Travel, Tokens and “the Truth”

Spending childhood summers at Jehovah’s Witness conventions.

Photo credit: David Senior, CC BY 2.0.

It’s mid-afternoon on a hot July day in 1990. I’m sitting in a rickety chair in a cavernous convention center, half slumped across my mother’s lap, the backs of my legs sticky against the plastic seat. There is no air conditioning — we’re in rural Ireland — and women fan themselves with leaflets and magazines, the literature of our religion providing a small amount of physical relief that can’t be matched by the spiritual offering being given to us by the man, the brother, holding forth on the platform.

The new dress I’m wearing, the most beautiful dress I’ve ever owned, feels tight and itchy, but there was no possibility of me wearing anything else. It was a gift from a lady in our congregation, a particularly spiritual sister who has taken my newly converted family under her wing and, presumably knowing that we don’t have a lot of money, purchased the dress for me to wear so that I won’t feel out of place at the convention. I am six years old, I’ve just been told that we’re Jehovah’s Witnesses now, and I’m beginning to realize that we might be poor.

The annual convention, a regional assembly running over several days in the summer, is one of the highlights of the Jehovah’s Witness calendar. When I was a child our nearest convention was a two-hour drive from our home in Northern Ireland to County Meath in the Republic of Ireland. The very first year we attended my dad was still an unemployed recovering alcoholic, so we hitched a ride with my aunt and uncle (also recent converts to “the Truth,” as members refer to it) who were planning to take their tiny caravan along and stay in a campsite near the convention center.

It was decided — by whom, I will never know — that my parents and I would also stay in the caravan. But I got carsick on the way there, and then we couldn’t find the place, and by the time we finally arrived all the good spots near the entrance and the bathrooms were taken. We ended up on the muddy end of a large field, where we spent four extremely cramped, but very frugal, nights in the service of Jehovah.

The next year, my mother put her foot down and insisted on a hotel. What she got was marginally better than a campsite, but a hotel it was not. With my dad having left it to the very last minute to book, we ended up staying in what can generously be described as an inn, located in the nearest town to the convention center. My abiding memory of the shabby attic room we shared is that everything in it was pink. Sickly, cough medicine pink. The walls were pink. The carpet was pink. The curtains were pink. The bathroom was pink. The mattresses had no bases and sat directly on the floor covered in — you guessed it — pink bedding. We didn’t complain, but we did leave a copy of the New World Translation of the Holy Scriptures on the bedside table.

By our third convention, my dad was beginning to climb the ranks in our congregation. He was also employed and, while we were still very much working-class, there were now certain luxuries that hadn’t been there before. This time we got to stay in a proper hotel in the countryside; it wasn’t spectacular, but it was surrounded by fields and there was a stream that I almost fell into while playing with some of the other Jehovah’s Witness children staying there. We had breakfast at the hotel and went out for dinner in the evening, making sure to wear our convention ID badges so that we could wave or say hello to other attendees we bumped into around the town. There were still the long hot days of talks to get through, but for the rest of the time we were on something like a holiday.

There were parts of the convention that I enjoyed. My favorite part of all was hoarding food and drink tokens — that is, convention currency. In the ‘90s, attendees would purchase strips of tokens to buy food and drinks that were made by volunteers on site. There were ten tokens to a strip, which was worth £1. An ice cream could be purchased for anywhere between two and ten tokens, depending on how fancy it was. Lunch food — sandwiches, buns, fruit — cost more.

I guess the tokens were a way of taking actual money out of the equation at the convention, since the money for the tokens would be given to an elder in the attendees’ local congregations. But of course some families could afford to buy more tokens than others, and some would bring packed lunches to save money. Tokens were frequently given to children as gifts, and young people who displayed “spiritual” behavior were also rewarded with tokens.

For me, this was the very best part of the convention. I hoarded my little half-strips of tokens — useless outside the convention center—as if they were worth a fortune. The tokens made sense to me in a way that money did not. Money was messy and mercurial; there was never enough of it and it always had to go somewhere. With the tokens, I knew exactly what I had, and I could tuck them safely inside my song book and trust that they wouldn’t go anywhere until I was ready to “spend” them.

One year my dad and I gave a Bible reading during one of the talks. It was a highly coveted spot, and we spent weeks rehearsing. As I sat on the stage in front of two thousand Jehovah’s Witnesses and recited my lines, I noted the nods of approval from the front row and, basking in the glow of my spiritual superiority, knew that a great many tokens would soon be coming my way.

The final two years that we attended the convention, we stayed at a guesthouse near the center that was run by a former nun. I had at this point very little awareness of any religion other than my own, but in this heavily Roman Catholic country, I had no idea that there could even be such a thing as a former nun. It hasn’t occurred to me yet that religion was something you could opt out of, that you could just live your life entirely without it. It was something of a revelation.

Those last two years were unusual because, instead of coming straight home after the convention finished, we extended our trip to stay with families my parents had made friends with in previous years. Both of the families we stayed with were single mothers with children around my age — fairly unusual for Jehovah’s Witnesses, but they were also converts rather than born-ins, so I suppose it was easier for my parents to identify with them than the multi-generational families.

It was during these trips that I realized we weren’t poor anymore. We weren’t rich either, but something had shifted. My parents were unusually relaxed about money. My mother would go shopping in the nearby town, buying things for herself as well as me. My dad, a consummate haggler who never wasted a penny, gave me and the other children money to spend on sweets and rides at an amusement park we went to one day. On a few occasions, I tested the water by asking for frivolous things that would normally be refused, or for more of something than would usually be allowed, and was surprised when I was told yes. One day I saw my dad slip an envelope of money to one of our hosts; she tried to refuse, protesting that it was too much, but eventually accepted with gratitude. I felt a strange surge of power then, because I knew that only families that were “strong in the Truth” could afford to be benevolent. My family had money to give away; finally, we belonged.

I left the Jehovah’s Witnesses when I was thirteen — a whole other story — and I’ve never regretted that decision. Like most extremely conservative religions, being a female Jehovah’s Witness would have severely limited my choices in life. Being free of the religion, I was able to go to university and get a degree, be openly feminist and politically active, and have a professional career in which I earn my own money and decide what to do with it for myself. I don’t miss the life I might have had as a Jehovah’s Witness woman. But damn, I do miss those tokens.

Joanne E. Dunlop is an analyst and consultant based in Belfast, Northern Ireland. She tweets sporadically at @joannedunlop.

This story is part of The Billfold’s Vacation Series.

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