In Revelation, chapter 21, verses 3 and 4, it says that.” Esther smiled; her smile was the essence of vulnerability.
Sitting there, one’s own conception of what “black religion” is supposed to mean (tambourines, white head rags, “spirit”) was dispelled by the unremitting “respectability” with which both ministers and congregation conducted themselves. The image of the traditional call-and-response in a Baptist church, for instance, where an “Amen!” from the minister may prompt the same from the congregation seemed — in this Bible question and answer group where microphones amplified well thought-out answers and control colored the primary intonation — like a literary contrivance, an aspect more of one’s sense of theater than of what was actually taking place. And the notion of the church as a place Outside, away from the white world, where the drama of sociopolitical repression could be acted out or spoken in “tongues,” is not a part of the Witnesses’ explicit agenda. When asked by a young minister what “pioneering” (i.e., leadership) qualities were most prized in a Witness someone said, “A pioneer is not lazy. None of us is lazy here.” And again, when an announcement was made that the $300 a month raised by the congregation to build other Kingdom Halls was much appreciated by the society, there was a round of applause that indicated less a spirit of charity than achievement, gain. “Did you know,” minister Len Hall said to me following the service, “that we are capable of building a ball for our people in two days? We like to serve where the need is greater.”
Solomon Leary is a quiet, soft-spoken man whose dress shirt, on the evening we met, was frayed at the collar but immaculate. His wife, Gwen, is large in stature and has a wide, expressive mouth; together they look like a Thurber caricature of the domineering wife and submissive husband. Gwen doesn’t work, but Solomon does. He’s up at six and goes out into the world in his role as a bindery printer. Most nights, he doesn’t get home from the hall until 10. The Learys have raised three boys, all of whom are Witnesses.
“If I didn’t want to talk to you I wouldn’t,” Gwen said. “My husband didn’t feel comfortable about it but I wanted to because I wanted to wipe away all the lies they tell about us in the papers.”
Gwen has been a Witness for many years, since just after she and Solomon came north from North Carolina. “Just a town in North Carolina. Yes, I went to church there, but it was all lies. And the way the people behaved! Carrying on about the Trinity and blood and all that stuff. None of it is true. If you really want to serve Jehovah you serve Jehovah. You don’t want to make a molehill out of a mountain.”
When Gwen speaks, Solomon is apt to sit quietly, underlining her points with references from the Bible. When he does speak it is with the authority of one who has had to wait out someone else’s words for many years. “I saw you speaking with Brother Hall,” he said, referring to a conversation in which Hall told me that he had been among the eight black witnesses sent to Plant City, Florida in 1956 to establish a congregation. Although there was no such thing as integration at the time, it didn’t matter. He had gotten the job done, even if some of the white Witnesses were racists. “But that was years ago, when it was a law,” he told me. “That’s right,” Solomon said. ”One of the things that being a Witness is about is getting rid of that animal attitude to be a racist. None of us are racists now because Jehovah has come into our lives.”
For some time Jehovah’s Witnesses have felt that Armageddeon was upon us, a time in which God would rid the world of all those who did not live by his word. Gwen had a number of ideas about how that would take place, chief among them being AIDS. The world that produces such inexplicable tragedy is one that cannot include her family or any of Jehovah’s chosen. Like Esther, Gwen believes that she will live forever. And one of the methods used to insure that is by staying away from the world. “That is not our world, it’s theirs. We have nothing to do with it.”
Although Solomon and two of their sons work, they keep their distance from coworkers by thinking about Jehovah most of the time. At lunch they read His Word. As isolated in their insular world as someone speaking in tongues, the Learys practice the values of assimilation: work, for the night is coming. “Working is a necessity,” Gwen said. “We all realize that. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that we are a part of it. We keep our distance because they don’t know what we know. I just heard a story about a Witness, a young man, who quit his job because of the way they talked about women, the nasty pictures they would show. That’s the kind of strength we have.”
The Learys have sent their children to public schools, but don’t feel the damage was bad enough to prevent them from choosing to become Witnesses. “We do not influence our children to become Witnesses here,” Gwen said. “How are children treated if they do not want to join? They are outside the fold. Jehovah is looking for sheep and if the sheep leave the fold no one knows what becomes of them, do they? And what about you? Do you know what’s become of you?” ■
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 20, 2020