By KIM MULFORD
Nick Franza has been preaching door-to-door with his family nearly since he was born. On most Saturday mornings, the 18-year-old spends about two hours visiting people in his Medford neighborhood and the surrounding area, handing out Watchtower pamphlets and answering questions about Jehovah's Witnesses.
"The first door is always a little scary," said Franza, a Burlington County College sophomore. "You have to get warmed up. But usually people are very nice and courteous. Once in a while, you get somebody who's upset you are at their door."
Despite some rejections, Franza and his family are not deterred from what they see as their personal mission from Jehovah God: to spread the "Truth."
This weekend, area Jehovah's Witnesses are attending their annual district convention at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia. An identical three-day convention was held earlier this month. Between the two weekends, an estimated 44,000 people, including about 6,000 from South Jersey, were expected to attend.
The convention is held to educate and encourage Witnesses in their door-to-door ministry. New members are baptized and a Sunday morning Bible drama with actors in full costume is performed on the field.
Despite the heat and humidity, Witnesses look forward to the convention, said Nick's mother, Candy Franza.
"It's exciting. It's very educational and it's upbuilding," said Candy Franza, a stay-at-home mom. "It's very upbuilding when you're standing, singing a song, and there's 20,000 other people singing in this open stadium. It's just breathtaking."
Witnesses stand out from other Protestant denominations because they hold a number of theological and doctrinal views that are contrary to orthodox Christianity, said David Weddle, professor of religion at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Colo. Weddle wrote the entry about Jehovah's Witnesses for the Encyclopedia of Protestantism, a four-volume set to be published in the fall of 2003.
Witnesses, for example, believe the Bible does not support the historical Christian doctrine of the Trinity ( the belief that God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit make up the same deity).
According to the official Web site, they believe the human soul ceases to exist at death. Only 144,000 " anointed" Christians or chosen saints will go to heaven. True believers will one day populate a perfect Earth, after God destroys the wicked.
"That is really the promise which the Jehovah's Witnesses make to all the members of their organization," Weddle said.
Jehovah's Witnesses publish their teachings through the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, a nonprofit education organization.
The organization is directed by a governing body made up of 12 to 15 longtime Witnesses. The governing body, based in Brooklyn, N.Y., appoints presiding ministers for local congregations. Presiding ministers are chosen from among a congregation's elders.
Only the governing body has the spiritual authority to interpret the Bible, said Weddle, and faithful members are expected to follow its directives.
There are sanctions for not following the organization's teachings, the most severe of which is "disfellowshipping," Weddle said. A disfellowshipped member is not allowed to have any contact with Jehovah's Witnesses, including family members. However, family members who live in the same household may continue normal family relations.
According to the Watch Tower's official Web site for the media, www.jw-media.org, members who simply leave the faith are not shunned.
"If, however, someone unrepentantly practices serious sins, such as drunkenness, stealing or adultery, he will be disfellowshipped and such an individual is avoided by former fellow worshipers. Every effort is made to help wrongdoers. But if they are unrepentant, the congregation needs to be protected from their influence," the Web site states and scriptures are cited in support of the policy.
Disfellowshipped members may attend religious services, the Web site states, and may receive spiritual counseling. They are also welcome to return to the faith if they reject their improper course of conduct.
It is a discipline measure and most people change their wrongdoing before disfellowshipping is used, said Bill Turpen, presiding minister of the Medford congregation.
"Our primary concern is to help people live a good life and comply with the Bible's laws," said Turpen. "We spend a lot of time to help them improve their lives and we certainly don't want to be too hasty in removing them from the congregation. We want to do everything we can to help them."
Each Sunday, congregations throughout the world study an article from The Watchtower. Lessons touch every part of life. A recent article advised Witnesses that physical " cleanness" is important because it projects a positive image to outsiders, but that moral and spiritual " cleanness" is even more important to God.
For Nick Franza, the Watch Tower Society teaches a way of life that makes sense. Its message of clean living and prohibitions against such things as sex before marriage, smoking and gambling translate into a happy life, the teen said. Faithful members don't have to worry about such things as sexually transmitted diseases and illegitimate pregnancies, for instance.
"We don't have to deal with a lot of the problems other people have to deal with," Franza said. "It seems like a happy way to live and learn about our Creator. It just seems so right."
Franza's parents, David Sr. and Candy, have been Witnesses since their early teens. The couple decided early in their marriage to center their family around spiritual matters, a decision they believe has benefitted their three children.
"I really see the value of that decision to really center our life on spiritual things and really consider God's guidance and His feelings and principles in all the decisions we make as a family," said David Franza, 43. " Having worship at the center of your family really helps."
In addition to their door-to-door ministry, faithful Witnesses attend five meetings a week: a public talk and a Watchtower study on Sunday, a small-group study at a member' s home, a service meeting to teach effective ministry methods, and a theocratic ministry school meeting to improve public speaking.
Children attend the meetings together with their parents.
"They're given the same information and same spiritual nourishment that the adults are," said David Franza. "I think kids are very intelligent and aware of what's happening at a very young age."
Their faith has translated into a personal relationship with God, based on love and respect, said Franza. It's a relationship they want to share with as many people as possible.
That isn't always easy. Witnesses disagree with many Christian denominations which teach that God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit are the same. The fact Witnesses believe Jesus and God are not the same has caused some misunderstandings.
"People are aware that we don't worship Jesus as God, but they take that to the next level and assume that we don't believe in Jesus," Franza said. "That's not true at all."
Witnesses believe Jesus led a perfect life as an example for them to follow. They also believe he died on a stake ( not a cross) as a ransom for obedient humans. They point to scriptures to support their belief that Jesus is God's son, not God in human form on Earth.
"That's what our whole faith is based on," said Franza, " the fact that God loved us enough to send his only begotten son to Earth to undergo what he did for mankind."
There are some other misperceptions, said Turpen, a 55-year- old manager for a computer services company.
"Some people feel that Jehovah's Witnesses have this warped view of people who are not Jehovah's Witnesses," said Turpen, who has been a Witness since his early teens. " That's not true. We love all people. It's why we go out in the field and spend our own money and time to help people. I don't mean just on studying the Bible but on other things, like disaster relief. It's because we love people that we want to help people see what God's word really says."
Witnesses also believe the Bible prohibits blood transfusions, Turpen said. They accept all forms of medical treatment except that one. They point to scriptures which prohibit the eating of blood and believe that also includes taking blood into their veins.
Witnesses do not observe holidays such as Christmas and Easter. They teach such observances have pagan origins. They also do not observe national holidays, such as Independence Day, because the holidays promote nationalism. They do celebrate weddings, anniversaries and annually observe a Memorial of Christ's Death, which is celebrated on the eve of Passover.
Their worship centers, called Kingdom Halls, do not contain religious symbols, which they believe is akin to worshiping idols.
They also do not vote, serve in the military, sing the national anthem or salute flags.
Witnesses are among the most active religious groups to protect their rights in the courts, Weddle said. They have won the right to abstain from saluting the flag and continue their door-to-door ministry unrestricted. They are continuing to fight for the legal right to refuse blood transfusions for their children.
"We are servants of God and we work whole soul for His kingdom," Turpen said. "Jesus said, `My kingdom is not part of this world.' To us, very simply, we're not for or against any government on Earth."
Harry Cassel Jr. of Pennsauken searched religions for 10 years before finding Jehovah's Witnesses offered the connection to God he was looking for.
He and his wife began to study with Jehovah's Witnesses who had come to their door. Today, Cassel, a longshoreman, is presiding minister of the South Camden congregation.
His faith has changed his life, said Wanda, Cassel's wife of 33 years. He was once a hothead with a short fuse, she said. His faith has tempered him. "It's made him a better person, a super husband," she said. "I'm not saying it just because he's my husband, but because of the type of person he is."
Being Jehovah's Witnesses and living a clean and moral life means congregants stand out from others. When they go door to door, the Franzas usually keep the message brief and hand over a copy of The Watchtower. Once in a while, people want to know more.
"People think we're a little bit wacky," Candy Franza said. "They don't understand who we are. There are people who actually listen. But for the most part, people are just very kind to us. I just wish everyone would listen."
Reach Kim Mulford at (856) 845-6521 or firstname.lastname@example.org