When 1,000 Spanish-speaking Jehovah's Witnesses gathered for a convention in Wainscott this weekend, it was the first time such an assembly had taken place in Suffolk County.
Assemblies are meant to be faith strengthening, according to Tim Purscell, the assembly overseer. The gatherings have biblical precedent with the Israelites traveling to Jerusalem. The program — under the theme of "Safeguard Your Mind" — includes music, prayer, ministry school and various symposiums, and lasted about eight hours on both days.
Much larger assemblies have been held at the old Yankee stadium, where over 10,000 Jehovah's Witnesses would gather, and at Nassau Coliseum, where over 12,000 would come together.
The circuit assembly, composed of 12 Spanish-speaking congregations in Suffolk County, was never able to meet before in the county for a two-day convention, but has instead had to travel to Nassau County and Queens for venues large enough to accommodate them, Purscell said.
This particular assembly was scheduled to be held in Queens on Nov. 3 and 4, just after Hurricane Sandy roared through New York. Since many were without electricity, telephones, water and even the gas to travel the distance, the two-day event was postponed. The Sunnyside Assembly Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses was booked with other events for the rest of the year, and Purscell said it appeared as if the event was going to have to be put off until the middle of 2013. "Nothing was open for two days," he said.
With God's help, the organizers said, they found East Hampton Studio — a large, mostly empty space near the East Hampton Airport.
Rory Hemby, an elder in the Southampton Spanish congregation, knows Michael Wudyka, who leases the warehouse space that is used to house WVVH-TV and is used for film production and special events. Wudyka offered them a reasonable rental fee and arrangements were quickly made last week to turn the empty space into a Kingdom Hall for worship.
About 100 volunteers all over the county, some of whom are members of the English-speaking congregations, gave their time on Friday to transform the space — from setting up over 1,000 chairs to setting up sound equipment that was brought in from the Jehovah's Witness headquarters in Bethel.
While some Christian denominations are seeing declining numbers, the number of Jehovah's Witnesses continues to grow, Purscell said.
There are about 1,000 active Spanish-speaking members, or publishers as Jehovah's Witnesses are known, in Suffolk County, and another 4,000 or so English-speaking, he said. There are over 8 million around the world.
One aspect of assemblies are baptisms, where members make a public declarations of their faith. There is usually a baptismal pool, but due to logistical constraints, the organizers decided instead to use a jacuzzi at a private home. The Edwards family of East Hampton offered theirs for the 12 baptismal candidates, including a 75-year-old man. They were immersed in water to signify the end of their formal life and the birth of their new life, devoted to God. It is not considered a cleansing, as it is in other religions.
The assembly's focus is on education. Those in attendance take notes and listen for answers to such questions as, "How can husbands, wives, parents and children contribute to family happiness?" and "How can we be ready for Jehovah's day?"
"The beauty of Jehovah's Witnesses is that we teach the scriptures — it's simple. There's no mystery in the scriptures," Purscell said.
Assemblies are open to the public and are free. Participants can make monetary contributions, but it is not mandatory.
Though there are a total of 12 congregations that meet in Spanish, members of only 9 of them travelled to Wainscott. Three others, closer to the Nassau County border, joined their assembly, which made this assembly a little bit smaller than usual.
Two of the Spanish-speaking congregations are located on the East End; in Water Mill and Riverhead. Others are located in Mt. Sinai, Brentwood, Central Islip, and Patchogue.
The congregations draw from all over the county. Purscell, for instance, lives in Wheatley Heights and works as a Spanish translator at the Suffolk County Criminal Court in Riverhead. Hemby, who lives in Bridgehampton, grew up attending Kingdom Hall on the South Fork, and joined the Spanish-speaking congregation after he married.
Participants were from all different types of Latino nationalities — Dominican, Ecuadorian, El Salvadorian, Colombian, Mexican, and Chiliean, just to name a few.
"These are gatherings we look forward to," said George Nunez, an elder from Babylon who works in the accounting department. He said he hopes the circuit can work with East Hampton Studios in the future, because the space worked out so well for them. Volunteers even made some improvements to the space, patching up plaster and painting.
Purscell and Hemby said the community's help was integral in making the event possible. "Bruce from Outpost Porta-Potty, Elias Ramierez from Southampton Floors, Watermill Building Supply, the East Hampton Town Board, the Fire Marshall and the Police helped streamline the permitting process, and many others also helped. Everyone has been wonderful," Hemby said.
Editor's Note: Rory Hemby is the brother of the author's fiancé.