Jehovah's Witnesses have 'dos' congregations in Danville
By HERB BROCK
If you drive by the Kingdom Hall of the Jehovah Witnesses on Fox Run Trail, you might do a double take at the double name of the church emblazoned in raised lettering on the front of the building.
On the left side, it says, "Kingdom Hall of the Jehovah's Witnesses." On the right side, it says, "Salon del Reino de los Testigos de Jehova."
Does this local congregation have a spilt personality? No, the sign reflects a church with a double duty - to minister to two congregations under the same roof, one English speaking and the other Spanish speaking.
This month marks the second anniversary of the creation of a Spanish-speaking congregation by the Danville Jehovah's Witnesses. The Spanish-speaking parishioners have their own services and studies and their own presiding overseer. (Overseer is the title Jehovah Witnesses give to their congregational leader. He is recommended by the congregation's elders and selected by the church's headquarters in New York City, but he is not considered higher in rank than any other parishioners. An overseer receives no pay.)
Don Mudge, owner of a local carpet-cleaning company, is the presiding overseer of the English-speaking congregation, which currently includes five elders and 53 active members. Jim Uhrig, owner of a local janitorial and cleaning services company, serves as presiding overseer of the Spanish-speaking congregation, which numbers 42 42 active members and has a body of four elders Both share the 13-year-old Kingdom Hall in south Danville.
At different times on Sunday, both the English- and Spanish-speaking congregations follow the same schedule, which includes the public meeting, where "vital topics on current needs" are discussed, and the "watchtower study," where a question-and-answer session on selected Bible subjects is held. On different days during the week, each congregation hold the ministry school, service meeting and congregational book study.
"Both congregations essentially conduct the same meetings and studies and schools. It's just that they are conducted in different languages," said Mudge.
Also, both congregations follow the Jehovah's Witness practice of being much more subtle than most denominations in their financial stewardship programs. There are no collection plates and no pledges. There is a box in the back of the church where "donations" can be deposited.
"We share the same building but (the Spanish-speaking parishioners) are their own, separate congregation," said Uhrig. "I really miss them."
Process began in 2000
The process that led the church's headquarters to approve the creation of Danville's Spanish-speaking congregation in October 2002 began two years earlier as the church when parishioners and their overseers, like their counterparts in other local churches, realized there was a growing population of Mexicans and other Spanish speakers in the community and decided that if they were going to minister to these people, they had to be able to communicate with them.
At first, in 2000, the original congregation sponsored the fledgling Spanish-speaking congregation. Then, in 2002, the church's leadership in New York City recognized the Spanish-speaking group as an official congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses.
"About four years ago we recognized there were more and more Spanish-speaking people in our community, and we wanted to reach out to them" said Uhrig. "Of course, in order for us to do that, we would have to be able to speak Spanish."
Outreach to people of other languages and cultures is important to Jehovah's Witnesses. The church publishes booklets with Bible verses in 96 languages, including Spanish. Before a couple of years ago, Uhrig wouldn't be able to read one of the Spanish language booklets. But that has changed.
Uhrig and his wife, Jaynie, and two other church members took Spanish courses. Uhrig said that before the class, he only knew a few Spanish words. Now, he is able to speak fairly fluent Spanish.
"I do pretty well when I'm making prepared remarks or discussing various Bible passages and topics," he said. "But I admit I do get lost sometimes in general conversations because, like in all languages, there are various idioms and different dialects in Spanish."
But Uhrig said that his Spanish-speaking skills are improving because engaging in those conversations is sharpening his Spanish. Also, he insists that every word spoken during his congregation's five meetings every week be in Spanish.
"When our Spanish-speaking congregation enters Kingdom Hall for our meetings, everything is said in Spanish, from the podium and from the seats," Uhrig said, adding that 90 percent of his congregation are natives of Vera Cruz, Mexico - "there is something of a pipeline from Vera Cruz to Danville" - most of the rest are from other parts of Mexico and the remainder are from Honduras, Panama and Argentina.
There may be another "pipeline" being built from California to Danville.
"A group of Spanish-speaking Jehovah's Witnesses in California heard of our congregation and have moved to Danville," Uhrig said. "They have all bought homes and gotten jobs.
"Just a few years ago, most Mexicans in this area were men who worked primarily in agriculture and did so seasonally, sending the money they made home. Now, more and more are moving here permanently, working different jobs and renting or buying homes."
Spanish also flows during "central activity"
The Spanish doesn't just flow inside Kingdom Hall. It is spoken at the front doors of homes and apartments all over the area as Uhrig's congregation takes part in what he called the "central activity" of Jehovah's Witnesses - the church's well-known, and often much maligned and mocked, door-to-door ministry. When pursuing this activity, the parishioners are called "publishers," as in "publishers of the good news."
Uhrig's corps of publishers focuses on the homes of fellow Spanish-speaking people, while Mudge's concentrates on everyone else. The Spanish-speaking publishers cover Boyle and seven next-door and nearby counties, while the English speakers' area includes Boyle and four neighboring counties.
Both Uhrig and Mudge are well aware of the stereotypes associated with Jehovah's Witnesses' visits, such as the early morning visits on New Years Day to the homes of people who celebrated New Year's Eve into the wee hours.
"We don't do our visits just on New Year's Day," Uhrig said. "It's a year-round activity."
Concerning two other well-publicized but also, according to Mudge and Uhrig, misunderstood "myths" about the church, they said it is not true that Jehovah's Witnesses don't believe in Jesus Christ and it is also untrue that members are unpatriotic.
"Jehovah means God. Our name highlights and accentuates God but that does not mean we're at the same time devaluing Christ," Uhrig said.
Concerning the patriotism issue, Jehovah's Witnesses are taught that their only governmental allegiance is to "God's government" and that posture is supported in the Book of Romans.
"We are neutral when it comes to government and politics," said Uhrig. "We respect other governments, including the U.S. government, and their flags but our government is God's government."
Uhrig stressed that the church does not "force people not to vote or not to join the military."
"We are not some subversive organization," he said. "We have our beliefs, but it is up to each Witness how he or she will follow those beliefs."
And that includes those Witnesses who understand and express those beliefs in Spanish.