Originally published Feb. 17, 2008

The construction-site din faded as the hour for a Watchtower reading approached.

The generator's roar stopped short. Nail guns ceased their pneumatic popping. Hammers slipped into tool-belt loops, and nearly 100 volunteers in blue and yellow hardhats assembled in a circle several souls deep.

The clutch, bundled in flannel-lined jumpsuits or layers of down, listened as a man read from Ecclesiastes in the 9 a.m. hush.

Behind them lay the site of a fire that claimed the Jehovah's Witness house of worship in Windsor Township as congregants arrived for morning meeting last November.

Now, on the same spot, the shell of a new hall stood in the morning chill - so far, just pine walls wrapped in plastic and a steel carport frame.

Before long, it would rise again on the backs of 600 Witnesses who consider the labor a testament to their spiritual brotherhood and their love of God, referred to by the Hebrew name Jehovah.

Last weekend, the hall was nearly complete save wallpaper and a few minor fixes. The congregation's 155 members hope to start their thrice-weekly meetings in the new auditorium Tuesday.

On Jan. 26, Elder Ray Strong stood in the circle and spoke about how fear of God can give Witnesses "the strength to endure the trials and hardships that come our way."

The workers removed their hardhats for a prayer before returning to work.

Building on brotherhood

Over the last four weekends, Witnesses from 94 congregations across the midstate traveled to this sloping, six-acre property on Boxwood Road to rebuild the fire-wrecked Kingdom Hall.

They heard about the congregation's need and acted. Men and women, young and old, they took off from work and the door-to-door preaching that non-Witnesses know them for. Some traveled more than three hours, staying over with locals - all to donate their time to help the Red Lion area "Friends," as Witnesses call one another.

Each day, they came at dawn and departed after dusk. In between, they cooperated with such ease and rhythm one would presume they built Kingdom Halls every day rather than two or three times a year.

The concept of mutual aid - dropping everything to help brethren in distress - isn't unique to the Witnesses. But few other faith communities build their houses of worship this way.

Construction of a similar building on a concrete slab would probably take a commercial contractor roughly four months to complete and cost at least $300,000 for labor alone, said Chad Neal, a Witness and a general contractor from Jacobus who works on most halls built in central Pennsylvania.

The Witnesses often build a hall in three to five days, making possible a place of worship they couldn't otherwise afford. The volunteers' quick response is typical when a new Kingdom Hall needs raising, but the projects are usually planned years in advance and executed in spring or fall.

The Windsor Township fire surprised everyone.

With its insides still smoldering, the hall's demolition and reconstruction were planned mere hours after the fire trucks departed Nov. 25.

In a tiny garage that survived the blaze, the 14-man body of elders met that afternoon with two members of the Regional Building Committee, which coordinates construction and large-scale repair for 108 Witness congregations from Altoona to Allentown.

"They said to keep up our spirits," Elder Phil Bacon recalled.

They tried, but the loss devastated many congregants. While the Yorkana Kingdom Hall became their temporary meeting place, the displaced congregants couldn't escape homesickness, they said. They wanted to rebuild as soon as possible and knew they'd have plenty of help.

The congregation had self-insured its building for $302,000 (including contents) through the international Jehovah's Witness organization, said Elder Bob Dudish, accountant for the rebuild.

The day after the fire, they received the go-ahead to start planning and ordering materials, Dudish said.

The elders dug out what construction plans they could find from the original build just six years before. Materials began arriving in mid-January and the work began.

"They said they're going to keep it as much as they can like the original building, so it's not that much of a transition for us," congregant Rita Clutter said as she prepped lunch for the workers, who took turns eating in the tiny garage.

Usually, Kingdom Halls go up in "quick-build" style, in which laborers work 'round the clock for three to five days to accomplish a modest, stick-built structure generally comprised of an auditorium, library, classroom and restrooms. The halls come in only three or four modest designs for consistency's sake.

The speedy, volunteer projects - two or three new Kingdom Halls go up in central Pennsylvania each year - cut labor costs, help keep pace with rapid congregational growth and allow Witnesses to return to routine with minimal interruption.

The hall serves as a place of worship but also an education center. Witnesses meet there three times a week to discuss the Bible, improve their public reading and speaking and learn how to better teach others about Scripture.

"Our main work is to preach the good word from the Bible," said Elder Spike Taylor of Dallastown. "This quickly built arrangement allows us to get this done quickly and get back into that work."

Brick by brick

The Windsor Township rebuild wasn't technically a "quick build" because organizers spread the work over three weekends and a final four-day push last weekend.

A building committee liaison set the schedule of what needed to be done and when, arranging for teams trained in specific trades to arrive and work on days they're needed.

Heavy lifting began three weeks ago and focused on raising walls and roof while the weather was frigid but calm. Once the 48-by- 100-foot building was "under roof," inside rooms were heated to allow for warm-air labor such as tiling.

Those without skills learned on the job, but Craig Fahr, like many of the workers on site, is a professional who does the same work on Kingdom Halls as he does at his secular job.

At 15, Fahr joined a masonry crew bricking a Witness building in Grantville. Now 48, he owns his own business, Craig Fahr Masonry Inc., in Lititz. He builds Kingdom Halls on weekends several times a year, he said.

Those hall projects don't quite compare to typical commercial construction sites where the trades often refuse to share space nicely, Fahr and other laborers said.

The Kingdom Hall construction hummed along with tradesmen working side by side. They worked in finger-numbing cold without complaint or quarrel and, seemingly, without instruction.

When bricks needed to be moved, men and women promptly formed a "brick line" 20 people long between the pallet and the far exterior wall, passing the salmon-colored units two-by-two, person to person, down the row to the masons.

You want to meet the construction supervisor or a member of the Regional Building Committee? Good luck identifying him. To find out who's in charge, you have to ask. In this case, he's third from the right handing off bricks in the line.

"There's no egos here," said Mike Stauffer, an EMT from Conewago Township and volunteer safety monitor at building committee sites.

There are also no bad attitudes, added Brian Wilkinson, 36, a professional carpenter from Elizabethville, Dauphin County.

"It's so much different than secular work. It's more fun, and it's to praise Jehovah," he said. "Here, we all have the same goal. The same purpose."

Even the support staff - dozens of food servers, parking attendants and the security from the local congregation - rarely looked bored. Cleaning crews swept in after each completed task, disposed of trash and straightened up.

Lunch break lasted 20 minutes at most, and the worker bees swarmed again. No one stepped aside for a smoke, as Witnesses generally don't use tobacco.

Arnita Smith, a member of the township congregation, emerged from the garage after a meal and gasped.

"I was gone for, like, 20 minutes," she exclaimed, shaking her head in disbelief at the progress. Roofers had nearly finished covering the trusses with fir plywood and were beginning to lay tar paper.

Pausing in the parking lot, a volunteer peered up at the laborers.

"This is what it will be like after Armageddon," he said wistfully, "after all the wicked are gone."

Jehovah's Witnesses believe we're living in the last days - before an apocalyptic struggle that will usher in the rule of Christ.

God, according to Witnesses, will give life to the people of goodwill in the new world that comes after Armageddon. God will also resurrect the righteous dead to help populate the cleansed earth with better inhabitants.

Of course, those resurrected dead will need a place to live, and the Witnesses have plenty of skill to house them quickly.

"There will be tons of work to do," Taylor said.

Finishing touches

During the busiest period of work last weekend, laborers sweated despite the cold, rarely lacking a task to tackle. The food tent cranked out meal after meal - 1,762 over three days.

Finally, the building took shape: Mortar dried slowly among the bricks. Electricians worked nonstop, checking and double-checking wiring and circuits. (Last year's fire was attributed to an electrical problem.)

With drywall hung, workers installed the drop ceiling, complete with a fire-alarm system that was an upgrade from standard smoke detectors in the old hall. Heat detectors in the roof are another new fire-alert precaution.

On the last night of the build, volunteers stayed up through morning preparing for the final construction meeting at 10:30 a.m. Sunday.

The Friends set out nearly 200 chairs in the auditorium. The entire congregation was expected.

At 8 a.m., painters touched up trim around windows and the columns on the speaker's platform. The walls, not yet papered, displayed no religious symbols, as Witnesses teach that crosses and images of Jesus are idols.

A member of the Regional Building Committee did some touch-up grouting in a restroom. Members of the clean-up crew vacuumed and scrubbed the windows.

Fists stifled yawns as the Friends bustled about. Congregants began arriving after 10, craning their necks to take in the near-finished product. Several snapped photos of the new digs.

"Wow, it looks a lot different," marveled Darrel Duchaine.

"Isn't this beautiful?" Robin Terlingo said. "It's incredibly beautiful."

Minutes before the meeting began, Dudish, the accountant, collected receipts from last-minute supply errands. The project would come in under budget at about $220,000 to $225,000 thanks to donations and discounted materials, he said.

As 10:30 rolled around, the Witnesses took their seats. After prayer and a 30-minute Watchtower study, Elder Bacon took the lectern, spread his arms wide and got to the task at hand:

"Friends of Red Lion, would you not agree with me that it's good to be back home again?"


-- Around 1870, Charles Taze Russell, a former Congregationalist layman, formally founded a religious movement in Pittsburgh now known as Jehovah's Witnesses.

-- In the Red Lion area, Witnesses have been active since the early 1940s. The congregation began as a branch of the movement in York and originally met on West Broadway near the fire company.

-- A Kingdom Hall was built on West High Street in 1952, and the congregation kept growing.

-- In need of more room, the Red Lion Jehovah's Witnesses and 400 volunteers constructed a new Kingdom Hall over four days in March 2002 at 395 Boxwood Road in Windsor Township.

-- Fire destroyed the hall Nov. 25, 2007. The Pennsylvania State Police fire marshal attributed the blaze to the overheating of a ceiling canister light. Insulation was packed directly around the light without any room for air circulation.

-- Red Lion congregants met at the Yorkana Kingdom Hall in the interim. The Yorkana congregants postponed a scheduled remodel of their Kingdom Hall this month so that 600 volunteers could instead rebuild the Windsor Township hall.


The Jehovah's Witnesses believe in one God, referred to by the Hebrew name Jehovah. Adherents consider Jesus to be lord and savior but inferior to God.

Members, meeting in Kingdom Halls (not churches), witness and publish their beliefs in testimony and publications such as the official journal, "The Watchtower."

Witnesses are known worldwide for their expectations of an imminent apocalypse and active proselytizing, preaching only from the Bible.

While Witnesses consider themselves Christians, they are not recognized as such by the Catholic, Orthodox or Protestant traditions, primarily because they do not believe in the Trinity.

Witnesses do not salute the flag, bear arms or participate in politics. They also refuse blood transfusions.

Jehovah's Witnesses have no formal clergy titles and refer to most baptized members who evangelize as "publishers of the Kingdom."

All members are expected to give time each week proclaiming their faith door to door and teaching in private homes.

A worldwide membership near 7 million includes only those Witnesses actively involved in "public Bible educational work."

Sources: "Handbook of Denominations in the United States" and www.jw-media.org


-- Kingdom Hall is the name for local Jehovah's Witness houses of worship, used by congregations of fewer than 200 for thrice-weekly worship and education.

-- The name was suggested in 1935 by Joseph F. Rutherford, who was then president of the Witness organization Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania.

Rutherford had arranged for members in Honolulu, Hawaii, to construct a meeting hall and suggested the name "Kingdom Hall" because the Witnesses were preaching the good news of the kingdom.

-- Worldwide, members often build and renovate their own Kingdom Halls and keep them clean and maintained.

-- Kingdom Halls contain no religious symbols such as crosses or images because Witnesses consider them idols.

Sources: Watchtower Society's Office of Public Information and www.jw-media.org