Jehovah’s Witnesses pack MetLife Stadium
Volunteer David Phelan baptizing a faithful participant during the huge convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses at MetLife Stadium.
When Pablo Roggiero emerged Saturday from a temporary baptismal pool at the 40-yard line of MetLife Stadium, he was so happy to see the stadium packed with other Jehovah’s Witnesses, he said he felt as if time had slowed down.
“I came up and saw my brothers and sisters, everybody was smiling,” said Roggiero, 17, of North Bergen. “You feel the love.”
When Julian Muscio, co-owner of Paisano’s restaurant in Rutherford a few miles away, saw some of the same faces at his restaurant throughout the week, he said he felt pretty good, too.
“They were from all over the country,” he said. “A lot of them were saying they never … hear that North Jersey Italian food is good stuff, so they were all very happy with it.”
An international convention of Jehovah’s Witnesses has filled the stadium and area hotels for the past two weekends, providing an influx of business to the Meadowlands during a typically slow time of year. It was the largest convention the organization has held in the region in recent memory, and among the first wave of what stadium and local business officials hope will now be a continuous flow of stadium-filling events at the venue, said Meadowlands Chamber of Commerce President Jim Kirkos.
Three years after the opening of the $1.6 billion stadium, the venue has started to fill its off-season calendar with a full spectrum of events, Kirkos said. While the headliner was clearly last February’s Super Bowl, area business owners have been just as happy to welcome attendees of lower-profile functions, whether it was the 2013 Wrestlemania 29, which brought more than 70,000 spectators and dozens of sweaty men in tights, or the Electric Daisy Carnival, an electronic music festival with thumping bass notes and tens of thousands of midriff-bearing fans.
During the two weeks of the Jehovah’s Witness convention, hotel bookings in the Meadowlands region have been up between 15 and 20 percent over the same period in 2013, Kirkos said.
“It doesn’t even matter what the event is,” Kirkos said. “Whenever we have the opportunity to entertain and bring in people who aren’t from the region, it brings great business opportunities.”
Compared to some of the stadium’s other recent visitors, the past weeks’ convention attendees were a decidedly more staid crowd. They wore tailored business suits, brightly colored dresses and straw sun hats. When they passed each other in the stadium passageways, they smiled and greeted each other as “brother” or “sister.” In the stands, they sat beneath umbrellas, quietly fanning themselves as prayers were broadcast over loudspeakers.
“This is probably about as peaceful as you’re ever going to see MetLife Stadium,” said Robert Hendriks, a Jehovah’s Witnesses Convention spokesman.
Attendees said the convention was a highlight of their year.
Roggiero was among almost 1,000 who were baptized in four aboveground plastic swimming pools during the festivities.
“It felt unreal,” he said. “It felt like a dream.”
Zenaida Molina, who is from Pitman in South Jersey, returned from a two-year stint as a missionary in Tanzania for the occasion, wearing the traditional head scarf and dress of the country where she has been working.
“You’re here with people from all different parts of the world, and they’re your friends,” she said.
Conventions in large venues play a large role in the denomination, which is perhaps best-known by non-adherents for its door-to-door distribution of literature.
Congregations are typically small, but they frequently meet in larger groups to remind members that they belong to an international community, Hendriks said. Those events are often broadcast simultaneously to venues across the world.
This year’s convention was broadcast to 10 stadiums around the country. In addition to the 50,000-plus crowds that filled MetLife Stadium at peak times during the two three-day weekend festivities, an additional 80,000 watched the event remotely, Herndriks said.
The last large Jehovah’s Witness convention in the tri-state area was in 1978, at Shea Stadium. On Aug. 3, 1958, the convention drew 123,707 people to Yankee Stadium, the largest crowd ever for an event at “The House That Ruth Built.”
Hendriks said organizers hope to maintain a more regular presence in the region. There are about 100,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses living in the greater New York metropolitan area, he said.