WWJD: What Would Jehovah Do? Inside the Jehovah’s Witness Watchtower Building

Overview of Bethel
  • c/o Brooklyn Public Library
  • Overview of Bethel

Last month, the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, otherwise known as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, signed a $345 million deal to sell six of their Brooklyn Heights building to the Kushner Company. Some of you may or may not know that the Witnesses relocated their world headquarters from Pittsburgh to Brooklyn in 1909. Less of you may or may not care that the Witnesses have been here this long. Some of you guys might be pleased that they’re making moves to pack up and completely move their operations upstate by 2017—no more Saturday morning visits while you’re hungover from that gin-beer-whiskey triplet—but, I don’t know, if we’re talking the history of Old Brooklyn, then we’ve got to acknowledge the Witnesses’ presence.

Now, whether they’ve positively contributed to anything you and I have come to love (and hate) about Brooklyn belongs in another post. But here’s the thing: we know about as much of the Witnesses as we do about the Hasidim, and part of the problem is that both communities are guarded, and the other part is that they don’t want to fully participate in non-faith society. I don’t think it’s totally fair to hate on something that I don’t know too much about, but I did wonder about this collection of buildings in Brooklyn Heights that has been here for over 100 years, and why they seemed to only want to talk to us with copies of Awake! and The Watchtower. I wondered why they were skipping town just as “New Brooklyn” was starting to settle in.

So I took a tour of the place. Bethel, they call it, that whole colony down on Columbia Street. And I mean colony in its purest definition: I got a bit lost finding the Watchtower, and when I peeked into one of auxiliary buildings (with one of the best tended gardens I’ve seen), an unusually kind voice asked me, albeit a bit warily, if I needed help. As we walked down towards 25 Columbia, he pointed out to me that the 30-story residential buildings were all connected by underground tunnel. And, once on the tour, which felt more like a Meet The Company than a Join Our Religion, I found out that Bethelites (that’s what they call the residents) are privy to in-house eyeglass repair, office supplies, and clothing tailors. Bethelites live and eat on the grounds for free, in exchange for at least a year’s labor working in their various committees and departments.

The guide’s info bits were visualized through big poster boards of information, sort of like a high school or corporate presentation. That’s when the Witnesses-in-Brooklyn started to make sense. Printing, administration, and worship activities were consolidated into one space in Brooklyn Heights in 1909, which doesn’t sound too far off from efficient corporate strategy. When I walked in, two men hovered over a screen, whispering as if they were trying to suss someone out on security tape. It felt very “hotel lobby.” And do I have to mention the Witness stereotype of the neutral colored suit, the part-and-combover haircut?

The Witnesses mixed American corporate strategy with religious belief, it seems. And this isn’t to say they’ve commodified religion, but they’re certainly organizing like they’re in the business of making products. But now they can’t pay the rent, or want more space, and the Kushner company is looking to make the cluster that were Bethelite homes into creative office spaces in the Brooklyn Tech Triangle. In one way, it seems that the Witnesses found Brooklyn a productive space to try a new kind of organization out, and the borough gave them that freedom to innovate. Call it whatever, but the old, weird Brooklyn is still steadily being replaced by the new, weird Brooklyn. Thank god it’s still weird.

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