By Joel Meares
It’s the first Saturday of March and a perfect day for Jehovah’s Witnessing. The sky is clear, the air is crisp and a fresh copy of The Watchtower, stamped March 1, 2010, is ready to be distributed.
At least, I assume it’s a good day for Witnessing; this is my first time. Frank and Lydia Tavolacci — from a Jehovah’s Witness congregation in Glendale, Queens — have invited me along for a morning of door-knocking in their mostly residential neighborhood. A longtime recipient of the Witnesses’ famous “good news” wakeup calls, I jumped at the chance to see what it’s like on the other side of the door.
The day begins at the small, red-brick Kingdom Hall on Glendale’s Myrtle Avenue, where about 40 Witnesses gather in couples and families. Some thank Jehovah for the blessed day, others thank him for the coffee that got them here by 9 a.m. A few quick hellos in the Hall — a trapezoidal room with churchlike rows of chairs, a churchlike stage but no churchlike iconography — and the Witnesses head downstairs to arm themselves.
Their ammunition is The Watchtower and its companion magazine Awake!, each sitting in piles on a bench in the beige basement-level hallway. At first glance there’s not much difference between the two — both are flimsy, pamphlet-like 31-page monthlies, each colorfully adorned with photos of smiling faces and illustrations of Biblical happenings. But while Awake! is an attempt at a general interest magazine — travel and science stories, with a Witness twist — The Watchtower is strictly Biblical, its contents a doctrinal guide to Witness beliefs. March’s cover boy — a bearded scribe writing at a desk awash with golden light — sits over the cover line: “The Bible, Is It Really God’s Inspired Word?” Inside, a table of contents provides the answer. Page 4: “The Bible Really Is God’s Inspired Word.” Page 8: “Why You Can Trust the Biblical Gospels.”
Frank takes six copies of the English-language Watchtower, while others select from of piles of Romanian, Italian and Polish editions. Every month, nearly 40 million copies of The Watchtower are printed in more than 180 languages and sent to 236 countries. There are no subscriptions and you won’t find it on newsstands, but it’s still hard to miss. Thanks to the efforts of Witnesses like the Tavolaccis, The Watchtower is the most widely distributed magazine in the world, with a circulation of more than 25 million. Last year, the world’s 7.3 million-strong Jehovah’s Witnesses spent 1.5 billion hours knocking on doors and “street Witnessing” — stopping folks in parks and on streets — to preach the “good news” with a copy of The Watchtower. Its closest competitors are AARP The Magazine (circulation 24.3 million) and Better Homes and Gardens (7.6 million). It doesn’t hurt that The Watchtower has been free since 1990, with the option of a small donation.
Armed with their copies, Frank and the other Witnesses at the Glendale Kingdom Hall head back upstairs for a pep talk. “Elder” John Juels leads the 10-minute session from the stage, offering tips on how the congregation might keep doors open this morning. Frank Tavolacci calls it “a little bit of rah rah rah.”
“Raise a topic of interest,” suggests Juels, a short, bespectacled man in a bright orange tie. He invites a young blonde, “Sister Rachel,” up from the crowd to the stage for a role play. After a quick knock-knock and some polite doorfront introductions, Juels says the government is a hot topic right now, so Witnesses might raise the spectre of Governor Paterson to keep their bleary-eyed targets listening. “The government of Jesus Christ is coming,” he tells his mock door-opener. “Certainly God would do a better job than some of the people we have today.”
After a prayer, the group divides into pairs to tackle a block of Queens for the morning. I join the Tavolaccis to cover the block directly next to the Kingdom Hall. The two Glendale locals have dressed for what they call “the best volunteer work there is.” Frank’s wearing a checkered beret, gray suit and orange tie, and Lydia has wrapped herself in a chic, ankle-length black coat, her long blond hair tucked under a black woolen cap. Both are 40, gregarious and equally endowed with the kind of thick “Noo Yawk” accents you might expect to hear heckling the umpire at a Yankees game.
Their first door belongs to a large, two-story brick home on the wide and leafy Union Turnpike. Stepping up to the door, Lydia switches off her BlackBerry and tells Frank to get Psalm 104 ready in his black leatherbound Bible. Hers is a little tatty from use. Passages are highlighted, verse numbers circled and dozens of bright orange and pink sticky notes peek out from pages. Lydia is out on “field service” for at least two hours every Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. Ringing the bell, she asks Frank to hold The Watchtower so it is visible to whomever should open the door. Nobody does.
After three minutes, she rings again. She always rings twice. Again, nobody answers. On a piece of yellow paper called a “House Call Card,” a Witness couple working in tandem with the Tavolaccis notes the address and writes “NH” next to it, for “not home.” Other codes include “CA” for people who ask Witnesses to call again, “B” for busy and “C” for when a child answers the door.
And so it goes. NH, NH, NH. “It’s not a chore,” Lydia insists, as they move on to a woman who dismisses them with a curt “I’m Catholic.” “I mean, it’s not something you want to do, but it’s an important thing to do and it’s something you can do for God. You’re saving people’s lives.”
Frank and Lydia get their chance at the second-to-last house on the block. Amanda, a teenager with pulled-back frizzy brown hair opens the door wearing pajama pants decorated with pictures of milkshakes and the words “Shake it baby!” She is in the mood to talk. “Do you believe the Bible is inspired by God or just written by man?” asks Lydia in a sweet, slow elementary school teacher’s voice. “Inspired,” answers Amanda, after taking a moment to think.
They talk for five minutes before Lydia returns to the sidewalk and takes a purple-covered diary from her bag. On the top leaf of a pad of heart-shaped sticky notes inside, she writes down the scripture they discussed and which Watchtower edition she left behind. She promises to return next Saturday.
“I want to come back with a good question,” she says, clearly excited by Amanda. “Like, ‘Do you think we’re living in the last days?’”
While some magazines have religious followings, few have actually started religions. The Watchtower did just that. Back then, it was Zion’s Watch Tower and Herald of Christ’s Presence, so named by its founder, the writer and preacher Charles T. Russell. A former assistant editor of the Second Adventist magazine The Herald of the Morning, Russell released the first edition of Zion’s Watch Tower on July 1, 1879. It looked much like a newspaper of the time, with two columns, simple headlines and no images. Inside, readers learned that “we are living in ‘the last days,’ ‘the days of the Lord.’”
Russell, a charismatic Pennsylvania preacher with a big graying beard and an even bigger bank account, amassed followers in the years leading up to 1879 through public speaking tours and writings in newspaper columns and the Adventist magazine. He began questioning Adventist doctrine when the world failed to end, as it had predicted, in 1878. Russell used the monthly Zion’s Watch Tower to expound a new brand of Christianity to small congregations of Bible Students, as Witnesses were then known, mostly in the Northeast.
The new brand, familiar to many today from television exposés and house calls, taught that Christ would return to Earth in 1914 to govern the world, destroy nonbelievers and leave Witnesses to transform the planet into Paradise. It was revised in the 1930s, when the religion adopted the name Jehovah’s Witnesses, to teach that Christ did return in 1914 — he was just invisible — and that within a generation Armageddon would finally arrive. Witnesses now take a less specific approach to the end of the world.
Today, The Watchtower is the flagship publication produced by Jehovah’s Witnesses. The magazine and other literature is published by their not-for-profit corporation, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania; Witnesses also use another not-for-profit corporation in the United States, named the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society of New York, Inc., which is responsible for printing and distributing the magazine. The Tract Society’s catalogue includes the two magazines, a ballooning collection of books and brochures and The New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures, the religion’s official Bible. As of this year, 165 million New World Translations have been printed since it was first published in 1961.
The mammoth operation is funded by donations, mainly from Witnesses leaving anonymous contributions in boxes titled “Worldwide Work” at the back of Kingdom Halls. The money is funneled to the U.S. world headquarters to fund the publishing empire, as well as disaster relief. Just how much moolah makes that journey is unknown — as a religious organization, the Tract Society does not have to file an annual return with the IRS — but in 2001, Newsday listed the Tract Society as one of New York City’s 40 richest corporations, with revenues of $951 million. Last year, a report stated that the Society had pulled in $125 million for the fiscal year ending in August.
Manhattanites might recognize the Tract Society’s headquarters from the skyline to their east — a pair of stout beige towers nudging the base of the Brooklyn Bridge and the shore of the East River in Brooklyn Heights; squint and you can see the word “Watchtower” stamped across their peaks. The Brooklyn Bethel, as the faithful call it, also functions as the religion’s world headquarters. Here, the nine-member governing body of Jehovah’s Witnesses pulls the sect’s doctrinal strings and steers its publishing enterprise. All members of the governing body claim to come from the “little flock,” an anointed class of 144,000 Witnesses who will ascend to heaven upon Armageddon; other Witnesses will have to be satisfied with paradise on Earth.
Few non-Witnesses are allowed inside the Bethel headquarters and you’d be forgiven for conjuring fantastical reasons as to why — the anti-Witness publishing industry rivals The Tract Society’s in size and includes among its titles The Orwellian World of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and 30 Years a Watchtower Slave. But the day I visit, Brooklyn Bethel is less Airstrip One than Pan Am corporate headquarters circa 1965. In the lobby, a dull-painted plaster globe — the size of a boulder Indiana Jones might have to outrun — spins forlornly. Along maroon-carpeted corridors, cheery men in snug dark suits apologize for being too rushed to stop and chat. Everywhere, everyone asks you to stay for lunch.
Despite the absence of a masthead and bylines, The Watchtower is no immaculate conception. Each edition’s journey to your door begins a year ahead of publication at a meeting of the nine-member Writing Committee in the Writing Committee Conference Room, a boardroom dominated by a long polished wooden desk and two mammoth Sony flat screens on the wall; more Vogue Living than Mother Jones.
James Pellechia is one of the magazine’s writers and a member of the Writing Committee. Dapper in a dark gray suit, dark gray vest and even darker gray tie — all under wispy gray hair — 66-year-old Pellechia is a third-generation Witness. His grandparents converted in 1908 after migrating from Italy to Roseto, Pa., and he came to Bethel in 1982 to join the Writing Department. He and his fellow committee members choose the theme of each Watchtower issue and the articles it will feature. “It’s for Witnesses but also for the public,” Pellechia says of The Watchtower. “For people who would be interested in what the Bible would say about subjects like child-rearing and how to keep marriages united.” The magazine might focus on infidelity in May, homosexuality in June and earthquakes in July. Articles might answer questions like “Should you be honest at all times?” and “Has God left us?” (Yes, and no, in case you were wondering.) Each article is littered with scriptural references, which function like hyperlinks, directing readers to Bible pages for further reading. The committee also decides questions and answers for the special “study” editions of The Watchtower produced specifically for Witnesses already in the flock to study at Kingdom Halls every week. The number of study editions printed is undisclosed.
The Watchtower then comes together like most magazines, Pellechia explains. A writer is chosen as a “Compiler,” functioning like a magazine editor, and an assignment editor distributes briefs to writers — there are about 20 on staff. Copy is fact-checked, copy-edited and rewritten as it moves through the 70-person Writing Department. Illustrators and photographers, at a Witness training campus in Patterson, N.Y., provide the images.
Writers live with about 1500 other Bethel workers, including cooks, secretaries, cleaners and committee members, in five buildings throughout Brooklyn Heights. Meals, accommodation and an allowance are provided to keep the focus on God’s work. One Witness-occupied residential tower on Wilson Street might be the best deal in New York, housing 500 Witnesses, a library, a medical center and a dining room. Witnesses call it the “Towers Hotel.”
Despite rumors to the contrary, women can write for The Watchtower, but not on scriptural matters. “That’s what the Bible indicates according to our concept of it,” says assignment editor John Wischuck. “If they wanted to write something about dressmaking, a sister could do that. It might be in another case that she interviews another woman and writes up her life story. That would go through an editor or a rewrite.”
Before the magazine is sent to a facility known as Watchtower Farms, in Wallkill, N.Y., and to 16 other production centers across to the world — to be printed, bound and packaged for distribution — the Writing Committee takes a final look. “All nine of us read it,” says Pellechia. “Each one sees the previous writing committee member’s marks and either adds to it, reinforces it, or, once in a while, may change it. We need to ensure it is in agreement with our doctrine, scripturally.”
Of course, the magazine does not always agree with itself — or past versions of itself — on these matters. Early in its history, for example, The Watchtower told followers that the mischievous men of Sodom and Gomorrah would be resurrected. In 1988, an article in The Watchtower reversed this position. “Our publications are not infallible,” Pellechia says. “Certain Bible texts, certain doctrine, may need adjustment as more information is researched and understanding grows.”
David A. Reed, a critic and former high-ranking Witness, wrote in his book, Jehovah’s Witness Literature, that “much like a collection of White House news releases written during successive Democratic and Republican administrations, the Watchtower Society’s books and magazines reflect the sect’s changing leadership over the years.”
In an e-mail to me, Reed wrote that he stopped reading the magazine in 1999, a year before Don Alden Adams became the religion’s leader. In general, Reed says, today’s Watchtower and the religion behind it are far different from their earliest incarnations. “In terms of internal organizational politics, or religious positions, they are more conservative now than in the days of founder C.T. Russell. The Witnesses are now a tightly controlled, disciplined group, which they were not under Russell.”
The most tightly controlled aspect of the Witnesses’ publishing arm may be the names of Watchtower authors. No Tract Society publication has carried bylines since the early 1940s, because, according to assignment editor Wischuck, the “glory should go to God.” Pellechia expands on that: “There were about 40 writers of the Bible and for the most part, people who read the sacred texts may or may not have known who wrote that information. The material should stand on its own merits and attention should be focused back on the word of God rather than the individual.”
This sort of fifth-person approach to writing means The Watchtower can read like a textbook rendering of the Bible; big on plague and pestilance but short on the simple, beatific prose that marks its source. Former Witness Kyria Abrahams describes the magazine she read growing up in a Kingdom Hall in Pawtucket, R.I., as “extremely boring.” “They were pretty much all on the same theme,” she says today. “‘Why does God allow blah blah blah?’ ‘Is blank okay?’ And you know that it isn’t. For the most part, it was written at a fifth grade level.”
Abrahams, now 36 and living as a writer in New York City, parted with the Witnesses 11 years ago. She courted her own “disfellowshipping” by cheating on the husband she had married at 18. “I wanted out of the marriage so bad that I ended up just having an affair,” she says. “I was so entrenched in the idea of the religion that it was like I was somehow playing by their rules in order to leave.”
Abrahams has not spoken to her father since she left the religion, and has not heard from her mother in three years. She probably won’t hear from either ever again after the release of her acerbically funny account of her life as a Witness, I’m Perfect, You’re Doomed, last year. In the first chapter of the book, she reveals that her Jewish grandmother became a Witness after discovering a copy of The Watchtower on top of a trash can. In the third chapter, she describes her own experience with the books and magazines produced at Bethel. “My children’s books alternated between Dr. Seuss rhymes and tales of how sinners would scream and gnash their teeth at Armageddon,” she writes.
Like the Tavolaccis, Abrahams did her duty, door-knocking three times a week in her teens with a close friend named Kathy. She would do anything to get out of it — only pretending to ring the bell, encouraging Kathy to take long coffee breaks — and remembers many slamming doors. But it was a man who played along that stings her memory most sorely. After Abrahams told him she’d be happy to accept a small donation, he looked at her disdainfully and said, “I bet you would,” before handing her some change. “He saw right through me,” says Abrahams, who was 14 at the time. “I was totally aware that I was just this really annoying, weird person at the door, and I didn’t even know what I was talking about.”
Today, she sometimes sees The Watchtower in the back of a cab or in a doctor’s office. “I will pick it up and look at it for nostalgia,” she says. “It’s still the same as it was when I was a kid — nothing shocking, nothing weird. I would think that I’m going to get a big laugh out of it, but I just end up being sad and put it away.” No Witnesses have knocked on her door since she left her religion, husband and family behind.
But there are those who look forward to the familiar ring of the doorbell on a weekend. I joined Frank and Lydia Tavolacci on their fifth return call to 81-year-old Dominic Bonura’s small one-bedroom walkup in Glendale. The couple makes several of these return visits to people they’ve met while door-knocking every week. “What took you so long?” Bonura asks cheerily, opening the door.
Bonura’s wife died 12 years ago. “She was the most gorgeous thing you ever saw,” he says as we take our seats in a small living room cluttered with portraits of grinning grandchildren. A former butcher and sometime boxer, Bonura’s thin-skinned hands have been knotted by carpal tunnel syndrome. Resting on his knees, they look like large, crushed spiders.
He is dressed as if he were expecting us — polished shoes, pressed pants, a navy button-down all buttoned up — and he has a lot to say. He cuts Frank short before he can discuss the last readings he left. “This carpal tunnel is killing me, Franky,” he says huskily, stretching his arms and fingers out in angry defiance. “I tried to lift a two-pound weight the other day and it hurt so bad I wanted to go somewhere and croak. I’ve been disgusted with people in the world and with myself. I’m not going to lie to you Franky, I didn’t read a scripture, a Watchtower or an Awake!.”
Frank moves over to Bonura, crouches beside him and asks him to read from a Bible page stamped with extra-large print. Bonura pulls a pair of glasses from his pocket and loudly and clearly reads from the book of Isaiah. “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” He lowers the Bible.
“When a father is holding a little boy’s hand, how does that little boy feel?” asks Frank.
“He feels safe and protected,” answers Bonura, his face softening. Reflecting on his recent tough times, he says, “Satan might have grabbed me by the shirt, but he doesn’t have me by the heart.”
From here, Frank talks with Bonura about his wife, his daughter and the stresses of staying cooped up in his apartment. Frank explains that “All scripture is inspired, not half, and not a quarter. God’s word can help us with any principle of life.” This is the message of the month’s Watchtower cover story.
Before we leave, Bonura stops Frank. “I was just thinking about that little guy in the street, Franky, holding his father’s hand. If he let go, it wouldn’t take a second for a car to sweep him away.” He pauses. “He can’t let go.”
“And he hasn’t let you go,” says Lydia from the couch. “Dom, we’re here.”
Bonura then turns to me and tells me to write this down, word perfect, with an exclamation mark. “There’s nothing like the truth, nothing!” he says. “These people, this organization, are beautiful. You can trust these people with your life.” He looks at Lydia. “You keep coming back like a song.”
“You know who encourages us to come back,” asks Lydia. “Jehovah.”