SALT LAKE CITY — Nick Winkel spends about 20 hours a week spreading Bible messages to people he has never met.
From the time he was in a stroller, he joined his parents in their ministry. They encouraged him as a child to stretch to reach a doorbell or hand out materials.
Winkel, 18, is a Jehovah's Witness and after his sophomore year of high school decided to home-school in order to dedicate more time to his door-to-door ministry. He and his mother, Carol, log 70 hours a month reaching out to Utah residents.
"Really the best part of my week or my ministry is when I can tell somebody something and they understand it and they grasp it and they appreciate it," he said. "I've never had that feeling from anything else, and that's really why I do it."
A summer Saturday morning found him going door to door with his parents and sister in pairs to deliver invitations to the annual regional Jehovah's Witnesses convention at the Dee Events Center in Ogden, which began on Friday, and continues today and Sunday. A Spanish convention was held a week earlier in the same location, and an additional English convention will begin on July 25.
More than 6,400 people attended the Spanish-speaking convention in Ogden that attracted non-Witnesses interested in learning about the Bible as well as Witnesses from 10 states. During the convention, 133 people were baptized into the faith. An additional 13,000 attendees and a combined 100 baptisms are estimated in the two conventions this month in Ogden.
Members of the faith see baptism as a symbol of commitment to God; it also marks one's ordination as a minister in the faith. People can be baptized only after showing that they live their life in accordance with principles embraced by Jehovah's Witnesses.
"They don't go from zero to 60," said Jeff Tackett, a convention spokesman.
Elders from local congregations are chosen to perform the baptisms. A man can be an elder when he meets criteria laid out in the New Testament books of 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 2. Jehovah's Witnesses do not have paid clergy and are led by a Governing Body headquartered in New York.
Believers said the Governing Body is modeled after a similar group described in the book of Acts in the New Testament who "take the lead in studying the scriptures and how those should be applied in our lives," Tackett said.
They worship Jehovah God as their creator. They consider themselves to be Christians, acknowledge Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection and believe that he is the instrument for salvation. They do not, however, worship him as a god because Jesus said in the Bible, "The Father is greater than I."
Witnesses believe in a literal kingdom of Jehovah God on earth and in a heavenly government that will eventually be ruled by 144,000 individuals and Jesus Christ. These leaders will have charge over the millions of righteous believers in God who will live on Earth once the wicked are eradicated.
An informational video on the jw.org website gives an overview of the group's beliefs.
Conventions are seminal events for Witnesses worldwide. Those in the United States are invited to "Keep Seeking First God's Kingdom," this year's theme, during 193 conventions held in 71 cities. This year is the first for regional conventions to connect with international conventions via satellite.
It also marks a centennial celebration for those of the faith who believe that Jesus Christ began his reign as King of God's Kingdom in 1914.
As witnesses of Jehovah, "we take the witness part as being very literal. We have an obligation to speak," Tackett said.
Families like the Winkels spend the weeks before the event distributing convention invitations.
Spreading the word
Last weekend the family witnessed in a neighborhood in Murray, referring to a house-to-house record that showed homes they had visited earlier where no one answered. Bryan and son Nick were in button-up shirts and dress pants, and Carol and daughter Lauren in dresses. They paired up — mother with son and father with daughter.
They handed a purple sheet to those who answered. The paper invited the reader to attend a free event to learn through talks, live dramas and discussions about the need for a world government of God's kingdom, with Jesus at its head. Information for how to obtain a brochure or additional information was listed on the back, with or without an obligation to attend Bible study.
Jehovah's Witnesses draw their beliefs from the Bible and encourage their members to compare scripture with scripture. In 1884 Charles Taze Russell and other Bible students registered what was then called the The Zion's Watch Tower Tract Society.
Its members soon took to handing out Bibles as part of their ministry. After using various translations, Nathan Knorr, then president of the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, released The New World Translation of the Greek scriptures in 1950, compiled through biblical scholarship. Over the years, additional books of the Bible were added to the translation. An informational video on jw.org details the translations Jehovah's Witnesses have used over the years.
One misconception people often have about Witnesses is that they "think that we are coming to either challenge what they believe or our whole objective is to get them to be affiliated with Jehovah's Witnesses, and that's really not it," Carol Winkel said. "It's as important to us that someone could make an educated decision about their beliefs, whatever it is."
While Witnesses hope people are ultimately baptized into the faith, they have intermediate goals of teaching people about the Bible, according to Colin Thomas, an elder in the Holladay congregation.
Open to the message
Tuesday Carol Winkel was joined by her daughter Lauren, 16. They parked their car at the head of a street in Holladay and set out on foot in the late afternoon. They were rebuffed by the second man they met who told them he needed to get a "No Soliciting" sign at his home. They weren't soliciting, they explained; they were Jehovah's Witnesses.
"You have a good day," Carol Winkel told the man as they left his porch.
Part of their door-to-door work involves taking note of those who are not interested so other Witnesses know not to call at that address again. After a year they will return, say they are aware they have been asked not to come and ask if that is still the case.
Two poodle puppies romped outside the next home they visited as homeowner Andrea Heidinger asked the Winkels about highlights and location of the upcoming convention.
"Good luck to you," Heidinger said to them as they left.
Because of the push to deliver invitations leading up to the convention, Carol Winkel keeps conversations short and makes note of people like Heidinger who may be open to a return visit in the future.
Their next stop was to one of their regulars, Jerry Williams, owner of Ace Vacuum World in Midvale. Williams requested visits from Carol Winkel about five years ago when he found out she was a Jehovah's Witness. Witnesses hadn't been by his shop for years, he said.
"I know that this is off Carol's beaten path," he said. "Jehovah's Witnesses, they inspire me. They are out and about doing God's work, God's will."
Although Williams said he is a devout member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Winkels visit him once a month, "almost like clockwork," he said.
The Winkels gave him Watchtower and Awake! magazines for May and June, along with an invitation to the upcoming convention. After joking back and forth, they discussed the contents of the magazines and relevant scriptures before parting ways, the Winkels promising to return the next month. Williams put the magazines in a cardboard box that held editions dating back to December 2010.
"Though we may have some differences in our thoughts and our views on certain things, fact is we're all serving God, regardless of denominations," Williams said.
Carol Winkel has gone door to door in Chicago, New York, Kentucky and Utah and sees key differences in how Witnesses are welcomed during their ministry. People were "more abrupt" in the former two cities than in Kentucky and Utah.
"I think (Utahns) in general find it important to be polite when you come to their door and that makes for a very pleasant experience," she said.
Many in the state engage in discussions about the Bible, which is something her husband appreciates.
"Whether they're interested in Bible truths or not, people are willing. If they're LDS, they've either been on a mission or they have a grandson on a mission or you know something like that," Bryan Winkel said. "They want to be polite and friendly, so you have an opportunity to have a nice discussion with people."
While Carol Winkel appreciates dealing with the kindness of Utahns, she said it "takes discernment" to distinguish those who sincerely want to learn about their message from those who are simply trying to be nice.
"You don't want them just tolerating you and they aren't actually interested. So it takes some discernment to find out what they're really interested in."
Anyone can attend the conventions for free and come and go as they please. For more information on locations, times and daily convention programs visit jw.org/en/jehovahs-witnesses/conventions/.
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