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Awash in the spirit
Thousands flock to Arena for Jehovah

DULUTH - One look at the parking lot and you'd have guessed Hannah Montana was back in town.

But in place of pop-star glitter and screaming tweens was a sea of Sunday-best duds and a whole lot of respectful reverie.

More than 8,000 Jehovah Witnesses - drawn from a radius that included most Southeastern states - gathered Saturday at the Arena at Gwinnet Center for prayer, brotherhood and tons of old-fashioned baptizing.

The three-day district convention, titled "Guided by God's Spirit," is part of a network of similar, annual gatherings in 76 cities across the United States.

By the time an early afternoon symposium got cooking, the convention - attended by an ethic amalgam of devotees - had nearly packed the house, giving further evidence of the Arena's appeal to a broad spectrum of performers and conventioneers.

"All people are dealing with problems, difficult times," said John Maimone, a convention spokesman. "We want (patrons) to leave as better citizens."

Maimone hasn't tabulated the convention's local economic impact, but he's sure most attendees slumber in Duluth-area hotels and sample Gwinnett eateries.

Saturday's marquee event was the public baptism, where 78 attendees (ages 9 to 78) were dunked in immersion pools beside a big stage. That's a little above average, Maimone said.

Stone Mountain's Joel Waterhouse, who helped perform the baptisms, said about 7 million active Jehovah's Witnesses exist worldwide. To be active, one must go door-to-door, spreading the word that Jehovah, the Almighty God, created the heavens and earth.

"It's the same through all of the world," said John Oxendine of Lilburn, who's attended conventions since 1979 but is not Georgia's Insurance Commissioner. "It works."

Noel Morris of Norcross was swept up in the love-thy-brother vibe. He volunteered Saturday as a trashman - a job "that's always picking up," he joked - while managing to keep clean his slacks and silk tie.

"People from different backgrounds and races are coming together here," said Morris. "It's a beautiful thing."