The encounter

October 5, 2005 | 14 comments
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Saturday afternoon on a rainy day in Antwerp. Ambling on the major shopping street, a broad pedestrian zone, are hundreds of jackets, raincoats, umbrellas. They seem hardly enticed by the flashy windows of the stores nestled on the ground floors of the massive buildings. Most just saunter with the crowd to experience a hazy sense of shared humanity.

A sudden downpour compels the strollers to find refuge under canopies and porches. A long line of packed people forms, their backs against walls and store windows, up to five rows deep at shop entrances. Silent, despondent, they stare at the curtains of clattering drops, bursting apart on the deserted paving bricks. No one moves. Unwilling to plow through the throng, people count on the brevity of the torrent.

On the front row two Mormons are part of the crowd — a man and his sixteen-year-old daughter.

The girl pokes her father and points to the left. No doubt: some fifteen yards away a couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses are taking advantage of the stagnant mass. A man and a teenage girl. Book bags. Clean and dull appearance. They face the front row, the rain soaking their hair and backs. The preacher addresses the sheltering shadows one by one. The rejections are instant. Harsh in their almost imperceptible rebuff, heads say no. He insists with one more phrase, then moves on to the next repudiation.

They are coming closer.

More people glance to the left. Some whisper to spouse or friend. Jehovah’s Witnesses! The crowd braces itself. A tacit complicity spreads: none will engage in conversation. Unity yields strength. Faces harden, eyes adjust to indifference, mouths adopt surliness. For people know. The Belgian Parliamentary investigation has placed those marginals on the official list of cults. Media, magazines, organizations to protect the family, all have been warning: they’re dangerous, abusive, mind controlling, coercive. They brainwash, indoctrinate, compel their followers to isolate themselves from society, and next spit out the disobedient.

They are coming closer.

The man is around forty-five. In his eyes slumbers, on a bed of bravery, the quiet acceptance of rebuttal. The girl, thin, pallid, beaky-faced, fourteen or fifteen, is his daughter, unquestionably. Each time her father accosts a new soul, she lifts her head towards the snubbing face. From her countenance leaps a yearning for interest and response. But the prospective convert is part of the petrified league, confident in its communal deaf-muteness.

The couple reaches our Latter-day Saints.
- Good day, sir, may I ask you a question?
- Please do!
The crowd wavers. Nostrils dilate. Respiration halts. Treason! Even the two Witnesses seem startled.

- Well… sir… if you look at world conditions today, wars, famine, disease, immorality, which do you think is worst?
He mops his forehead and pushes his soaked hair backwards. Water trickles from his ear lobes. He gets his answer, gently spoken:
- There sure are a lot of challenges in the world today. I presume you are Jehovah’s Witnesses? Bravo for your courage in this weather. But let me tell you at once: my daughter and I are Mormons.

Bystanders stiffen in added aversion.

- Ah? … Well, it’s nice to meet people who still believe.
Perhaps he has been primed to say the phrase, perhaps it’s genuine. The Mormon adds:
- We too are on the list of the cults. Number fifty-two.

Now the proselytizer gleams, but with a touch of melancholy:
- I don’t recall what number we are, but I know what you mean. We sure pay the price…

They look into each other’s eyes, in a mute, empathizing exchange of sorts. Hard to say what wets their lashes in this weather.

The two girls, facing each other, mirror the encounter of their dads, smiling in a blend of embarrassment and recognition. Though worlds apart, they know they share some core.

- I’d be happy to get a Watchtower, says the Latter-day Saint.
The man reaches in his bag. The magazine, made of cheap paper, soaks up the raindrops.
- Thank you, appreciate it.
Their right hands reach out together. A hearty handshake.

Suddenly, in a parallel thrust, the two girls hug.
- Hang in there, sissy.
- You too, you too.

The downpour is weakening, enough for the bravest to break into the street, away from the unsettling scene. The rest of the bystanders follow, dispersing, troubled, cross. Cults! For sure, when Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses begin to bond, the end of the world must be near.

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14 Responses to The encounter

  1. Ben S. on October 5, 2005 at 11:38 am

    I had a few experiences like this on my mission in Belgium/France. I recall one time we were “porting” and came upon a couple JW families having a BBQ together. We swapped some tracting stories, they wished us well, and we went on our way. Most pleasant “rejection” experience I ever had. They can relate to us because they’ve been there and done that.

  2. Stephen M (ethesis) on October 5, 2005 at 11:22 am

    Nicely done. I enjoy the poetry of your posts.

  3. john scherer on October 5, 2005 at 11:10 am

    Wonderful Post!

    Since I’ve joined the church, I’ve noticed that members (especially missionaries) tend to marginalize Jehovah’s Witnesses. Most do so while knowing very little about the religion. I’ve known several Jehovah’s Witnesses and found them to be very good people. A little understanding of another’s faith could go along way.

  4. B Bell on October 5, 2005 at 12:19 pm

    I appreciate this post.

    I recall a JW family that we tracted into in South Africa and they joined the LDS church in 4 weeks. It was an amazing Exp!

    In Europe I would imagine that we would have more in common with the JW then not since they still believe and have a “old time religion” I for one am not uncomfortable with the JW’s. Its hard to have the courage to contact others about religion. The JW’s have courage in this regard aplenty!!

    Does Belgium still have a list of official cults?

    Wilfried how close is Flemish to Afrikaans?

  5. J. R. Knight on October 5, 2005 at 1:19 pm

    I enjoyed your story. Thank you for sharing it.

  6. Tanya Spackman on October 5, 2005 at 2:16 pm

    The few JWs that I knew we tracted into (i.e., they told us who they were) were always pleasant exchanges because we had a common experience right there. None were ever interested, but it was always friendly and with smiles.

  7. Russell Arben Fox on October 5, 2005 at 11:12 am

    Once again, Wilfried, a triumph of a post. Bravo.

    We’ve had Jehovah Witnesses come by our home occasionally, or we’ve encountered them while walking or riding a bus. I always take their magazine, talk for a while, and try to show some interest. (Actually, I try to do that with all proselytizers, such as the Baptists who came to our door a few nights ago, bearing a pecan pie and an invitation that we come out to church with them.) It’s not always easy, and I don’t always live up to my better intentions (so much depends on the proselytizer; some don’t react well to friendly interest combined with polite rejection, seeming to prefer the martyred feeling of having another door slam in their face). But basically, I want to honor anyone who is out doing a good thing–preaching religion and moral values–and treat them as I wish all our missionaries were treated.

  8. Wilfried on October 5, 2005 at 3:52 pm

    As always, grand merci for the comments. I appreciate them more than I would dare to admit.

    B Bell, to answer your questions:
    - Does Belgium still have a list of official cults? Absolutely. It’s an infamous list, very slovenly made in 1997, including many respectable groups, and even associations, like the YMCA. The Belgium Parliament, which used to have a very tolerant and open attitude towards minority religions, has not only ridiculed itself with its “cult investigation”, but continues to show incompetence and incoherence in dealing with minority religions.

    - How close is Flemish to Afrikaans? Flemish is the same language as Dutch (as one would say that American English and British English are the same language — with some differences in pronunciation and choice of some words). Afrikaans is derived from Dutch and differs to a larger extent, but we do understand each other pretty well once we get used to some typical differences. There is an active cultural entente between Flemish, Dutch and Afrikaans.

  9. B Bell on October 5, 2005 at 3:58 pm

    Dankie,

    Ek verstand. Ek hoep uns sall moet.

  10. GeorgeD on October 5, 2005 at 4:02 pm

    I got a JW to take a Book of Mormon about a year ago. I told her she could come over anytime and give me Watchtower and any other publication as long as she brought the Book of Mormon with her when she came. I think she must have been a novice. She has never been back.

  11. The Mighty Richard on October 5, 2005 at 6:40 pm

    Wilfried – A wonderful story excellently told.

  12. Seth Rogers on October 5, 2005 at 10:15 pm

    Nice story.

    My aunt is a Jehovah’s Witness. She’d always have copies of the Watchtower sitting out when we came to visit.

    Very nice and friendly woman. I am continually amazed at the sheer amount of time and devotion she puts into her religious obligations (often puts me to shame).

    I always felt an affectionate regard for the JWs in Japan (you could always spot them by the sun umbrellas). Most (but not all) missionaries I served with felt similarly.

  13. annegb on October 6, 2005 at 3:26 am

    Wilfried, you rock.

  14. Sum1 on November 4, 2005 at 10:44 pm

    Beautifully written.