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Every weekend in June and July, an estimated 7,000 Jehovah's Witnesses will converge on downtown Toledo to attend three-day conventions to discuss the Bible and family values.
And yes, before the sessions begin, members of the Christian group known for its door-to-door evangelizing will be knocking on doors and inviting Toledoans to join them at SeaGate Convention Centre.
"Prior to the conventions in Toledo, we will be engaging in our house-to-house ministry and inviting people to the conventions," said David Dunn, of Tiro, Ohio, who has been helping to plan the conventions for over two years. "These conventions are not closed sessions. Every part of the convention is open to the public. Even a non-Witness is able to be there and profit and benefit from coming."
Unlike most large-scale religious gatherings, no monetary offerings will be taken at any of the meetings, which will be held Thursdays through Sundays for eight weeks at SeaGate Centre.
"We don't charge an admission fee; everything is free, and we don't sell anything," said John Harrington, of Ottawa Lake, Mich., who also has been working on convention plans. "We don't pass a collection plate. Because we don't do any of those things, we have to be very, very conscious of costs. We've had some challenges to deal with."
Mr. Dunn said Jehovah's Witnesses do not charge for their events because they are following Jesus' command to his disciples, as recorded in Matthew 10:8, "Freely you have received, freely give."
"When you think of religion, many times you think of money," Mr. Dunn said. "Yet in the Bible, that idea just doesn't mix. We try to follow just the idea of the Bible. There is no exchange of money unless people want to make voluntary donations."
Each three-day session will feature about 22 lectures, and the programs will be repeated each week as new groups of 7,000 Witnesses arrive in Toledo.
The total number of people expected to attend is between 50,000 and 55,000, Mr. Dunn said.
Organizers are anticipating some visitors from across the country, but the majority are likely to be from the tri-state area of Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana.
"We will have programs that deal with how to use the Bible to cope with the efforts that seem put forth today to break down the family unit," Mr. Dunn said. "Our purpose for the conventions is one thing, but on the other hand, as a byproduct, the city is going to benefit immensely by us coming."
With the lectures ending at 4:30 p.m. each day, convention-goers will have their evenings free to sightsee and relax.
"When our delegates come, in most cases they view their attending the convention as their vacation for the year," Mr. Dunn said. "They'll come as whole families, and they will go to the zoo, COSI, [Toledo] Botanical Garden, or whatever. Maybe they'll go to a ball game at Fifth Third Field."
While he did not want to put a dollar figure on the conventions' impact, Jim Donnelly, president and CEO of the Greater Toledo Conventions and Visitors Bureau, estimated that the Jehovah's Witnesses should generate about $8.6 million for the local economy.
About 3,600 hotel rooms have already been booked, he said.
"If you look at it collectively, it is the single largest piece of business that we've got this year," Mr. Donnelly said.
Mr. Dunn said Jehovah's Witnesses take their gospel message door to door because Jesus commanded his disciples to take the gospel to all the Earth.
"One isn't really a Jehovah's Witness unless they are an active door-to-door evangelizer, in obedience to Jesus' command that true Christians will share their beliefs with others," he said.
"On a given morning in Toledo as many as 1,000 Jehovah's Witnesses are out going door to door. And we aren't just looking for converts. We find many, many times that people just want to talk."