For Jillian Cole of Toledo, today's session of the weekend's Jehovah's Witnesses conference at the SeaGate Convention Centre will be an experience that will influence the rest of her life.
This afternoon, Ms. Cole and a select group of others will be officially baptized as Witnesses and ministers of the faith. "It's been my goal to get baptized for a while," Ms. Cole said. "I've been studying and changing things in my life to align with Jehovah's principles."
This weekend's conference marks the fourth out of six Jehovah's Witnesses conventions this summer, the eighth summer the convention series has been held at SeaGate in downtown Toledo.
Each three-day conference is identical and welcomes between 5,000 and 6,000 participants from more than 40 congregations in Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana. The only exception was the third, entirely Spanish-language convention, which also included Witnesses from Pennsylvania.
Richard Nachazel, president of Destination Toledo Inc., said the convention series brings a $10 million to $12 million boost to Toledo's economy, according to a 2005 study commissioned by the former Greater Toledo Convention and Visitors Bureau.
"With 5,700 people visiting over a weekend, it means 5,700 people are going to eat while they're here and are going to have a chance after their conference to become more of a tourist in the community," he said.
The largest revenue comes from hotels, where Witnesses use about 1,200 rooms each weekend night for each conference, Mr. Nachazel said.
Mark Smith, a member of a local congregation who is the news service overseer for the Toledo district conventions, noted this year's conference theme, "Safeguard Your Heart!," comes from Proverbs 4:23:
"The heart is the inner person," Mr. Smith said. "Of course, we have so many influences in the world today that try to form us and shape us, but the Bible principles that we study can help to safeguard that inner person and help them stay in a position that is pleasing to God."
Each day of the convention has a particular subtheme based on a related Bible verse that dictates that morning's discourses.
The afternoon schedules vary and include a sound drama, where attendees can hear but not see Bible scenes being played out, and a modern-day drama acted out on stage.
Mr. Smith's son, Mark Smith, Jr., has attended the conventions with his father and mother, Stephanie, since he was young. The younger Mr. Smith, who was baptized in April at age 14, said the meaning of the conferences has not changed for him since his official baptism as a Witness.
"[The faith] always has helped me to stay on the right track," he said.
"It has helped me to stay out of trouble and away from the bad influences."
Solidifying the family's relationship with God is one of the key focuses of the conference, which welcomes participants of all ages and does not separate children from adults, Mr. Smith said.
"This whole program is designed for everybody," Mr. Smith said. "It's a family thing, because the family unit really is the foundation of society."
In addition to the annual conventions, the Smith family attends two weekly meetings at their Kingdom Hall, the place of worship for Jehovah's Witnesses. They also read one chapter of the Bible together each night and set aside one hour a week to discuss a certain subject or principle of Jehovah.
These communal faith activities help keep their family peaceful and loving, Mrs. Smith said.
"Jehovah is the creator of the family … he knows how family should work," Ms. Smith said. "The designer knows how things are supposed to function, so what better person to get information from than the one who designed it. It really does help our family."
The annual conventions are open to the public and are run by volunteers, Mr. Smith said.
There is no admission fee and no collections are taken.
The city of Toledo assists the visiting Witnesses by setting aside reserved parking, arranging lower hotel rates, and gathering discounts at nearby restaurants. Mr. Nachazel said this helps the group choose to return to Toledo each year, which the city appreciates immensely.
"This is a group of very polite and caring people. When you get that many people around town or in your hotel, sometimes they don't always have the best intentions of the property in mind," Mr. Nachazel said. "But the Jehovah's Witnesses conference certainly [does]. They're very respectful of noise and their accommodations."
Contact Mel Flanagan at: email@example.com or 419-724-6087.