By my building, there’s an underpass I take to get to the store. Unlike the subway down the road, it doesn’t have any kiosks selling pastry baked in a convection oven. And unlike the underpass a few stops away, it hasn’t been ceded to artists for a makeover of LED lights and soundscapes. The only thing lighting up my underpass is pretty tame graffiti. It’s not the prettiest place in my neighborhood, and no one in their right mind would choose to hang out there. Kids pass it as quickly as adults. Even the local drunks don’t linger there. Yet, it is there that I was expected to find God.
They would wait out the cold spells of February there. The pair of them – a man and a woman – standing by a cart with leaflets in both Latin and Cyrillic. Some booklets covered mental health, others – addiction and loneliness. “When will the suffering end?” “What is the key to a happy family life?” and so on. In marketing terms, they were selling the sizzle, not the steak. It wasn’t about finding God because you were actively searching for him. It was about solving your problems through God. Even if you learned about salvation in a dirty underpass.
They looked like carbon copies of other proselytizing Jehovah’s Witnesses I’d seen on busy junctions across Europe. There’s no flash or bling to these regular folk in beige overcoats standing by brochures about their faith for hours on end. They’re silent and mysterious, like the Hattifatteners in Tove Jannson’s Moomin series: “…the little white creatures who are forever wandering restlessly from place to place, in their aimless quest for nobody knows what.” As such, they manage to stand out while blending in perfectly with their bleak surroundings – the wet concrete tiles, the torn posters, the broken windows.
Hattifatteners don’t really make eye contact or chat passers-by up – that’s the prerogative of the always-smiling LDS fellas wearing a universally recognisable uniform and name tag. I remember one of them chatting with me on a long train ride, showing me pictures of his family in the States, jokingly telling me “look, they’re normal”. Witnesses don’t do that. They just stand there, as if waiting for a miracle. Evangelising is seen as a moral obligation, but it's done in a way my brain – at least the part that thinks in ROI and KPIs – can’t comprehend. Is it effective? Is it worth it? Do people really convert in the middle of a crowded street or by the stairs of an underpass?
I might be in the wrong, but the Hattifatteners don’t look like happy people. Compare them to the colourful Hare Krishna procession I pass every Friday on my way home. Worshiping in public, they at least give you a glimpse into what they’re about. And there’s hardly a thing you can observe about JWs in the wild other than their absolute lack of drip.
I don’t know enough about either of the groups, but my personal heuristic puts JWs and not Hare Krishnas in the “it’s a cult” category. The heuristic I apply is such – if you can LARP as an adherent, it’s a religion (or a religious movement). If you can’t, it’s a cult.
While true believers would probably give you weird looks if you were to suddenly become an introspective Sufi, a pious Orthodox Christian or a Sunday Wiccan, they can’t really stop you. You can do rituals at home, pray, go to places of worship, read religious texts and even formally convert on your own. It helps to have a community or a mentor, but you don’t need one to practice a religion. In the 2001 comedy God is Great and I’m Not, Audrey Tautou’s character goes through several phases, immersing herself in Catholicism, Buddhism and Judaism. You can follow in her steps, but to practice a cult, you need to be in a cult.
Spring came to my hometown, and the Hattifatteners moved to some other place. I promise myself to at least take a leaflet the next time I see them. If that counts as a conversion to them, so be it.