30,000 Jehovah's Witnesses in Hawaii for convention
• Photo gallery: Jehovah's Witnesses conventioneers
By Maureen O'Connell
Advertiser Staff Writer
About 30,000 people are expected to attend an international Jehovah's Witnesses convention opening here today — the largest event of its kind ever held at the Hawai'i Convention Center.
Forty-two countries will be represented at the gathering, which will be split into two four-day sessions. The second session will get under way next Thursday.
"We're stretching our inventory, but so far so good," said Joe Davis, the convention center's SMG general manager, noting that the exhibit hall is now filled with chairs facing a small stage. "We're setting up 15,000 chairs, and grabbing others." Also, Davis said, "We'll be feeding the masses" a total of 100,000 boxed lunches.
Jehovah's Witnesses —perhaps best known for knocking on doors in residential neighborhoods and passing out copies of The Watchtower magazine —count more than 7.1 million members worldwide. Many of Hawai'i's 8,400 members this week are hitting the streets, delivering fliers to doorsteps, said Hawai'i congregation spokesman David Fitzgerald.
"You'll find it tucked somewhere in your door," Fitzgerald said. Following a neighborhood watch strategy, he said, "We always make sure that you cannot see our invitations from the street."
Sessions at the convention center, which are open to the public and free, will be tied to the theme "Keep on the Watch!" Fitzgerald said speakers will address the question topping the event flier: "How can you survive the end of the world?"
"It's not the end of the world like Hollywood depicts" in films ranging from "Armageddon" to "2012," Fitzgerald said. "It's not the total obliteration of humankind or the planet." He continued, "It's about the end of economic hardships, domestic pressures, prejudices, corruption all the things that create so much anxiety and trouble in the world today."
Some programs, including an hourlong modern production of the prodigal son parable, will be presented in several languages. Rather than opting for translation from English, Filipino and Sämoan groups plan to stage the play with actors speaking their native languages.
Most of the convention's participants are delegates selected to represent congregations. With 8,000 delegates, the U.S. congregations are sending the largest group to the event. Next on the list is Japan, with about 6,000 delegates.
Earlier this week, several hundred local volunteers greeted delegates at the airport and assisted with guided tours at the Jehovah's Witnesses of Hawai'i branch office in Kalihi and the Mililani Assembly Hall.
Glenda Craig was among a group of women who took time off from their day jobs Tuesday morning to smile and wave to hundreds of Japanese delegates stepping off buses and winding through the polished 55,000-square-foot Mililani facility.
"This is a rare thing," Craig said, referring to the opportunity to meet with Jehovah's Witnesses from other countries. Despite language barriers, she said, "It's just so happy."
Speaking through a translator, Japanese delegate Shigeru Tsujikawa said he was eager to "learn more about the Bible with brothers and sisters from all over the world, and make friends with them."
The Jehovah's Witnesses assembly is both the largest religious convention yet held at the Hawai'i Convention Center and the center's largest event of the year. The American Dental Association was the runner-up, bringing in more than 24,000 attendees earlier this fall.
Since 2001, the Hawai'i Convention Center has hosted more than 30 religious-based meetings. In July, the Baptist World Alliance will hold its World Congress at the center. The event, expected to draw about 12,000 attendees, will likely rank among the largest meetings of 2010.
The Jehovah's Witnesses sessions here are part of a series of conventions being held in 33 major cities this year, from June through December. The Hawai'i congregation last hosted an international convention in 2003, when meetings were split between the Blaisdell Center and the Hawai'i Convention Center. Officials said 12,933 people attended those meetings.
With attendance more than doubling, Davis said, "virtually every hotel in Waikíkí is affected."
The event is expected to generate more than $100 mil-lion in statewide spending and almost $9.8 million in tax revenue, with more than 161,000 room-nights booked throughout the state, Davis said.
"It's a great time of year for this," he said, pointing out that the pace of bookings in weeks near Thanksgiving is typically slower.
By the end of next month, the midsized convention center expects to tally 630,000 to 640,000 room-night bookings, which would rank 2009 as its second most successful year since it opened in 1998. In 2005, the center reported 700,000 hotel room-nights.
"We're closing in on it, even in a down economy," Davis said.