Published July 11th, 2016 at 2:55 PM
Antonio Rosas is nearly blind from glaucoma, and his daughter, Gina, uses a wheelchair due to a rare neuroimmune disorder. So it’s hard for them to get out and worship with their fellow Jehovah’s Witnesses in their hometown of Wichita, Kansas.
Yet their deep faith is pulling them through a weekslong summer trek to regional conventions, which included a late June stop in Independence, Missouri, and is scheduled to wrap up next month in Oklahoma City. They spent the July Fourth holiday in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
“This is a chance for me to associate with my spiritual family,” Gina Rosas said while in Independence. “I don’t know a lot of the people here, but they’re my friends. I know I can count on them for help. They’re right next to me right now, and they love me. I love them. It’s given me a lot of comfort just to be here.”
Driving their handicap-accessible minivan is wife and mother Elizabeth Rosas. With the air conditioning on, Gina Rosas rides in a heated seat and is covered by blankets to keep her spine relaxed.
At 0.8 percent, Jehovah’s Witnesses rank above only “Other Christian” as the smallest sliver of U.S. Christians, according to the Pew Research Center.
Nevertheless, the faith has approximately 20 million adherents worldwide, and the regional community is large enough that local officials anticipated drawing roughly 8,000 attendees combined to the two recent conventions at the Silverstein Eye Centers Arena in Independence.
As many people know from the evangelists who show up unexpectedly on their doorsteps, Jehovah’s Witnesses take a very activist approach to Jesus’ commandment to his early disciples that they go to people’s homes to spread the gospel.
For that same reason, they encourage the public to attend their three-day regional conventions, which are a mixture of symposiums, music and prayer. The big push is to have the public attend the Sunday Bible session.
“That’s a big dose — come be with us for three days,” said Ken Dorrell, regional program overseer. “Just come be with us for an hour; you may choose to stay the afternoon. Stay the afternoon, and you may choose to stay another day.”
Gina Rosas explained that, in keeping with the Old Testament commandment that God’s servants come together three times a year, Jehovah’s Witnesses have three conventions each year. These conventions take place across the world and often share programming. One is a regional three-day conference, and the others are typically single-day affairs held locally.
It’s the importance of these gatherings that inspire Gina Rosas to gut it out through the car rides.
“I’m gonna be in pain regardless,” she said. “So if I have to take a little bit more pain medication and I have to suffer for a few more days afterwards and seek out treatments to help, it more than makes up for the fact that I got spend that time with my brothers and sisters being filled with spiritual gems.”
While the Rosases came to soak in the atmosphere, Ethan Zimmerman was in Independence as a featured speaker. The Topeka, Kansas, teen shared his story of overcoming childhood bullying through his faith.
It was a Jehovah’s Witness publication that taught Zimmerman to take a nonviolent approach in handling his bully. He avoided the other boy and places he would frequent. Zimmerman also never hesitated to inform an adult whenever incidents occurred.
Prayer, too, helped Zimmerman overcome his jitters about speaking to such a large gathering.
“I enjoy [speaking]. It’s just nerve-racking before,” he said. “But once you get it over with, you feel really good because you’re sharing an experience.”
— Brett Baker is the Scripps Howard Foundation Fellow at the Hale Center for Journalism. He is also the coordinator for “Common Grounds.” To reach Baker, email email@example.com.
This story is part of the KCPT and Hale Center for Journalism project Beyond Belief, a series of stories and discussions about faith in our city. The project is part of Localore: Finding America, created by AIR, a Boston-based network of independent public media producers. Principle funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Learn more about “Beyond Belief” here.