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Believers bring faith, more to town

The traffic around the Times Arena at Bayfront Center one recent Friday was the first sign of a summer ritual: the arrival of thousands of Jehovah's Witnesses for their annual series of three-day conventions.

Jehovah's Witnesses have been meeting at Bayfront Arena since 1965.

"We are here to learn and to be spiritually built up, to be reinvigorated for our ministry back home," said Clayton Barrows, presiding overseer of the East Clearwater congregation.

About 50,000 Northern and Central Florida believers, from about 325 congregations, are expected to attend the weekend gatherings, which began June 15 and will run through the first weekend of August.

"They come in the summer, when things are traditionally slow," said Jeff Foreman, operations manager for the city of St. Petersburg's Downtown Facilities Department. "They fill up the hotels. They eat in the restaurants. They buy gas, so there is an economic impact over the summer, which is traditionally a slow time."

The religious organization is paying $36,000 to use Bayfront Arena for the run of the convention.

Wit Tuttell, spokesman for the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention and Visitors Bureau estimates this year's eight weekend conventions could bring at least $38-million to the area.

Similarly, when Promise Keepers, the men's Christian movement, drew approximately 30,000 followers to St. Petersburg for two days in 1999, the economic benefit was an estimated $16-million.

Lindsley "Lin" Wright, senior manager for community relations for Orange County public schools, has been traveling to the St. Petersburg convention with his wife, Dorothy, for more than seven years.

"The average is about 48 bucks a night," he said, referring to the cost of their hotel room.

"We normally get there Thursday. We go to Publix and buy groceries and you go and you buy breakfast and stuff for lunch and you go out and have dinner. We spend about $22 to $23 for dinner and there is gas and those types of things," said Wright, who helped present a recent convention program.

There are delegates who extend their three-day stay, he said. "Some people go to Busch Gardens, that type of thing. Now, since it's just my wife and myself, we tend to primarily come on Thursday night and leave after the convention on Sunday," said Wright, the father of four adult children.

Derek Larsen, a Jehovah's Witness from Lake Mary near Orlando and convention overseer for the past four years, said delegates book about 1,200 rooms each weekend.

Those attending the conventions are a deliberate mix of local and out-of-town believers, Barrows said. "At our headquarters of Jehovah's Witnesses in Brooklyn, based on the facilities that they negotiate, they decide which congregations they are going to assign to each facility," he said.

"In the case of Bayfront Center, where they are going to have multiple conventions that are going to span consecutive weekends, they put all of those congregations in the computer and assign congregations so that the facilities of the hospitality industry will be used equally each weekend."

Barrows, an engineer, said the number of delegates is about 5,000 to 6,000 each weekend. "Everybody from each congregation comes."

A week ago, hundreds of well-dressed faithful, many equipped with strollers, coolers and stuffed briefcases, streamed into Bayfront Arena. They greeted each other with hugs, handshakes and inquiries about absent brothers and sisters.

"It's like old-home week," Barrows said as he walked on the convention floor minutes before the morning session.

For Jehovah's Witnesses, he said, preparation for a convention goes beyond booking hotel space and securing an auditorium. Weeks in advance, a call goes out for volunteers to clean the meeting place.

"They do come in and prior to their first weekend, they will detail-clean," Foreman said Tuesday. "Each night, they clean and then they come in on Thursday and do another cleaning. They clean the buildings. They clean the restrooms. They clean the seats. They clean the glass. They mop the floors. . . . We give them a clean building. They just come in and take it to the next level."

Foreman said the price break the religious organization gets from the city is not a quid pro quo for janitorial services. Rather, the price the group has been able to negotiate is based on its reliable, longstanding rental of the facility during off-peak

months and the financial benefit to the area.

Said Barrows: "What motivates us to go in and clean and make sure everything is presentable is really our love for our spiritual brothers and sisters and our God Jehovah. That's beyond any contract we may sign with a facility. The facility is certainly acceptable for a non-sacred function, but we really view our convention as sacred and we feel that it requires a higher level of cleanness."

The group also installs a baptismal pool. Each weekend, the 3-foot-deep pool is sanitized and filled with 800 gallons of water. Combined baptismal and ordination ceremonies are important rituals for the organization. At baptism, believers also are ordained as preachers for their faith.

The more than 6-million Jehovah's Witnesses worldwide pledge allegiance only to God and his kingdom. They do not participate in politics, vote or serve in the military. They accept Jesus as God's son, believe that they receive salvation through him, but do not acknowledge him as God. Followers also do not celebrate birthdays and holidays such as Christmas and Easter.

The Bayfront gatherings are part of a series of conventions held throughout the country beginning in May and ending in September. Projected attendance at these conventions, which are conducted in English, Spanish, Chinese, French, Greek, Russian and a variety of other languages, is 1.5-million.

"Each one of the Jehovah's Witnesses views himself or herself as a full-time evangelizer," Barrows said. "So while we are best known for our door-to-door ministry, we will endeavor to discuss the message of God's word in other settings, grocery stores, restaurants, hotels and motels."