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Bearing Witnesses

To the Rev. Isaiah Clark, the facts were as clear as a church bell chime. If the city of West Palm Beach sold the Municipal Auditorium to the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society -- the Jehovah's Witnesses -- for $12.5 million, it would cast open the floodgates for a modern-day Gomorrah, jam-packed with sinners, Satanism, and moral depravity.

Two days before the citywide referendum that would finally settle West Palm Beach's number one political dilemma -- the fate of the auditorium -- the reverend added this little dose of politics to his usual Sunday-morning diatribe against hedonism and debauchery. Clark was careful to avoid using the pulpit to bully the flock into accepting his political advice and instead simply urged the members of his congregation at the Union Missionary Baptist Church to "carefully consider" what was at stake in the referendum. Outside, however, posters instructing passersby to vote against the sale dotted the lawn of the West Palm Beach church.

"If the auditorium is sold to the Jehovah's Witnesses, and nothing against them personally, then West Palm Beach is going to become a mecca for Satanic work and a mecca for cults," Clark prophesied on the evening of the March 28 referendum.

Clark is not an isolated preacher of hellfire and damnation, terrified that the Witnesses will destroy the true Christian way of life in the fair city of West Palm Beach. Although the debate surrounding the auditorium sale focused publicly on city politics, under the surface bubbled this theological disquietude among conservative Protestant preachers, theologians, and those who believe the Bible is tantamount to absolute truth. The electorate's decision last week to sell the auditorium -- by a margin of less than 300 votes -- has not quelled the ministers' apocalyptic vision of the city's future.

"I haven't talked to anyone who does not feel the way I feel," Clark notes.
The crux of the religious conflict behind the sale hinges on one major theological difference between the two religions: Witnesses vehemently reject the concept of the Trinity because it is not specifically described in the Bible. This creed, however, that God is made up of three distinct but unified components -- the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit -- is considered the central tenet of most forms of Christianity.

The Jehovah's Witnesses began in the 1870s with a small Bible-study group in western Pennsylvania and now claim one million followers in the United States. Like conservative Christians, Witnesses interpret the Bible literally and believe it is a religious imperative that they actively solicit and inspire others to accept their faith to achieve eternal salvation, according to David Kling, a former West Palm Beach resident and an associate professor of religious studies at the University of Miami.

Witnesses, Kling adds, separate themselves from most Christians by forgoing Christmas and Easter celebrations because the holidays are considered to be pagan -- not biblical -- in origin. Witnesses also distinguish themselves from most Americans by refusing to vote, serve in the military, salute the American flag, or celebrate Mother's Day.

"West Palm Beach is strongly Southern Baptist," Kling offers. "This may be a fear that not only are the Jehovah's Witnesses heretical, but that they could invade and threaten the whole city."

This fear first reared its head in September 1997, as the more politically inspired debate regarding the auditorium also began to heat up. Members of several West Palm Beach neighborhood associations began to argue that Mayor Nancy Graham had committed the city to the auditorium sale without a proper public hearing. As a result of that argument, residents formed the Community Coalition for a Better Auditorium Deal, which eventually gained enough support to force last week's referendum.

Ministers, meanwhile, began speaking out against the sale on theological grounds. Clark, for instance, brought the issue to the Ministers' Conference of the Palm Beaches, a consortium of 25 local conservative Christian ministers. The ministers agreed that the Witnesses would only cause trouble in West Palm Beach and unanimously resolved to encourage church members to vote against the sale.

At the city's largest Southern Baptist congregation, First Baptist Church, the pastors chose not to take a public stand on the referendum. Nonetheless, on several occasions pastors invited Dr. Gerald Stanton, a retired professor of Christian theology and a leading congregant of the 10,000-member church on the Intracoastal, to discuss the issue with congregants at fellowship meetings and lectures.

Stanton pleaded the case against the Witnesses on theological grounds, as well as opposing the religion's "anti-American" values. He also began a letter-writing and telephoning campaign urging local Protestant ministers to oppose the sale.

"We are getting involved on a theological level," he says, "and we don't want them invading the city by the tens of thousands."

Stanton likens the discord in West Palm Beach to an ongoing struggle in Clearwater, which began when more than 1000 Scientologists moved there in 1989. Members of Clearwater's secular and religious community considered the Scientologists to be a cult and watched helplessly as nearly 5000 followers moved to into the city by the beginning of this year. The preponderance of Scientologists has influenced city elections, and residents fear that the Clearwater is fast becoming the religion's national hub. Indeed, earlier this year Clearwater Scientologists announced plans to build a religious school that is expected to draw 10,000 students a week for classes.

Similarly, in West Palm Beach the Jehovah's Witnesses have already planned more than a dozen assemblies and conferences throughout the year and expect to draw up to 60,000 people for worship at each. The Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, which is based in Brooklyn, is also considering changing the name of the auditorium to the West Palm Beach Assembly Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses. It will be the largest of the Witnesses' 40 convention centers throughout North America.

"We love them [Jehovah's Witnesses] for Christ's sake," Stanton affirms. "We love them as people, and we're not holding them with personal animosity. On the other hand, we're not interested in having a cult come into our city."

For their part the Jehovah's Witnesses see the theological differences as a simple disagreement rather than a threat to the Witness way of life. Besides, there are individuals who oppose nearly every religion, offers a philosophical Gerald Grizzle, the convention-center manager at Watchtower headquarters. Perhaps more people dislike Witnesses, he speculates, because Witnesses "expose the erroneous interpretations of the Bible by other religions."

"Jesus," Grizzle adds, "wasn't real popular with the other religions on Earth when he was alive either, was he


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