On April 1, 2009 a letter was sent from the Governing Body of Jehovah’s Witnesses to congregations in Spain informing them that the printing, shipping, and storage of Watchtower publications would be discontinued at the Madrid Branch office. The letter expressed confidence that the Spanish Witnesses would, despite the move, continue to generously support the world wide work and ends with an appeal to remain united under the direction of the Witness leadership.
At a glance, this story may seem like a non-issue, perhaps, just another example of reorganization and consolidation within a multinational corporation; however, the dissolution of the printing branch has caused considerable hard feelings among some of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Spain. To understand the reason we must first look at the history behind the branch office and external factors that some feel prompted this abrupt move.
Early in their history, Jehovah’s Witnesses began printing their trademark Watchtower magazines and associated books and tracts in-house at their ”Bethel” headquarters in Brooklyn, New York. As the religious organization grew and expanded overseas, “branch offices” and printing facilities were established in different locations across the globe to support the preaching work in those territories. Such was the case in Spain in 1980, where the need for a local printing facility was explained at Spanish district conventions of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
At the time, expansion at the headquarters in New York left the Watch Tower corporation without the finances to build offices and a printing facility in Spain and so the Spanish Witnesses were solicited to follow the example of the Israelites in bringing their gold, silver, and valuable items to Moses in order to build the Tabernacle. (Exodus 35:5-9) The 1983 Yearbook of Jehovah’s Witnesses, reports the generous way that the Spanish Witnesses responded to this appeal.:
At the close of the conventions, people were lining up to contribute their jewels, gold and silver rings and bracelets, so that these could be turned into cash to finance the new project. At the convention in San Sebastián in the Basque country, an elderly sister handed over a heavy gold bracelet. When asked if she was sure that she wanted to donate such a valuable item, she answered: “Brother, it is going to do far more good paying for a new Bethel than it will on my wrist!”
With the unsparing financial support of the Spanish Witnesses a new branch office and printing facility was later constructed in Madrid. Being financed within the country, this new Bethel was a source of pride for the Spanish Witnesses. Many would make special trips just to tour the facility. Now some are hurt to watch as the printing presses that they gave their precious heirlooms to buy are shipped to Germany and the Bethel that they sacrificed their savings to build is anticipated to be sold, with the proceeds of the sale returning back to the US Watch Tower corporation that was originally unable to finance its construction. This situation might not be near as bitter if it were not for the events that transpired in Spain that some feel to be the impetus behind this relocation.
In December 2007, after an investigation, the Social Security office of Spain issued a ruling that the Madrid Bethel was required to provide a pension for those who worked in its printing facilities. Historically, Bethel workers receive no such benefits. Upon joining the Bethel “family” they take a vow of poverty and are inducted into a religious order, not unlike a Catholic monastery. While at Bethel they receive a small monthly stipend for personal items in addition to room and board. Though they are working in a modern printing operation, they are viewed as religious volunteers and have no workers’ compensation benefits or pension to support them, if injury, health, age, or other circumstances should force them out of their Bethel “home”.
In recent years, the Watch Tower has seen a fair share of corporate downsizing. This has been particularly felt in the United States headquarters, which has experienced significant cutbacks within the New York Bethel family. Many men and women in their youth were encouraged to make service at Bethel a “life career”, at the expense of family, education, and a secular career. They entered Bethel with the idea that they would stay there for the rest of their life, making it their “home”. Now as older adults they are feeling the sting of cutbacks as they are asked to leave their Bethel home, starting all over again in the secular world without pensions or without having contributed toward retirement or Social Security. This is the current situation in Madrid, where it is estimated that up to 200 Bethel workers are being asked to leave without reassignment.
The Spanish Social Security office’s decision to hold the Madrid Bethel responsible for providing benefits for printing factory workers and other members of the order presents a considerable financial hit in a religious organization that has already experienced hardships in tough economic times. This has caused some Spanish Witnesses to believe that the decision to relocate printing operations to another country is specifically motivated by the fiscal implications of the Social Security office’s decision, despite what the Branch Office claims about the reorganization being motivated by other factors such as simplification.
The Spanish Witnesses who might normally completely trust the decisions made by the organization’s leadership have reason to be suspicious. After losing their petition against providing Social Security benefits to Bethel workers, the Spanish Branch Office of Jehovah’s Witnesses sent a letter to the local congregations announcing the new provision. In the letter, Witness leadership implies that it was they who petitioned Social Security for entry into the system in order to provide benefits. The congregations were kept in the dark about the real reason that these contested benefits were being provided to those in the religious order.
A similar situation occurred in the United States in 1990. At the time, Jimmy Swaggart Ministries was in the US Supreme Court, challenging taxes assessed on publications sold by the popular televangelist. Unknown to US Witnesses, the Watch Tower, filed a “friend of the court” brief (amicus curiae) in the Swaggart Taxation case, because the ruling would open the door for taxing the Watch Tower, as Jehovah’s Witnesses went door to door selling their Watchtower magazine and associated literature. When Swaggart lost the case, the Watch Tower, quickly adopted a new “donation arrangement”, where the magzines and literature were offered without a specified cost, and a donation request was made.
In a letter sent to all US congregations the Watch Tower explained the new arrangement saying,
“By adopting a method of literature distribution based completely on donation, Jehovah’s people are able to greatly simplify our Bible education work and separate ourselves from those who commercialize religion.”
No mention was made of the connection between the new “donation arrangement” and the Jimmy Swaggart case, and to this day, this is relatively unknown among Jehovah’s Witnesses. Similar to the way the Spanish branch handled the Social Security ruling, the US branch office spun the “donation arrangement” as a way of simplification without revealing the real reasons.
The Spanish Witnesses feel slighted that the religious organization they gave their life and finances to is now treating them so carelessly. Equally they are hurt by the lack of candor and honesty coming from headquarters about the current situation. Currently the discontent among the religion are organizing and making their case that any funds coming from the sale of the Bethel facility should be go back to the ones that financed it the first place. They suggest that such money could be used in a charitable way, such as providing a retirement facility for those in their ranks that are now aging, without provision, having giving their life in service of the religion. Ironically, they are vying to provide the very care that Witness leadership itself is reluctant to give.