Saturday afternoon on a rainy day in Antwerp. Ambling on the major shopping street, a broad pedestrian zone, are hundreds of jackets, raincoats, umbrellas. They seem hardly enticed by the flashy windows of the stores nestled on the ground floors of the massive buildings. Most just saunter with the crowd to experience a hazy sense of shared humanity.
A sudden downpour compels the strollers to find refuge under canopies and porches. A long line of packed people forms, their backs against walls and store windows, up to five rows deep at shop entrances. Silent, despondent, they stare at the curtains of clattering drops, bursting apart on the deserted paving bricks. No one moves. Unwilling to plow through the throng, people count on the brevity of the torrent.
On the front row two Mormons are part of the crowd — a man and his sixteen-year-old daughter.
The girl pokes her father and points to the left. No doubt: some fifteen yards away a couple of Jehovah’s Witnesses are taking advantage of the stagnant mass. A man and a teenage girl. Book bags. Clean and dull appearance. They face the front row, the rain soaking their hair and backs. The preacher addresses the sheltering shadows one by one. The rejections are instant. Harsh in their almost imperceptible rebuff, heads say no. He insists with one more phrase, then moves on to the next repudiation.
They are coming closer.
More people glance to the left. Some whisper to spouse or friend. Jehovah’s Witnesses! The crowd braces itself. A tacit complicity spreads: none will engage in conversation. Unity yields strength. Faces harden, eyes adjust to indifference, mouths adopt surliness. For people know. The Belgian Parliamentary investigation has placed those marginals on the official list of cults. Media, magazines, organizations to protect the family, all have been warning: they’re dangerous, abusive, mind controlling, coercive. They brainwash, indoctrinate, compel their followers to isolate themselves from society, and next spit out the disobedient.
They are coming closer.
The man is around forty-five. In his eyes slumbers, on a bed of bravery, the quiet acceptance of rebuttal. The girl, thin, pallid, beaky-faced, fourteen or fifteen, is his daughter, unquestionably. Each time her father accosts a new soul, she lifts her head towards the snubbing face. From her countenance leaps a yearning for interest and response. But the prospective convert is part of the petrified league, confident in its communal deaf-muteness.
The couple reaches our Latter-day Saints.
– Good day, sir, may I ask you a question?
– Please do!
The crowd wavers. Nostrils dilate. Respiration halts. Treason! Even the two Witnesses seem startled.
– Well… sir… if you look at world conditions today, wars, famine, disease, immorality, which do you think is worst?
He mops his forehead and pushes his soaked hair backwards. Water trickles from his ear lobes. He gets his answer, gently spoken:
– There sure are a lot of challenges in the world today. I presume you are Jehovah’s Witnesses? Bravo for your courage in this weather. But let me tell you at once: my daughter and I are Mormons.
Bystanders stiffen in added aversion.
– Ah? … Well, it’s nice to meet people who still believe.
Perhaps he has been primed to say the phrase, perhaps it’s genuine. The Mormon adds:
– We too are on the list of the cults. Number fifty-two.
Now the proselytizer gleams, but with a touch of melancholy:
– I don’t recall what number we are, but I know what you mean. We sure pay the price…
They look into each other’s eyes, in a mute, empathizing exchange of sorts. Hard to say what wets their lashes in this weather.
The two girls, facing each other, mirror the encounter of their dads, smiling in a blend of embarrassment and recognition. Though worlds apart, they know they share some core.
– I’d be happy to get a Watchtower, says the Latter-day Saint.
The man reaches in his bag. The magazine, made of cheap paper, soaks up the raindrops.
– Thank you, appreciate it.
Their right hands reach out together. A hearty handshake.
Suddenly, in a parallel thrust, the two girls hug.
– Hang in there, sissy.
– You too, you too.
The downpour is weakening, enough for the bravest to break into the street, away from the unsettling scene. The rest of the bystanders follow, dispersing, troubled, cross. Cults! For sure, when Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses begin to bond, the end of the world must be near.