Building unity: Jehovah's Witnesses work crews develop fellowship, wow inspectors during five-day construction project

Saturday, December 1, 2007
Cheryl Cox, center, received a hot drink from Emily Laycook on Friday, day three of construction of the new Jehovah's Witnesses Kingdom Hall in Cape Girardeau. Volunteers have specific job duties, which allows for a constant work flow. (Kit Doyle)

In the beginning -- which is to say, early Wednesday morning -- there was a slab of concrete. And the builders set to work, the air infused with the scent of fresh-cut lumber.

From the hillside, the volunteer work force of nearly 200 people moved briskly, with intent, from one point to the next. No lollygagging.

The men and women building the 4,200-square-foot Jehovah's Witnesses Kingdom Hall at 1150 S. Silver Springs Road in Cape Girardeau must finish their work by Sunday night. They're working in shifts around the clock, with 200 more volunteers expected to pitch in for weekend duties.

Before noon Wednesday, a crane floated a gable truss from the ground to its home above the framed walls. Masons started applying brick veneer Thursday. On Friday, plumbers and electricians established a network of pipes and wires. By 8 p.m., painters were prepping the drywall.

Forty years ago, individual congregations built their own halls, according to Jerry Oliver, a licensed builder and Jehovah's Witnesses' eastern Missouri regional building committee chairman.

Lexie Milam, right, grabbed a brick for her father, Brock Milam, as they worked Thursday on a wall of the new Kingdom Hall in Cape Girardeau. The Milams are members of the congregation. (KIT DOYLE ~ kdoyle@semissourian.com)

But it often took nearly two years to complete a project.

"By the time it was done, they were torn down, spiritually," said Oliver, of Wentzville, Mo. The Jehovah's Witnesses reorganized the construction process, developing two basic styles of halls, each in three sizes, and recruiting specialists from within. Each state has at least one regional building committee, ready to swoop into town and work with local building committees.

Entrepreneur Earl Norman is Cape Gir?ardeau's building committee chairman. He provided room and board for more than a dozen visiting workers, with nearly 150 more builders either staying with other denomination members or at area hotels. Norman said licensed builders work in the same teams for each project. It makes the work seem routine, though they only construct four to six halls each year. The building committees are also deployed for emergency relief work around the country, helping in the aftermath of floods, tornadoes, fires and hurricanes.

Norman said new Kingdom Halls are built small, because congregations are limited to 125, at most. He said two or more congregations often use one building.

The Jackson Jehovah's Witnesses started as members of the south Cape Girardeau congregation more than 35 years ago, Norman said. One of the north Cape Girardeau hall's two congregations is devoted to Spanish speakers, he said.

The Silver Springs Road hall replaces a structure built 10 years ago that will be Scott City Hall.

Contractor James S. Miller is the food service overseer for each project in eastern Missouri, making sure food is purchased and served, either full meals or snacks, in an orderly manner. He ordered 190 pounds of pork butt, 130 pounds of brisket and 4,000 cookies. He operated from a large tent, buzzing with cooks and servers, attached to a camper.

Between the Kingdom Hall and Silver Springs Road stood a first aid station operated by Dr. Jim Campbell of Cape Girardeau, who said work teams rarely experience injuries and accidents, partly because most are licensed builders and partly because they've worked together so often.

Brock Milam of Benton, Mo., stood near the building, calculating how quickly he'd be able to add the exterior brick veneer. A lifelong Baptist married to a longtime Jehovah's Witness, Milam converted to his wife's denomination this year. He was baptized April 17.

The speed-build projects "make you more like family," he said. "There's more warmth and closeness."

Jehovah's Witnesses is an evangelical Christian denomination. Cheryl Cox of Cape Girardeau works full time as a door-to-door volunteer minister. She said various translations of the Bible are used, though she has a New World version. One of the most common questions she hears is about why members of her denomination don't celebrate Christmas or birthdays.

"We believe it takes away from worship that should go to God," she said, adding that Christmas is rooted in pagan solstice celebrations. The unpaid pastoral staff for each Jehovah's Witnesses Kingdom Hall consists of trained elders, such as Norman, who alternate leading the weekly services, and share the duties of ministering to the congregation.

This week, Cox carried a camera to record images of the building project. She stood on the hill between the Kingdom Hall's land and its neighbor, the Career and Technology Center, taking photos of the workers carrying wood, the crane lifting trusses and the row of trailers serving as department homes for accounting, materials, purchasing and food.

Well before any work started, a small team met with Tim Morgan, Cape Girardeau's director of inspection services.

"We laid out a plan as to how we could get the inspections in without having to have someone do it on the weekend," he said. By Friday evening, all the plumbing and electrical work had passed muster. More than that, Morgan said, the work was flawless. Final inspection is scheduled for Monday.

"It's just kind of beyond imagination, really," Morgan said, referring to seeing a project that typically takes 90 days or more condensed into a 120-hour marathon. He was impressed with seeing more than 150 contractors working simultaneously or in tandem, "without each falling over the other or having to redo this or that. It's a science, really, the way they do that."

pmcnichol@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 127

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