KENNEWICK -- The speaker marched onto the stage and addressed the audience of thousands.
"Is it possible for you and I to have a close relationship with the creator of the universe?" he asked. "The Bible answers that question in the affirmative."
The men, women and children surrounding the stage at the Toyota Center in Kennewick on Friday took notes as he spoke. They'd been listening to elders from Jehovah's Witness congregations in the Northwest all morning.
More talks were planned that afternoon. And the rest of the weekend.
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That's because the series of three-day district conventions of Jehovah's Witnesses that draw thousands of people to the Tri-Cities each summer is in full swing.
This weekend's event -- which started Friday and runs through today -- is the first of the conventions in English. A convention in Spanish was held last month.
The conventions bring millions of dollars to the Tri-Cities each summer as participants flood into restaurants at the end of each day and out-of-towners fill up area hotels.
But to convention-goers, they're much more than an economic boon to the community.
"We come to learn more about God. It's a highlight of our year," said Jay Mergenthaler, 62, who drove with his wife from Missoula, Mont., for this weekend's event.
They've been able to visit with friends they haven't seen since last year and to soak in the convention's religious lessons, he said.
This year's theme is "Remain close to Jehovah!"
Participants say the events are relaxed affairs. There's no admission fee and no offering is taken. The public is invited.
Elders from different congregations -- the Kennewick conventions draw members from Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana -- speak on topics related to the overall theme. There's also a drama production, complete with costumes and actors who've practiced for weeks.
On Saturdays, a temporary pool was set up by the stage for baptisms. At the Spanish language convention in June, more than 70 people were baptized, officials said.
Conventiongoers said they lean on the lessons they learn during the events for months afterward. Brenda Phillips, 34, of Richland, said she takes notes and revisits them later in the year.
She and hundreds of others poured into the Toyota Center for Friday's convention. Families sat together -- there's no separate program for kids -- and listened to the speakers.
Jehovah's Witnesses believe in God, or Jehovah. They believe Jesus is his son and that the Bible is God's infallible word, according to information from the group.
They model their faith on early Christianity and do a lot of evangelism.
Jehovah's Witnesses are spending time before this summer's conventions -- as they do every year -- knocking on doors and inviting neighbors to attend.
The faith helps people in good and bad times, and that's a message worth sharing, Mergenthaler said.
Phillips said she looks forward to the convention each year as a time of fun and renewal.
"It lasts you all year," she said. "(Then) you're ready to come again and have that encouragement again."
The conventions continue July 9-11 and 16-18. The program begins about 9:20 a.m. each day.