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BEARING WITNESS; Inside the largest annual gathering of people who believe they are living in 'the last of days'.

Byline: ABBIE WIGHTWICK Reporter abbie.wightwick@walesonline.co.uk

GRADUATING with an MA and starting a nine-to-five job as a design engineer left James Repetti feeling happiness was only "skin deep".

The 26-year-old from Port Talbot wanted more meaning in his life and says he found it joining the Jehovah's Witnesses.

Yesterday he was baptised in front of thousands of fellow believers at Cardiff 's Motorpoint Arena.

James joined 10 others fully immersed, one by one, into a waistdeep pool of water in a public declaration of their faith at the biggest annual gathering of Jehovah's Witnesses in Wales.

Almost all 8,000 Jehovah's Witnesses in Wales attended the 2018 Regional Convention held over the last weekend of July and first weekend of August - with 4,000 at the arena across the three days of each weekend.

Followers describe the annual summer convention as the highlight in their calendar as they greet old friends and family, sing, pray and learn the bible together in a series of talks and videos beamed to the capacity crowd.

While many non-followers will have met and spoken to Jehovah's Witnesses as they hand out leaflets on streets or knock on doors to explain and encourage more to join the faith, some of their beliefs may come as a surprise.

Not only do Jehovah's Witnesses not celebrate Christmas and birthdays or have blood transfusions, they also don't vote in any elections and refused to take part in the Brexit referendum.

While others speak of a divided Britain they say they are united by the bible.

Looking around the arena, it is packed with smiling people in their best clothes greeting one another, high-fiving and hugging.

There is a mere handful of empty seats, while believers in wheelchairs line the sides of the aisles and others stand at the back balancing babies on their hips or swaying on their feet as they join the singing which opens proceedings.

Upstairs another 300 are attending the simultaneous Welshlanguage convention.

"You can learn something in any language but there is the language of the heart," says Angharad Riggs, who has travelled from her home in Bagillt, Flintshire, for the convention. When I read the bible in Welsh it touches me in a way it does not in English."

Brought up bilingual in a traditionally Welsh-speaking farming family, Angharad, 50, says she is delighted the Welsh language arm of the convention moved to Cardiff two years ago.

"Welsh touches me more, especially when we sing in Welsh it makes me cry" says Angharad, who chose to be baptised as a Jehovah's Witness aged 16 after her parents, dairy farmers, joined the faith when she was a child.

"Dad was a chapel-goer and mum went to the Church in Wales."

A wide smile crosses Angharad's face as she describes what joining thousands of fellow believers at the convention means. "It is the highlight of the year. I love being in an environment of happiness, kindness and contented people. My family come and my friends are here. You have your sphere from home here that extends to wider family and community and to Wales.

"I am part of something worldwide - that's a thrill."

Angharad's family is a reflection of the diversity in evidence across the arena, with people of all ages, backgrounds and races represented.

Her sister-in-law, now a Witness, comes from a Punjabi family in Birmingham, attends a Welsh medium congregation in North Wales and will also go to the Punjabi Jehovah's Witness convention in her home city later this month.

"Teaching bible in the mother tongue reaches the heart," points out preacher Sue Mumford, 61, who retired from her job as an administrator in the NHS in Cardiff a few years ago to concentrate on preaching and teaching at the 155-strong Cardiff and Canton Jehovah's Witness congregation.

Sue, the oldest of four girls brought up by a chapel-going Jehovah's Witness convert mother, did not join the faith until she became a mother herself aged 30 and felt it was the best way to protect her daughter.

"My mother was a Sunday school teacher in chapel in Ely but was very open-minded and looked for answers in the bible and it was only the Jehovah's Witnesses that referred her to the bible," says Sue.

"As I teenager I thought I knew best, but when I had my daughter Amelia as a single parent I realised after studying the bible that I needed godly wisdom to bring her up in a dangerous world."

Sue, like other Jehovah's Witnesses, believes we are living in "the last of days".

This is more hopeful than it sounds.

Rather than an Armageddon of death and fire, Witnesses say they believe the current, corrupt world will be replaced by a living heaven on earth, not a paradise obtainable only after death.

"We are definitely living in the last of days," Sue cautions. "We believe that the 'kingdom come' of the Lord's Prayer will come at some point.

"The last days is not an indefinite time but the bible indicates as it gets worse the prophecies will prove to be true - wars, famine, pestilence, earthquakes. (The prophet) Timothy talks about how there will be lovers of money and we will see these things getting worse and worse.

"We believe the end of days will be very soon, we don't know the date but you have to be alert for when it comes."

Philip Olsen believes his end would have come far sooner after a youth of drink and drugs, had a Jehovah's Witness not knocked on his mother's door when he was in his early twenties.

Growing up in what he describes as a rough part of Llanedeyrn in Cardiff, the 47-year-old carpenter says he was heading for disaster as he openly describes his drink and drug-taking in front of wife Emma and daughters Megan, nine and Lucy, seven.

Being frank and discussing things is part of the couple's lives as Witnesses. They believe this will help their daughters make the right decisions.

"In the past I used to take drugs and drink a lot. I honestly don't think I would be around if I had not become a Jehovah's Witness," admits Philip. "If I took something I would do it until I overdosed, and drank until I was paralytic. I lost friends. That was the environment I lived in and my personality. I would say being a Witness has given me a good purpose in life and made me more stable with my work. I remember telling my mates in the Retreat pub in Llanedeyrn that I was going to change and become a Witness and they could not believe it."

Philip was 23 when he became a Jehovah's Witness, a year after his mother joined.

"The bible gives good advice, that's what interested me. It does not mean you have a perfect life but it helps you make the right decisions."

He met mobile hairdresser Emma, 38, who was herself born into a Jehovah's Witness family, through the faith.

Like others at the convention their daughters Megan, nine, and Lucy, seven, are wearing their best dresses and say they are looking forward to a film about Jonah being put on as part of the event. The girls are the only Jehovah's Witnesses at Glyncoed Primary in Cardiff and as such say they often have to explain their beliefs and are happy to do so.

Being Jehovah's Witnesses means they do not celebrate birthdays, Hallowe'en or Christmas, all part of their school calendars. They don't take part in Christmas concerts or plays and choose not to eat birthday cakes brought into school, although that's not forbidden.

"At school I try to ask my friends about their religions and tell them about mine," says Megan.

The UK Jehovah's Witness website JW.org explains followers don't celebrate birthdays because they believe it would displease God.

As for Christmas, Witnesses believe it has roots in Pagan beliefs, not Christian, that Jesus commanded his death, not his birth, be commemorated, and it's not known that he was born on December 25.

So what do you do when all around you are buying presents and visiting people? Philip laughs with a shudder and says: "I remember what Christmas was like", while Emma says they make a special present day on their wedding anniversary.

As he waits to be baptised, James says the Brexit referendum in 2016 was the first time he felt he stood out as a student joining a new faith.

"A lot of people can be angry when you say you don't vote but I don't think man is able to solve the world's problems and that's why we put trust in God."

James' parents, former teachers who are not Jehovah's Witnesses themselves, were there to see their son being baptised into the faith he began studying as a student studying robotics at Bath University. He says he was looking for something more when he began studying the bible aged 23.

Emerging from the baptism pool dripping wet in shorts and a T-shirt, his beaming face suggests he has found it. "Being baptised is a public declaration of my faith and one of the most important things I can do," he says.

"After meeting Jehovah's Witnesses and seeing the happiness they have in their lives and the wonderful things knowledge of the bible has done for them it's something I really wanted to be part of."

CAPTION(S):

James Repetti was baptised at the convention

Emma and Philip Olsen with their children Megan, left, and Lucy. Inset above, yesterday's convention in Cardiff and, below, Sue Mumford RICHARD SWINGLER
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Publication:Wales On Sunday (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Aug 5, 2018
Words:1608
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