About 7,650 Jehovah's Witnesses from Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and South Dakota met in Lincoln on Saturday for the second day of their three-day district convention. Saturday's agenda at the Bob Devaney Sports Center included the usual Bible studies, symposiums, talks and singing. It was distinguished by the baptism of 75 people.
Baptism is a big step.
Jehovah's Witnesses believe that the act of baptism ordains the believer as a minister of God. In being baptized, the believer pledges to live according to the teachings of the Bible and to minister to family, friends and the public by preaching under the direction of the local congregation.
The newly baptized thus become, as the convention's theme said, "Doers of God's Word."
Daniel Cukar of Norfolk reminded the candidates in a speech beforehand that baptism, like a wedding, is a first step.
"Baptism is only the beginning of dedicated sacred service, not the final goal," said Cukar, circuit supervisor for northeast Nebraska.
The baptisms took place in the Devaney Center's swimming pool. Family members and friends looked on from the bleachers.
Most of the candidates entered the water by twos. They were gently dunked by five male elders.
The baptism of Jon Bower of Columbus, however, was more complicated. Bower, 40, severed his spinal cord in a stock car accident 14 years ago. It took the elders several minutes to maneuver Bower's wheelchair into the water, float him free of it and submerge him.
Back in his wheelchair and up on the deck, the dripping Bower was a happy man.
"It's wonderful," he said of his baptism.
Arunies Williams Jr., 18, of Omaha also wore a big smile.
"This is the most important thing in my life," he said. "It's not easy, but it's right to do. It's the best way to live. It's the only option for me." The meeting of the Lincoln District, which began Friday and ends today, is the second-largest religious gathering in the state this year.
Only the Catholic Diocese of Lincoln's June 11 confirmation of 1,185 youngsters at Pershing Auditorium was larger.
The Lincoln District meeting is one of 181 district conventions that will be held in 63 U.S. cities from May through September.
The denomination says it has 5.9million members in 234 countries. More than 1 million members are in the United States. Its 89,900 congregations work under the direction of a central governing body in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Unlike members of other denominations, Witnesses do not conduct business at their conventions.
Instead, they attend symposiums and Bible studies, worship together and renew friendships.
Conventions are family affairs. Lonzo Harbour, 12, of Omaha, was one of scores of children in attendance Saturday.
The convention also drew Andrei Zorine, 21, a college student from Siberia who is working at an Easter Seals camp in Des Moines this summer.
Zorine is an example of the denomination's worldwide reach.
Russia already has more than 100,000 Witnesses, he said. The ranks there continue to grow "because we talk to people," Zorine said.
As denominations go, Jehovah's Witnesses are relatively young at 128 years. Like another fast-growing group, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, it originated in the United States.
The Witnesses are widely known for their proselytizing and their refusal of blood transfusions, which is based on Bible verses that prohibit the consumption of blood.
They regard civil government as necessary but refuse to bear arms, salute the flag or celebrate holidays believed to have non-Christian origins.