Monday, March 27, 2023
March 27, 2023

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Jehovah’s Witnesses open newly rebuilt Olympia Kingdom Hall after 2018 arson attacks


OLYMPIA— Jehovah’s Witnesses held their first service at their newly reconstructed Kingdom Hall in Olympia on Sunday, about four and half years after the previous building burned down in a 2018 arson attack.

Volunteers broke ground on the project at 2224 Cain Road SE on Aug. 23. In all, about 1,000 volunteers from across Washington and several other states rallied to help the rebuilding effort, said Trent Coates, a South Sound Jehovah’s Witness spokesperson.

Sean Grey, the construction group overseer, said he felt “utter elation” seeing all the volunteers’ hard work come to fruition.

“I think it just really helps us to appreciate our God’s hand in the work that gets done,” Grey said. “We really felt His spirit making all this happen for us. The unity that the volunteers had just coming together from all different areas to make it happen, it’s really overwhelming to think about.”

The original hall burned down in an arson fire on July 3, 2018. The same hall also was vandalized on March 19, 2018. Both incidents were part of a string of eight known attacks on Jehovah’s Witnesses properties across South Sound.

Last month, a federal grand jury indicted Mikey Diamond Starrett, 50, for hate crimes related to the two fires he allegedly set at the Olympia Kingdom Hall as well as one fire at the Tumwater Kingdom Hall.

A federal grand jury also indicted Starrett last October for crimes related to a shooting that damaged a Kingdom Hall in Yelm.

Starrett’s case has been moving forward in federal district court in Tacoma. He has not been charged in connection with the remaining attacks.

Speaking on behalf of the congregation, Coates said they felt thankful for Starrett’s capture. He said the renewed sense of safety has added to the excitement of the first service.

“It just makes us feel safer that we can attend our places of worship, such as this,” Coates said. “We’re again just so grateful for all the hard work and labor that (law enforcement) put in.”

Grey said the new building appears similar to the old one from the outside. However, they did make some structural changes to meet newer building codes, improve fire safety and make the building more accessible.

Some other changes came about due to the pandemic. Coates said Jehovah’s Witnesses have held virtual services over the last few years and they plan to continue that practice.

“As you look around, you can see many TV monitors,” Coates said. “Those are set up now so that even though we are here in person, we still have the capability to be on Zoom.”

The entire project was financed with volunteer donations, Coates said.

Aaron Gore, a local congregate, gave the inaugural speech to begin the first service. He told The Olympian the title of his speech was, “How to show love in a lawless world.”

“We don’t retaliate,” Gore said. “We don’t have a negative viewpoint of individuals to maybe seek revenge. We just focus on how we can continue to show love to one another and our neighbors.”

For his part, Gore helped organize the volunteers and find appropriate roles for them that extended beyond construction work.

“A beautiful effort,” Gore said. “Jehovah’s Witnesses, we work as a family unit, regardless of where we’re from. The role I had was more behind the scenes organizing, finding local volunteers and getting roles that they could play as far as their skills.”

Marty Landeros, another local congregate, helped the rebuilding effort by housing out-of-town volunteers, sanitizing the work site and preparing meals with a team of cooks. She said 22 support congregations prepared hot meals for volunteers.

“Each month, we had one day that we provided a hot meal for somewhere between 40 and 80 people,” Landeros said. “I love to cook so that was my contribution.”

In the aftermath of the Olympia attacks, Landeros said she felt disheartened. Yet, she knew her community would rebuild.

“It was thoroughly exciting to come on site, to watch everybody, to see friends that I hadn’t for a while and to meet new friends.” Landeros said. “The community is just amazing.”