“Do not be afraid, for I am with you,” she recited. “Do not be anxious, for I am your God. I will fortify you, yes, I will help you. I will hold onto you with my right hand of righteousness.”
It’s not uncommon for religious adherents to look to their faith as a source of comfort and courage, as Ms. Campbell of Toledo does in calling to mind her go-to verse. But, for Jehovah’s Witnesses like her, this can sometimes take on unique dimensions. Not all Christians, for example, find themselves being pressured to break with their beliefs in a hospital bed, as Ms. Campbell did about four years ago after a routine surgery.
A complication had arisen, resulting in internal bleeding, and doctors told Ms. Campbell she would have to go back in to surgery. With a blood count that had dipped dangerously low, they told her, she would also have to receive a blood transfusion — an upsetting proposal to a Witness who observes a faith-based prohibition against receiving blood.
WATCH: Russian crackdown on Jehovah’s Witnesses
Ms. Campbell recalled protesting the latter, citing the Scriptural verse that Jehovah’s Witness interpret as instruction to abstain from blood. Her doctors were aware of her documented objection in advance, but, still, she said, pushed her to act against her religious conviction.
“I only could look to Jehovah God to help me out in that situation,” she said.
Her experience — which ultimately ended on a positive note, after a liaison stepped in and arranged for her to receive bloodless care — stands as one of the many ways that Jehovah’s Witnesses show courage in practicing their faith. Examples are as simple as stepping out of a comfort zone to share a biblical message with a stranger and as serious as risking harassment or imprisonment for worshiping in a country hostile to the faith.
Witnesses are exploring this theme — “Be Courageous” — in three-day conventions being staged around the world this summer. Toledo is among the host cities, as it has been since 2005.
An estimated 5,000 Witnesses are expected in the SeaGate Convention Centre July 27 to 29, media coordinator Daniel Brown said. The next weekend sees the same program repeated in Spanish; an estimated 3,500 are expected.
The program begins at 9:20 a.m. all three days. It ends at 4:50 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 3:50 p.m. Sunday.
The convention is free and open to people of all faiths.
A program schedule is available online at www.jw.org/en/jehovahs-witnesses/conventions/.
The “courageous” theme resonates especially this year among a global community of believers who are monitoring a crackdown on Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia. The country’s highest court declared the pacifist faith “extremist” last year, banning all activities and authorizing the government to seize related properties.
Nineteen Jehovah’s Witnesses are in prison for their beliefs in Russia, according the global organization. It counts them among nearly 300 Witnesses in prisons around the world, including in countries like Singapore and South Korea, where compulsory military service runs against the pacifist beliefs of the faith, resulting in prison sentences for conscientious objectors.
The ongoing crackdown in Russia affects a sizable population: The global organization counts more than 171,000 Witnesses and 2,300 Kingdom Halls in the country.
In Toledo, Layla and Abed Semaan, a mother and son who immigrated separately to the United States from Lebanon, see parallels between the situation in Russia and the situation they experienced decades ago in Lebanon. Middle Eastern countries have long looked unfavorably on the faith, to varying degrees, as their family knows from experience.
Ms. Semaan recalled an incident in the late 1960s or early 1970s, when her children were young, in which she was traveling from a neighboring country back into Lebanon. At a checkpoint at the border, an officer noticed a Bible in her hand and demanded to see it.
The officer opened the book and noticed that she had underlined or commented on certain passages, Ms. Semaan said through her son, who translated for her. The officer asked her about it, accusing her of changing the words of the Bible to fit her own agenda, and then told her he was taking her to a superior officer.
“They got closer to the door to his superior officer, and he looked back at her and said, ‘Aren’t you afraid? I’m taking you to the higher officer,’ ” Mr. Semaan recalled. “And she told him, ‘There is really nothing for me to afraid of. I have not done anything wrong.’ ”
Her courage made an impression on the officer, who identified her as a Jehovah’s Witness because of it, Ms. Semaan said through her son. The officer quit his attempts to intimidate her, and, without taking her to the highers-up, returned the Bible and sent her back to her bus.
To be courageous isn’t to be fearless, said her son, who also learned in Lebanon what it’s like to be courageous in practicing his faith. To be courageous is to recognize something more important than the immediate danger in front of you.
“It’s endurance and sustained loyalty to the right principles,” he said. “And certainly the right principles are God’s principles that are outlined in God’s word in the Bible.
“To be steadfast in the face of seemingly overwhelming odds becomes easier, no matter what the obstacle or the difficulty is, because you have your faith, you have your hope, that carries you through because you know it’s … a bigger picture than you as a person,” he continued. “It is standing up for God’s principles.”
It’s a commitment to these principles that led Ms. Campbell to stay true to her convictions in the hospital and that led Ms. Semaan to stay calm in the face of intimidation. And, for Mr. Semaan, it’s what led him to continue practicing his faith in Lebanon in the early 1980s, when a civil war was contributing to circumstances that, in some cases, meant violence and intimidation for Witnesses.
He recalled attending a convention, much like the one being held in Toledo this week, where militiamen burst into the facility and began shooting toward the ceilings.
“I’m glad to say that when we come to conventions here in Toledo,” he said, “I don’t have to have fear in the back of my mind.”
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