The God bench

    The God bench is buzzing this morning.

    “Good morning, would you like something to read?” a woman asks a harried commuter.

    “This is a very good article,” she says, pointing to one titled, “Does God Care about Women?” (Not to give away the ending, but yes.)

    And then, saving souls before the end of the world being the point, she quickly suggests another: “Doomsday: Fact or Fiction.”

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    On any day, just about all day, Jehovah’s Witnesses take to the Market East train station to spread the word.

    One group of believers, mostly women, seems especially partial to the benches near the Philly Pretzel Factory.

    It’s a colorful, if not exactly comfortable spot when you put in the kind of hours some of the regulars do. Still, the women say they’re a huge improvement over the concrete slabs that used to pass for seating.

    One woman, the most veteran of the devotees, is a retired civil service worker. A striking black woman, with blonde hair, she says she’s been spreading the word from the benches for more than five years.

    Next to her is another woman, who comes to the spot early, before her part-time shift at a nearby supermarket. And next to them is still another woman, a newcomer who is a mother and a college student.

    When I stopped by recently, the women graciously let me sit and chat. But they weren’t interested in sharing their names. And they were even less impressed that my observations would be shared on a blog.

    Evil can be found anywhere. But they seemed especially concerned by how freely it flows from the fingertips of online commenters. We may not share the same religious beliefs, but on the hatefulness of anonymous flame-throwers we agreed.

    I’d passed by the women often and was always taken by how reserved they were, quietly seated, Watchtower magazines in their laps.

    Given the sect’s reputation for more persistent door-to-door proselytizing, I wondered if their soul-saving techniques were changing. Not at all, they told me.

    Doorstep preaching was still a primary way they tried to reach the unsaved masses. But given the critical times, they said they bear witness wherever they can.

    At work, in class. In line at the supermarket. And yes, right there by the train station pretzel stand.

    Passersby are usually respectful – give or take an unruly homeless man — if not always receptive.

    No. No. No thanks, come the responses. Some days, the women say, no one takes a pamphlet. Others times, they run out.

    There’s no way of knowing who will be open to the message — or when. No way to force them or try to speed up their come to Jesus moment, either – even if the soul you’re trying to save happens to be a relative’s.

    One of the women said she warns them. “Don’t come running to me at the end. It will be too late.”

    But there’s still time. So, every day, they return to the bench.

    “Good morning, would you like something to read?”

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