Jehovah's Witnesses bring gospel to Detroit convention

Five days a week, Donald Guinn, 59, goes door-to-door in his Eastpointe, Michigan neighborhood to deliver the message of the Jehovah's Witnesses.

It's a requirement of his faith to preach the gospel and one that he and more than 40,000 members in 200 congregations in southeastern Michigan take seriously.

On Friday, Guinn will be one of about 45,000 Jehovah's Witnesses from around the world expected to flock to Ford Field for a three-day annual convention that kicks off a series of international conventions taking place in coming months. In July, there will be another Jehovah's Witnesses gathering in Detroit, also expected to draw 45,000.

The theme is Keep Seeking First God's Kingdom, a belief that eventually God's kingdom of peace will come to Earth. This year marks the 100th anniversary of when Jehovah's Witnesses believe Jesus started ruling over God's Kingdom in heaven. Members believe Armageddon is coming soon, to be followed by God's Kingdom being established on Earth. They see themselves as God's representatives and try to strictly follow doctrines in the Bible interpreted by a governing body based in Brooklyn.

The convention is "an opportunity to be educated, to learn about our God," said Guinn, a member of the group since he joined at age 12. "It's something that's very positive for the city. There's something special about Detroit."

With about 8 million active members worldwide, Jehovah's Witnesses are known for their strong faith and unique beliefs.

They have a high degree of religiosity, according to surveys by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. About 86% of Jehovah's Witnesses say religion is very important in their life, the highest rate of any religious group Pew surveyed. And 82% of them pray at least once a week, also the highest of any group.

At the same time, the group has the highest rate of people leaving, according to Pew. Only 37% of those raised in their faith identify with it as adults.

Guinn is aware that outsiders may perceive the group as being rigid, but he said that's a misconception. While they have rules, he said "it's not difficult to follow the rules," which are meant "to protect you, to keep you out of trouble."

"We like to dance, go to good concerts, sports, have a nice glass of wine," he added. "We love music, but certain music we don't like," like those with suggestive lyrics.

"We're normal people, but we try to live by Biblical principles," he said.

Some of the restrictions include no tobacco, sex outside marriage, gambling or homosexuality. Members can drink, but it must be done in moderation.

Because they have a universal message, they also are known for not pledging allegiance to the flags of the countries they live in and serving in the military.

Over the decades, they have often been persecuted by governments and mobs — in Russia, Germany and the United States — for their beliefs. When they refused to become Nazis, Hitler put them in concentration camps. And in the U.S., many were violently attacked in the 1940s by Americans saying they were unpatriotic for not pledging allegiance.

But their unique beliefs have actually helped preserve many of our freedoms, said Joel Engardio, a filmmaker in San Francisco who grew up in Saginaw, Michigan as a Jehovah's Witness.

Engardio filmed a documentary titled Knocking about the beliefs of the group. There have been nearly 50 cases before the U.S. Supreme Court involving Jehovah's Witnesses that involved the issue of constitutional rights, he said.

"We have to thank Jehovah's Witnesses for being on the forefront of protecting everyone's freedoms," said Engardio, who is no longer a part of the group.

Jehovah's Witnesses also differ from other Christian groups in that they generally don't celebrate Christmas and Easter, seeing them as pagan celebrations. They also believe Jesus died on a stake, not a cross, reject the Christian idea of the Trinity and hell, and refuse blood transfusions.

Guinn said: "Living by Biblical principles is the best way to live, because you're following the direction of the creator, not your own directions."