Jehovah’s Witness minister Weldon Howze loves to tell stories about the students he meets at UCSB. He begins with a narrative about a boy he met who shored up his belief after he experienced some “rough spots in his faith.” After a meeting of Jehovah’s Witnesses, the boy resolved to alter the aspects of his life that caused his depression. “[The boy] had been listening to some music that was not good,” Howze says.
The boy, Howze continues, took one of his CDs out of his car, put in on the ground, and prepared to destroy it. “And just when he started to do that, something pushed him with a tremendous force,” Howze says, “and he fell on the ground.” Later, the boy destroyed his CD collection with fire and lighter fluid, convinced that the cause of the “force” was a demon. This, Howze believes, is an example of the direct way in which God changes people’s lives.
All day, Howze stands in front of the UCen in a sweater vest and glasses “each lens the size of a squashed Pepsi can” and talks to students about their concerns. He does not preach. He does not try to convert people, nor does he draw crowds. Rather, he waits for curious students to approach him with questions about the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“I thoroughly enjoy the attitude of the students,” Howze says as his eyebrows move together like two hands on an accordion. “When people are in universities, they are there to study. They want answers.” He wants to provide those answers.
“We are very educationally minded, in that we teach the Bible,” he assures me. “We really are teachers. That’s what each one of us is, is a teacher. But we don’t necessarily recommend that our young people go to universities, because often we find that students have to fight for their faith.” However, Howze adds that the pursuit of higher education is
ultimately a matter of personal choice. “Obviously, we cannot tell our young people what to do. And we don’t.”
Howze has a down-to-earth and comical way of explaining the nuances of his religion, such as his unbelief in the “rapture.” He explains this to me as he sits at his kitchen table with a bowl of almonds in front of him. “The churches teach that Jesus is going to descend and pick up all these people,” he says as he reaches across the table for the bowl of almonds and lifts it away into the air, “like so.” These mannerisms entertain even the atheists who approach Howze.
Howze began studying the Bible during his childhood because both of his parents, who ran a farm in Ojai, were devout Jehovah’s Witnesses. He became baptized at the age of eleven and became a minister the moment his official membership began. He started going door to door with his parents to talk with people about the Bible and to give out copies of Witness literature. “I knew then that this was what I wanted to do with my life,” he says.
He began his full time ministry as soon as he graduated high school, and at age 22, he ventured to Brooklyn, New York to work at the headquarters for the Watchtower and Bible Tract Society, the governing body for Jehovah’s Witnesses.
After he worked at the headquarters for 17 years, Howze came to Santa Barbara, where he opened a private cleaning business as a way to separate himself from the “business-related sins” that were so prevalent in New York. “There’s always this pull,” he says, “and you definitely have to avert your eyes and your mind from the things around you.”
Howze’s own brother was part of a group of Jehovah’s Witnesses in McFarland, California, that was attacked by a mob that wanted the Witnesses out of the city. Although the situation terrified every worshipper present, Howze’s brother and the other Jehovah’s Witnesses survived the attack. As for his own experience, Howze says, “I have never encountered a mob scene where people have wanted to stone me.”
Perhaps it is this quiet sense of humor and his gift for conversation that elicits such positive responses from many of the students at UCSB. He states that the general response he receives is “excellent, excellent!” In fact, there are individual students who give him their email addresses so that he can message them with uplifting paragraphs. According to one of his friends, Howze has made thousands of contacts with people as far away as New Zealand. “You should see his Rolodex,” says the friend, “I’d say it rivals that of most businesses.”
He even runs into students at locations off-campus. One afternoon, Howze says, he dined at a restaurant with a friend, when one of the young waiters approached him and said with a huge smile, “You’re Weldon, right? I talked to you at UCSB.” “He was just extremely pleasant,” says Howze.
“We find in our discussions that, often, when people say to you ‘I don’t believe anymore,’ or ‘I’m an atheist’ they’re really saying to you ‘I don’t want to be responsible to anyone,'” Howze tells me, leaning over the table, “And so, we understand that. I have found, in my years working here, the best thing you can do is listen.” By listening to the students, Howze gathers some fascinating stories, and it is his pleasantness and sense of humor that attracts even the most ardent skeptics.