People - some in suits, others in shorts or jeans - bustled around the floor of the cavernous building, completing last-minute preparations for the annual Jehovah's Witnesses district convention that gets under way Friday morning.
A voice echoed over the loudspeaker during a sound-system check. Volunteers put together a temporary platform, a piece at a time, at one end of the floor.
A few wet spots on the cement floor were evidence of the painstaking work by a couple hundred people who spent most of Wednesday and part of Thursday scrubbing floors and the stadium-style seats. The cleaning is an annual ritual done in preparation for the gathering that is expected to draw 5,000 Witnesses from Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota.
All told, Jehovah's Witnesses will hold 201 district conventions in 70 cities in the United States between now and September. Attendance is expected to total more than 1.4 million people.
The number of Jehovah's Witnesses throughout the world is about 5.8 million in 233 countries, according to Ernie Clark, a local spokesman for the denomination.
"Around 1960, there were 1 million members," Clark said, standing inside the arena. "So there's been a significant increase."
That holds true for Yellowstone County, as well, Clark said. In 1960, one congregation existed in the area. Now seven congregations meet in three kingdom halls in Billings and Laurel.
"In Billings we're building a new kingdom hall on Wicks Lane that will be completed in August," Clark said. "Three congregations will meet there."
Two others meet at the kingdom hall in Billings' West End, and two more meet at the kingdom hall in Laurel.
"After we get to four congregations, we usually look at building a new kingdom hall," Clark said.
Unlike traditional Protestant denominations, Jehovah's Witnesses don't have paid clergy, which Clark thinks is one reason for the growth.
"We have 5.8 million ministers," he said. "Some are new and some are children, but all of us are taught to be ministers and share with others."
That's why going door-to-door to share their faith is key for all members, although Clark said that won't be part of the convention. Instead, the convention will include teaching times, a baptism and ordination ceremony that is scheduled for 11:30 a.m. Saturday, and a drama entitled "Appreciating Our Spiritual Heritage" on Sunday at 11:10 a.m.
The theme of this year's district convention is "God's Prophetic Word," which Clark said is not specifically linked to the coming new millennium.
"For Jehovah's Witnesses, the year 2000 is not a significant date," Clark said. "Many people are convinced we are living in the last days."
But the Bible does not give a specific date when God will return, Clark said. Books in the Old Testament, such as Daniel or Ezekiel , and the book of Revelation in the New Testament, do include prophecies that focus on the past and the future.
"That's why we emphasize daily reading and study," he said.
A keynote address at 11:30 a.m. Friday is titled "Pay Attention to God's Prophetic Word." A symposium at 2:10 p.m. will focus on "Take Delight in Reading God's Word."
Bible prophecies will also be addressed Sunday during talks that begin at 10 a.m. At 1:50 p.m., Robert Kirk, a circuit overseer of Jehovah's Witnesses from Wyoming, will present the main talk of the convention on the subject of "Making All Things New - As Foretold."
All of the convention sessions are free and open to the public, and no collections will be taken, Clark said.