Alton Williams of Huntsville took a semester of Spanish in high school “many, many years ago.” But when the Jehovah’s Witnesses began offering Spanish lessons in 1998, Williams signed up.
“The Spanish population was just growing here in Huntsville,” said Williams, a physics professor at Alabama A&M University and a Jehovah’s Witnesses minister. At the time, the closest Hispanic congregation was in Fort Payne.
“They wanted to try to see if anyone would be willing to learn Spanish and try to study the Bible with the Spanish population here,” he said.
Williams was one of the more than 5,500 Jehovah’s Witnesses at the Von Braun Center this past weekend for the church’s annual three-day district convention. A repeat of the convention will be held Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
Using tapes, an English-Spanish dictionary and “field experience,” Williams learned Spanish. “I feel like I’m pretty fluent,” he said. “I feel like I can give a talk in Spanish as well as I can in English, and sometimes I feel like I can do it better in Spanish.”
Williams was on the early end of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ attempt to reach out to the Hispanic community. The church now offers an intensive four-month Spanish-learning program.
The number of Spanish-speaking Jehovah’s Witnesses has grown significantly over the last several years. Williams said a Spanish version of the district convention is scheduled for late July in Duluth, Ga.
Locally, the Hispanic congregation has also grown. Six years ago, the Jehovah’s Witnesses church here served the Spanish-speaking population in Huntsville and Athens. The congregation has now grown enough to add a church in Athens. About 60 to 70 Hispanics attend meetings at the Huntsville church on Winchester Road, Williams said.
Williams’ ministry hasn’t changed since he learned Spanish.
“Our main work is we study the Bible with people,” he said. “We go to their house and set up a time when we can sit down for an hour and help them to learn the Bible.”
While many Hispanics who move to this area are Catholic, Williams said he’s found them to be “open-minded and willing to learn more about the Bible.”
He said Witnesses respect other denominations. “Our first goal is to teach rather than increase our membership.”
Williams has used his ability to speak Spanish during trips to Mexico and Spain. “Jehovah’s Witnesses believe really in one worldwide organization that shouldn’t be divided by languages or governments,” he said.
The Huntsville convention is one of about 200 that will take place across the country over the next several months. This is the eighth year Huntsville has hosted the Jehovah’s Witnesses delegates, who represent 50 congregations in Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee and southern Kentucky.