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story.lead_photo.caption The Fort Smith Convention Center is the site of three annual Jehovah’s Witnesses regional conventions that provide Scripture-based lessons, including one that concludes Sunday.

About 3,600 Jehovah's Witnesses from Arkansas and Oklahoma are gathered today in Fort Smith to hear the Gospel and take part in the faith's annual three-day event held at the city's convention center.

This year's program, "Love Never Fails," is being delivered this year on six continents, in more than 200 countries and in more than 400 languages for the church's more than 8.5 million members worldwide, fewer than 1% of whom live in the United States. The program is the same throughout the world, and is shared through the conventions each year from May to January at free conventions during which no collection is taken.

"There's a lot of love lacking in the world," said spokesman Damian Goree of Paris. "So our main focus at the convention and the weeks [leading] up to it is to see how we -- as individuals, as families -- can show love to a greater degree, because we are confident that love will never fail."

Attendance is projected to be around 9,000 across the three-day gathering that ends Sunday. Two subsequent three-day gatherings held in Spanish -- from Friday to June 30 and from July 5-7 -- will host crowds of some 2,600 each day at the convention center.

Jehovah's Witnesses believe in Jesus Christ as the son of God, and that Jesus gave his life as a "ransom sacrifice" for the salvation of mankind. Jesus is also believed to be ruling God's kingdom in heaven, and that he will soon bring peace to earth. When that happens, 144,000 people -- a number based on an interpretation from the Book of Revelation in the New Testament -- will be chosen to lead earth as a paradise free from illness, poverty and evil. Those who adhere to the faith's teachings during their time on earth will have a chance at everlasting life.

In preparation for the gathering, Jeff Bennett of Siloam Springs has coordinated volunteer efforts to clean the facility -- over and above the cleaning completed by staff at the convention center -- while others will handle audio and visual equipment, parking and other needs for the event.

"That's our place of worship for those three days," Bennett said of the venue, noting that cleaning continues during the convention, and that children younger than 16 work under parent or guardian supervision with tasks that are age appropriate. The first time he took part in a Jehovah's Witness convention as a young man in 1974, Bennett volunteered to find mustard packets ahead of the arrival of 80,000 people to a venue in Cleveland for the three-day event.

"Someone had stuck [the packets] on one of the [stadium] levels, and there were boxes and boxes of mustard packets," Bennett said with a chuckle. "I thought I was so important -- I found mustard packets."

Goree said area businesses also will prepare for the conventions, which he said bring a combined $7.8 million in revenue to hotels and $600,000 in business to restaurants each year.

During a symposium scheduled for today, Bennett will speak about showing "unfailing love" to full-time minsters, known as Bethelites, that will also address displaying love in different ways within congregations.

"It's real common in the world to say 'I love you,'" Bennett said. "But what does that mean? ... We should not just love in word, but actually in deed."

"It's like a spiritual festival for us," Goree said of the convention. "It's a time where we can take a pause from everyday life and the hustle and bustle of working and other things to actually go into a facility where [we're being] instructed by God."

Sometimes, Bennett said, hotel employees who Witnesses invite to the gathering will attend, in addition to community members attending after speaking to a church member during the three weeks of door-to-door evangelizing that occurs before the convention.

"People really do [like the convention] because I think it's eye opening to have something so wholesome and refreshing," Bennett said. "This year, we really want people to feel loved when they leave -- loved by Jehovah God, loved by his son, Jesus Christ, and by other people. And that's a basic need we all have, no matter who we are."

Among the highlights for the convention are a public Bible discourse as well as a symposium about strengthening love despite a troubled childhood, difficult work environment, chronic illness and other factors, which Goree said would be "encouraging."

"That list there, that's got to cover you," Bennett said of the symposium. "You're somewhere in there, everybody is somewhere in there and they're dealing with [situations] that love will work in.

"We really want our programs to be practical for people -- not just an emotional experience, but practical -- that this is viable information, [and] if you apply it in your life you will definitely see benefits. We firmly believe that these messages are of value to everybody."

Religion on 06/22/2019

Print Headline: Jehovah's Witnesses in 'spiritual festival'

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