An Unforgettable Event in France
“NO TO JEHOVAH CITY!” declared the posters displayed throughout the town. “All Together Against the Jehovah Project” exhorted one opposition group. Literally hundreds of articles in the press thrust the matter into the public eye. Petitions were signed, and a deluge of over half a million tracts mentioning the project flooded local mailboxes. What was this project that disturbed the slumber of the otherwise tranquil town of Louviers, northwest France? The proposed construction of a new branch office and residence of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Jehovah Makes It Grow
The activity of Jehovah’s Witnesses in France dates back to the end of the 19th century. The first depot for Bible literature was opened in 1905 in Beauvène, southern France, and as of 1919, a small office was operating in Paris. A branch office was officially opened in the city in 1930, and the following year the office staff took up residence in a Bethel home located in Enghien-les-Bains, north of Paris. After World War II, the Bethel family moved back to Paris, and in 1959 the branch was transferred to a five-story building in Boulogne-Billancourt, on the western outskirts of the capital.
Because of expansion of the Kingdom preaching work, in 1973 the printery and shipping facilities were transferred to Louviers, 65 miles [100 km] west of Paris, while the offices remained in Boulogne-Billancourt. However, the increase in the number of publishers in France rendered the facilities in Louviers inadequate, despite extensions in 1978 and 1985. So it was decided to expand and bring the whole Bethel family together in one location. This project was not to the liking of all, as mentioned at the outset. Despite such opposition, a site was found just one mile [a kilometer and a half] from the printery. Six years of hard work ensued, and finally, after 23 years of separation, the entire Bethel family was united in Louviers in August 1996.
It was thus with great joy that a happy throng of 1,187, including the 300 members of the France Bethel family, and 329 delegates from 42 other branches, gathered on Saturday, November 15, 1997, to listen to the dedication talk given by Brother Lloyd Barry, member of the Governing Body. However, in view of the fact that this dedication was taking place in the face of hostility and a prolonged, slanderous media campaign against Jehovah’s Witnesses throughout France, it was felt that all French Witnesses should be able to share in celebrating this victory. In consequence, on Sunday, November 16, a special meeting with the theme “Remain in the Love of Christ” was organized at the Villepinte Exhibition Center, just north of Paris. All of Jehovah’s Witnesses in France together with French-speaking Witnesses in Belgium and Switzerland were invited, as well as congregations in Britain, Germany, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands.
A Landmark Gathering
Preparations for the gathering began six months beforehand. Then, just two weeks before the dedication, French truck drivers went on strike, barricading major roads and fuel supplies. Would the chairs and other equipment get through in time? Would the roadblocks prevent the brothers from coming? To the relief of all, within a week the strike was over, and the roads were again open to traffic. On the Friday evening before the dedication weekend, 38 trucks delivered 84,000 chairs to the two spacious halls rented for the occasion. More than 800 brothers and sisters toiled through the night until half past nine Saturday morning to install the seats, platform, sound equipment, and nine giant video screens.
At 6:00 a.m. on Sunday morning, the doors were opened, and the crowds began to pour in. A total of 17 specially chartered trains brought more than 13,000 Witnesses to the capital. Over two hundred local brothers and sisters were on hand in the railway stations to greet the travelers and to accompany them in groups to the convention site. One sister said that this loving arrangement gave them “a feeling of security and well-being.”
Others came to Paris by plane or by car. The majority, however, came in 953 buses, while Witnesses from the Paris area used public transportation to travel to the Exhibition Center. Many had been traveling all night or had left their homes very early in the morning, but their excitement at attending this meeting was palpable. Cries of delight and warm embraces marked reunions of friends who had not seen one another for years. Colorful national costumes gave the cheerful crowd an international flavor. Undoubtedly, something extraordinary was afoot.
By the time the program started, at 10:00 a.m., there were no more seats left, yet hundreds of people were arriving every minute. Wherever one looked, a mass of smiling faces met the eye. Thousands either remained standing or sat on the concrete floor. In the spirit of the assembly theme, many young ones lovingly stood to enable the elderly to sit. “How happy we were to give up our seats to brothers and sisters that we did not know, but who are so dear to us!” wrote one couple. Many displayed a fine self-sacrificing attitude: “We stood all day next to the chairs that we had helped to set up throughout Friday night. But just being present caused us to be filled with gratitude to Jehovah.”
In spite of fatigue or discomfort, delegates listened with rapt attention to the reports from other countries and to talks by Lloyd Barry and Daniel Sydlik, who is also a member of the Governing Body. Brother Barry developed the subject “Jehovah Makes Full Might Abound,” and he graphically highlighted how Jehovah has blessed his people with increase in spite of various trials. Brother Sydlik’s talk was entitled “Happy Is the People Whose God Is Jehovah!” Both talks were particularly timely in view of the opposition that Jehovah’s Witnesses are presently encountering in France. Brother Sydlik showed that true happiness is not dependent on external factors but on our relationship with Jehovah and our attitude toward life. His question to the audience, “Are you happy?” was answered with thunderous applause.
One sister who had “lost her joy” wrote afterward: “Suddenly I realized that happiness was within my reach. I had been misdirecting my efforts, and through this talk, Jehovah showed me how I needed to change.” Another brother declared: “Now I want to fight to make Jehovah’s heart rejoice. I do not want to let anything remove the joy that I have begun to feel deep inside.”
As the meeting drew to a close, it was with great enthusiasm that the chairman announced the attendance: 95,888—the biggest gathering ever of Jehovah’s Witnesses in France!
After the closing song, which many sang with tears of joy in their eyes, and the final prayer, the brothers set off for the journey home with mixed emotions. The warm, friendly atmosphere of the gathering did not go unnoticed. Many positive comments on the attitude of the delegates were made by bus drivers. They were also impressed by the organization that enabled all 953 buses to leave the Exhibition Center within two hours without a single traffic jam! The conduct of the delegates was also much appreciated by railway and public transport employees. Many fine discussions ensued, and a good witness was given.
“An Oasis in the Desert”
The apostle Paul urged fellow Christians: “Let us consider one another to incite to love and fine works, . . . encouraging one another, and all the more so as you behold the day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:24, 25) Certainly, this special meeting was a source of great encouragement to all, “an oasis in the desert” as one sister described it. “We went away invigorated, encouraged, fortified, and more determined than ever to rejoice in Jehovah’s service,” wrote brothers from the Togo branch. “Those that were downcast went home happy,” said one circuit overseer. “The brothers were galvanized and strengthened,” declared another. “Never before have we felt so close to Jehovah’s organization,” one couple was moved to write.
“My own foot will certainly stand on a level place; among the congregated throngs I shall bless Jehovah,” declared the psalmist. (Psalm 26:12) Such Christian gatherings enable all to regain a sure spiritual footing in the face of obstacles. “Whatever the tribulations,” confirmed one sister, “these extraordinary moments are inscribed deep in our hearts and will always be there to comfort us.” In a similar vein, a traveling overseer wrote: “When difficult times arise, the memory of this foretaste of Paradise will help us to cope with them.”
“Ascribe to Jehovah, O you families of the peoples, ascribe to Jehovah glory and strength,” exhorts Psalm 96:7. Undoubtedly, the dedication of new branch facilities in France is a resounding victory for Jehovah. Only he could have brought about the realization of the project in the face of such determined and widespread opposition. Jehovah’s Witnesses in France are more determined than ever to ‘remain in the love of Christ’ and to ‘let their light shine.’ (John 15:9; Matthew 5:16) All who attended the dedication program unreservedly share the feeling of the psalmist: “This has come to be from Jehovah himself; it is wonderful in our eyes.”—Psalm 118:23.
[Picture on page 26]
[Picture on page 26]
[Picture on page 26]
95,888 attended the special program at the Villepinte Exhibition Center
[Pictures on page 28]
Thousands of those in attendance either stood or sat on the floor to listen