The Associated Press, July 3, 2003
By STEVE STRUNSKY, Associated Press Writer
When an anticipated crowd of 1,500 to 2,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses opens a conference in New Jersey with a psalm this weekend, the sound of silence will fill the air.
The conference at the vast Stanley Theater Assembly Hall in Jersey City is for deaf members of the faith from up and down the East Coast. Instead of being accompanied by an organ or choir, the psalm will be delivered in sign language.
“It opens with a psalm and prayer,” said David Donahue, a convention spokesman. “However, there’s no music, so you’ll see 1,500 people standing and signing a psalm and prayer.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses, also known as the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, is a Christian denomination organized by Charles Taze Russell in Pennsylvania. Headquartered in Brooklyn, N.Y., the denomination claims 6.3 million members worldwide. The name Jehovah’s Witnesses went into use in 1931.
It is based in part on belief that a second coming of Christ would be a spiritual, not a physical event.
Because of its restrictions against worldly affiliations, doomsday prophesying and other distinctions, some critics have branded the denomination a cult _ a characterization Jehovah’s Witnesses reject, but one that has caused them problems.
The group had to sue Jersey City in 1984 to obtain permits to restore the Stanley Theater, an old vaudeville house, for use as an assembly hall, charging that city officials had acted out of bias in initially denying the permits.
One way the group does try to distinguish itself from other denominations, Donahue said, is in its treatment of deaf members, exemplified by the convention in Jersey City, and a similar annual gathering scheduled for July 11-13 in Long Beach, Calif.
Donahue, who is a sign language interpreter, said Jehovah’s Witnesses have congregations specifically for the deaf, where houses of worship, known as Kingdom Halls, typically include video monitors visible throughout the seating area to insure that members can view the service.
“We have always found that teaching is always most effective in native tongues,” said Donahue. “We treat deaf people as people who speak a different language, not as disabled people.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses not only produces videotapes of its doctrine in what is known as American Sign Language, but also in 15 other sign languages, which have their own sets of hand signals that do not correspond to those for English.
“Greek, Spanish, Danish, Korean, Russian _ all of those are sign languages,” Donahue said.
This weekend’s convention lasts from Friday through Sunday, and is open to the public.
Nonsectarian gatherings for the deaf are hosted quarterly by the state Division of Deaf and Hard of Hearing, at the Joseph Kohn Rehabilitation Center in New Brunswick, with information on technology and programs. The next two are scheduled for Sept. 9 and Dec. 16.
There are about 20,000 deaf residents of New Jersey, among 800,000 with some type of hearing problem, said Lavonne Johnson, a division spokeswoman.
Because the presenters at this weekend’s convention will be using sign language themselves, sign interpreters for the deaf will not be needed, Donahue said. Rather, presenters will appear on monitors throughout the Stanley Theater to ensure everyone can see them.
But Donahue said the convention will also be attended by 15 people who are both blind and deaf, who will require 140 so-called tactile interpreters.
“A tactile interpreter can only function at peak level for 20 to 30 minutes,” Donahue said. “Therefore, if a talk is longer, people are going to work in teams, and they’ll trade off.”
Donahue explained, in almost biblical language, the physical nature of tactile interpreting, which was performed, most famously, by Annie Sullivan for Helen Keller.
“The only way to see the native language,” Donahue said, “is to put your hand on top of another’s hand.”