TAMPA - After a more than 30 year absence, Jehovah's Witnesses are back in town for their annual 3-day District Convention.
For many years the conventions were held at an arena at Bayfront Center in St. Petersburg. The facility was torn down more than 10 years ago, and in recent years the district convention had moved to Kissimmee.
About 6,000 worshippers on Saturday filled the University of South Florida's SunDome for Bible study, fellowship and spiritual nourishment. And 25 people from ages 12 to 91 were baptized.
This year's theme was "God's Word Is Truth."
"There is so much untruth in the world who can people trust?" said spokesman Toby Coriell.
The Bible offers a practical viewpoint for dealing with daily issues such as unemployment, family breakups and the struggles of single-parent households, said Coriell. "Families embrace this and people who want to enjoy their lives," he said. "In all of it, the Bible has information."
Jehovah's Witnesses are known for their door-to-door evangelism though Coriell says they are not seeking converts but trying to spread the truth found in the Bible. "That's why we feel it is important to put it into neighborhoods," he said.
And thousands of brochures were distributed in area neighborhoods to get the word out about the convention, Coriell said.
The Tampa convention's district area covers parts of Central Florida from Crystal River to the north and Sarasota to the south. The event began Friday and will conclude today with a program at the SunDome, 4202 Fowler Ave., that starts at 9:20 a.m. and ends about 3:30 p.m. It is free of charge and open to the public.
A second convention will be held next weekend Friday-Sunday, also at the SunDome.
District conventions are being held nationally through September, and worldwide through December. Church representatives put the number of Jehovah's Witnesses at nearly 8 million worldwide in nearly 240 countries.
Locally Tampa's district convention draws church members from about 40 congregations. Tourist officials say the series of district meetings translate into about 15,000 hotel room nights and pump about $11 million into Tampa's economy.
The church emerged from the Bible Student movement founded by Charles Taze Russell in the 19th century. The name Jehovah's Witness was adopted from Biblical scripture, Isaiah 43:10-12 which states "Ye are my witnesses." Church headquarters and its governing board are in Brooklyn.
For Sarasota residents Tara and Loran Smith this year's convention has been special. "It means so much this year because we have a little one," said Loran Smith as he cradled the couple's 2-month-old son, Luke. "It's a good opportunity to see friends we don't see normally. It's a good atmosphere."
Tara Smith was baptized at age 10; her husband at age 15.
Their son will make his decision when he is ready, the couple said.
Scriptures that speak of "our children" have taken on new importance, they said.
And Tara Smith said the convention can be quite emotional with 6,000 voices singing a song together. "This is one thing I always look forward to is the unity of song," she said.