ST. GEORGE — Over the summer, approximately 13,900 Jehovah’s Witnesses and their guests were anticipated to attend the faith’s annual conference at the Dixie Convention Center in St. George. Unfortunately, like so many other plans, that fell through due to COVID-19.
“We had to put the breaks on that due to the pandemic,” Andrew Lewis, an elder with the St. George congregation, told St. George News over a Zoom call.
In Southern Utah, there are around 900 Witnesses spread across St. George, Cedar City, Kanab and places in between, Lewis said.
Five conventions in all, to be held between July and August, were set to go for English and Spanish-speaking congregants and guests. Like so many other public gatherings both secular and faith-based, they had to be canceled n St. George and worldwide. This left 8 million-plus Jehovah’s Witnesses with a need to adapt – and adapt they did.
In-person worship services were canceled in mid-March and the regional conferences followed suit in April. In the course of a week, weekly worship and study services at the Kingdom Hall were replaced with virtual services held over Zoom.
“One week we were all meeting in the Kingdom Hall, the next week we were meeting over Zoom,” said Michael Abraczinskas, a member of the St. George congregation. “The transition was pretty seamless. It’s the same program. We really haven’t been impaired spiritually because we haven’t missed a beat.”
An element of in-person contact is missed, but both Lewis and Abraczinskas noted that congregants tend to sign onto Zoom before a meeting and linger afterward in order to catch up with each other.
“I always enjoyed going to the Kingdom Hall, but I’m happy that through Zoom I’m able to participate and see my friends there,” Caleb Abraczinskas, Micheal’s 16-year-old son, said.
As for the canceled conventions, that led to the Witnesses moving those to a virtual streaming format for the first time in their history. Conventions typically held in arenas, stadiums and other venues where hundreds to thousands could gather were each viewed in private homes instead.
“Our worship is centered on our mutual love for our God and for each other, irrespective of where we are physically,” Robert Hendriks, U.S. spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses, said in a July press release as the new format got underway. “This year’s convention program underscores the unity of our international family and the joy that people can have against a backdrop of stress and despair.”
The two Christian principles guiding the Witnesses’ decision to go to virtual meetings and streaming conventions are based on “a respect for the sanctity of life and love of neighbor,” Lewis said.
“It’s not about where we are physically. It’s about where we are spiritually,” Hendriks said. “In many ways, we are closer as a spiritual family than ever before.”
The virtual conventions, held between July and the end of August, were seen across an estimated 240 lands and translated into 500 languages, according to a press release from the Witnesses.
The theme of the conventions, which was decided on five years ago, Michael Abraczinskas said, was “Always Rejoice.”
“In the middle of a pandemic, it might seem like an odd theme, but the reminders we were given proved to be beneficial and helpful during this difficult time,” Michael Abraczinskas said.
Aspects of the conventions also focused on how remembering what can contribute to an individual’s and family’s sense of joy, such as what God has done for them, as well as how to better cultivate that sense of joy within the family.
“We have found that to be very positive, very encouraging during this difficult time,” Michael Abraczinskas said.
Those interested in watching the convention sessions can find them on the Jehovah’s Witnesses website.
Another area of the general practice that has been impacted and adjusted by the Witnesses is their public preaching efforts.
Not wanting to risk their people getting sick, or getting those they visit sick by going door-to-door, the Witnesses have transitioned to writing letters and calling others and sharing positive messages.
“We have been writing letters to our neighbors, we been making phone calls and we’ve had such a fine response for the local ones here – people want a positive thought,” Lewis said. “They want a positive thought about what’s going on now, and that there’s a bright future. That’s worked out very well.”
Approaching public preaching this way has helped reach more people and felt more productive, Michael Abraczinskas said.
While the pandemic has been full of negative impacts on many aspects of regular life, both Lewis and Michael Abraczinskas said they have noticed positive byproducts among individuals and families.
“People have begun to evaluate what’s really important,” Lewis said, pointing to examples of people simplifying their lives and becoming more spiritual.
For the Abraczinskas family, Michael said they’ve been able to draw closer together during this time.
“The opportunity we’ve had as a family to spend time together, the time we’ve spent enjoying each other’s company has been a benefit for us personally,” he said.
“That’s really cemented our relationship,” Charlene Abraczinskas, Michael’s wife, added.
Overall, it’s been a difficult time, Lewis said, but the Witnesses have been able to make the best of it and have seen real joy through the process.
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