Picture this: 30,000 people sitting outside in a stadium made of aluminum while a ferocious thunderstorm rages. Lightning is striking all around, rain is pouring down in sheets, and the wind is actually dismantling the stage where a speaker is trying to deliver a Bible talk. The speaker is unable to continue and retreats under the stage to wait out the storm. Lightning strikes a light pole at the top of the stadium, and the crash of thunder is deafening. The people in the stands remain in their seats despite the discomfort and danger. None of these people has paid for a ticket, none of them is obligated to stay.
This actually happened in 1973 at an International Assembly of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Montreal, Quebec. I was there.
Summer is District Convention time for JWs in the northern hemisphere.
JWs will go to extremes in order to be able to attend these annual events. My father actually quit his job in order to attend one convention because he didn’t have enough vacation time to cover the 5 days he’d be gone. (He did get his job back when he returned.) I once saw two men sleeping on lawn chairs at a campground so that they could attend a convention.
Since the district conventions usually involved driving a long distance as well as meals and accommodations for at least 4 nights, they represented a big expense, and for many families, the district convention was as close as they got to a family vacation each year.
If they couldn’t afford motel rates, they could set up a tent at a campground in order to attend. One year, my husband and I shared a camper on the back of a pickup truck with another couple. That’s a tight squeeze, believe me.
This was also in Montreal, but it was in 1978, and the assembly was held at the Olympic Stadium. About a 15-minute walk away was an abandoned train yard where the Society set up makeshift showers (think ice water) and toilets and thousands of Witnesses set up campers and tents. This was such a remarkable sight that the local residents would slowly drive by in the evening and stare at us.
Oddest of all was that for those who could not afford to pay hotel or motel rates and had no tent or camper there were accommodations in private homes – some of which were owned by people who were not JWs. The local congregation would canvass their territory for people with a spare room and a willingness to have strangers stay with them.
Assemblies were for the most part boring to a teenager. The only fun was in volunteering. My personal favorite was food service. I would work at vegetable prep before the morning sessions, and then at lunchtime would work the serving line. There were usually two hot meals to choose from as well as a “Chef Salad” for those who wanted to eat light.
Working the serving line was not without its challenges. One time I was serving salad dressing, and I think I got more on my canvas sandals than on the salads. The big draw of working the serving line was that you got to leave the session early to report to your station, and you usually got back to your seat after the next session had begun. It was like time off for good behavior. In recent years the Society stopped serving food at the conventions in part to allow more people to actually listen to the sessions rather than working in a noisy kitchen. Spoilsports!
The highlight of any District Convention is the dramas. These are theatrical plays, scripted and prerecorded by the Society, highlighting some important theme (usually something we were doing wrong). Most often they are set in ancient times and involve costumes and props. The actors are just rank and file JWs who lip sync to the recorded dialogue. There used to be one drama every day of the convention, but they consumed a huge amount of time and money for those involved, and as a result, the Society started cutting back on those as well. Party poopers!
All in all, as a young person I regarded the conventions as a lot of dry, boring talks punctuated by a little fun at my volunteer assignment and the occasional Bible drama.
As an adult I appreciated the material more but dreaded the discomfort involved in sitting in stadium seats that were designed to be comfortable for an average-sized adult for about 2 hours. If you were taller or fatter than average, you would find yourself crammed into a small space with no wiggle room, the back of the seat in front of you positioned just under your kneecap.
Today, I’m just glad I don’t have to plan my summer around 4 days of listening to harangue, standing in line for the bathroom, and sleeping in some musty motel room.