Jehovah’s Witnesses meet together in a kingdom hall. They’ll wince if you call it a church. These structures are either remodeled existing buildings or built from scratch.
When my family started attending meetings we went to a kingdom hall that was a remodeled warehouse. It was the ‘70s, so you can probably imagine the décor – gaudy carpet with lots of orange and red in it, plain-Jane fake wood paneling, a brick planter in front of the platform (don’t call it a stage) full of orange and yellow plastic flowers, and dark stained woodwork. We sat on metal folding chairs that had a vinyl “pad” on the seat about the thickness of a saltine cracker.
This building became too small for the growing congregation, so we did a remodel and extended the back of the building. The work progressed slowly, even though some friends from other congregations came to help on the weekends. There was one meeting I remember when the back of the kingdom hall had been torn down, so we spent the evening looking through plastic sheeting at the stars.
In another few years even the remodeled hall was too small, so the brothers went looking for someone to donate land to the congregation, which they found. The property was an old farm with a house and barn and a nice big field suitable for a kingdom hall and parking lot. Back in those days you could design your own kingdom hall. Nowadays the Society offers you a couple of plans to choose from, but we digress.
The brothers decided, bless their hearts, that an elder’s family should live in the long-abandoned house, so a chunk of the collective effort was focused on making the house livable. My family was the one chosen to live there and sort of guard the building site (although it was several hundred yards away).
At the building site, the brothers ran into grief almost immediately. While digging for the basement they ran into a long ridge of granite ledge. Of course, they would need to blast, so they applied for a permit. The official in charge of issuing permits wanted his palm greased, and the indignant brothers refused to give in to his demands. Instead, they hired a whole bunch of jackhammers and spent months chipping away at that granite ledge.
Five years later, there was a building with a congregation meeting in it, but it wasn’t completely finished. Finally, a visiting circuit overseer shamed the elders into making up a punch list and getting all the little stuff done. By then, it was time to remodel. I had married and moved away, so that wasn’t my project.
That’s an extreme example of how long it took to construct a kingdom hall back in the day. The Society decided that this was not cool because it kept the brothers busy building instead of preaching. They devised a whole new way of construction – the quick build. It was a revolutionary concept back when the first few quick builds went up. Here’s how it works:
Weeks ahead of time the site is prepared with a slab and parking lot. They have the utilities hooked up and ready to go. The materials are gathered and food service is planned so that the workers can stay at the site. On the designated weekend skilled crews of JW volunteers descend upon the work site and build the whole kingdom hall, right down to carpet and wallpaper, even landscaping, in less than three days’ time.
At first, a general invitation would go out to the entire circuit and a thousand people would swoop in, most of them just to watch the thing go up. The building site was crowded, the port-a-potties were maxed out, and a lot of food went to feed people who were just standing around gawking.
“No, no, no,” said the Society, stamping their collective foot. “That’s not what we meant.” Then they devised a structure whereby Brooklyn could control it more tightly. They designated Regional Building Committees (RBC) who would oversee every quick build in their area. There was also a thick notebook of instructions that had to be followed to the letter. I was at one quick build where the local elders messed up a few things (including arranging for the port-a-potties to be serviced) and all of them were removed as elders in the aftermath. Yikes!
The RBC also scheduled the crews so that only the people needed at the time were milling around the site. The drywall crew didn’t show up until later Saturday afternoon or evening, for example, and worked through the night. Of course, the local congregation members could be there anytime. They were usually doing grunt work or food service.
In order to get on a crew you had to apply to the RBC. My ex-husband volunteered his carpentry experience and worked on a bunch of quick builds around New England. I was not allowed to accompany him, not that I really wanted to. Hanging around a building site that is not your own is no fun at all. Worse, I’d be expected to participate in field service, letting the locals know about the project and inviting them to drop by for a little impromptu propaganda treatment.
There were strict rules on the sites, too. No slogan t-shirts could be worn, for example, so leave your “That’s what she said” shirt at home.
On Sunday afternoon, the congregation held their first meeting in the new hall. Of course, there were always a few details to finish up, and sometimes things were not quite ready for a meeting due to some unforeseen complication. All in all, it was a pretty amazing process, but hoo boy, don’t cross the RBC or you’ll find yourself in a serious pickle.