TAMPA — Known by many as those sharply dressed, well groomed souls who come knocking on doors offering copies of “Awake!” and “The Watchtower,” Jehovah's Witnesses are flooding Tampa for a series of regional conventions which began June 27.
The events, held in the University of South Florida's Sun Dome, each draw about 7,000 believers, nearly filling the 10,000-seat Sun Dome over several weekends this summer. All told, most of the 120,000 Jehovah's Witnesses in Florida have or will attend these conventions in Tampa.
Among them are Jesse and Sarah Lee of Zephyrhills and their two children, Balin, 4, and Jade, 7.
“We're learning about the kingdom,” Jesse Lee said. “This is a unity of love, of peace among each other.
“My parents were Witnesses,” said Jessee Lee, a manufacturers representative and consultant. “I was baptized when I was 11 years old in 1994.”
Sarah Lee said she also was raised in a Jehovah's Witness home and carries on the tradition with her two children.
They live close enough to drive to and from the convention this past weekend and weren't spending the night in town.
Same with 80-year-old Cora Wheeler, who was perched on the second level taking in the panoramic view of the stage, speaker, overhead scoreboard screens and two massive screens set up on each side of the stage.
“It's the truth,” she said when asked why she follows the religion. “You just can't disprove it.”
She was baptized in 1961 but began Bible instruction in 1948. She's been to every international convention since 1953, which was in Washington, D.C., up until a few years ago when she had to reign in her travel because of ill health.
Inside the Sun Dome, Jehovah's Witnesses had taken over, running every aspect of the event. They had their own information and check-in tables, a room set aside for administration, media and safety. A room for nursing mothers was available, as was a first-aid station, all staffed by volunteers.
One table distributed reading materials and another served as the lost and found, a small Teddy bear the lone lost item late Friday morning.
Men in jackets and ties emptied trash barrels, and flat-screen televisions in hallways and rooms showed what was going on inside the cavernous arena.
There were no fights or rowdiness, no loud music or imbibing. This is a low-key crowd.
“We have worked closely with our partners at Visit Tampa Bay and with the Jehovah's Witness organization to bring this convention to Tampa the past two summers,” said Sun Dome general manager Trent Merritt. “This year's conventions will span six weekends ... and bring approximately 100,000 people to the USF Sun Dome.
“The economic impact generated by the conventions is significant,” he said, “and it is certainly advantageous from an exposure standpoint to be able to bring this volume of people to experience the USF campus and Sun Dome.”
Each weekend, a different Jehovah's Witness congregation of about the same number will travel to USF for a series of talks and presentations about the beliefs of the group. The final weekend, Aug. 1 to 3, is for the Spanish-speaking believers.
The conventions come at a special time in Jehovah's Witness history. This year marks the centennial anniversary of the new kingdom, said Peter G. Bagwell, spokesman for the Jehovah's Witness congregation in Fort Myers, which came to Tampa during the Fourth of July weekend.
In 1914, according to Jehovah's Witness doctrine, the 2,520-year period known as the “Gentile Times” came to an end and the current kingdom on Earth began.
“It is the belief of Jehovah's Witnesses that the current kingdom started in 1914, because of Bible prophecy and historical evidence combined,” he said. “So this year is the 100-year anniversary. It's kind of a special thing.”
On Friday, the topics of discussion focused on what has happened over the past century to support that prophecy, “both good and bad,” Bagwell said.
Saturday's presentations were on “family values and how to find happiness in today's world using the Bible,” he said. “Sunday hits home and shows us how to put this into practice.”
The convention, entitled “Keep Seeking First God's Kingdom,” includes believers in congregations stretching from Fort Myers to Ocala. The public is welcome to attend and there is no charge for the presentations. The events are supported solely by donations, he said.
Other conventions are taking place around the nation, including one in Indianapolis, which provided video feeds to Tampa and 18 other locations, including Nassau in the Bahamas, Jamaica and San Francisco.
Earlier this month, an international convention was held in Atlanta, Bagwell said, and through video links reaching around the world, an estimated 169,000 people watched some or all of the presentations — nearly 200,000 people on the final day — including faithful from Korea, Japan and Russia.
“It felt like you were part of something,” Bagwell said.
This past weekend, believers came from all over Central Florida, said Jehovah's Witness spokesman John DeShazo of Oldsmar.
“We have a number of conventions at the Sun Dome this year. All together, seven conventions were scheduled for Tampa this year — two in Spanish, five in English.
“Last year, was the first time in many years we had it at the Sun Dome,” DeShazo said. “In the past we've had them at the Sun Dome. It's really nice now that they've upgraded it. Before it was more of a stadium where they had basketball. Last time we were there, before last year, was 30 years ago.
“We do like it.”