Siblings Marco and Rebecca Sanchez affirm their faith during the 2021 Jehovah's Witness virtual convention. [Courtesy Jehovah's Witnesses]

The water of the Colorado River serves and nourishes the American Southwest in many ways: we use it for drinking, for watering our crops, for creating electricity and for recreation. It shapes our landscapes, is home to wildlife and plants, inspires art, and in the past has been used as a means of travel. The Colorado also feeds our souls, both through its beauty and power and in some cases, as the literal place where spiritual faith is affirmed through ritual.

“It definitely has been one of the happiest days of my life,” said 18-year old Moab resident Marco Sanchez when he and his sister were baptized as Jehovah’s Witnesses in the waters of the Colorado River this summer. Sanchez was baptized as part of a virtual gathering that replaced an event that is usually held in person.

Moab has an active community of Jehovah’s Witnesses, a faith based on the Christian Bible. Fifty-seven members meet weekly in the local building, called a Kingdom Hall, some traveling from Monticello or Castle Valley. The faith holds an annual convention, as well as two smaller assemblies each year, where members from a wider area gather to discuss and celebrate their faith. 2021 is the first year since 1977 that a convention has been based in Moab.

Usually, activities at the conventions include Bible discussions, dramatic Bible readings, interviews, demonstrations, inspirational videos, and “video trips” to far-away places to introduce faith members in other countries. Conventions are also a time and place for believers to affirm their belonging to the Jehovah’s Witnesses and their dedication to God by being baptized. Usually, a swimming pool is erected at the conventions to accommodate full-immersion baptisms, which are performed by Jehovah’s Witness elders.

Since the coronavirus pandemic restricted travel and large gatherings, Jehovah’s Witnesses have been holding their conventions virtually.

“As much as we long to meet together, life is far too precious to put at risk,” said Robert Hendriks, U.S. spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses.

In some ways, virtual conventions are more accessible: people whose health, finances, age, or other difficulties prevent them from traveling can attend from their own homes. On the other hand, Jehovah’s Witnesses regional spokesman Jamie Dunjey pointed out that in some countries, the internet is not easily accessible.

“For example, Malawi has some of the most expensive internet data charges in the world, and therefore few Witnesses can access the internet,” said Dunjey. “In Mozambique, few could afford an appropriate electronic device, let alone the internet.” In those nations, the virtual conventions were broadcast through television and radio.

The theme of this year’s convention was “Powered by Faith!”

“It can be hard to put faith in something you can’t see,” said Dunjey. “Yet, we all need faith.” The convention was designed to help attendees build and strengthen their faith.

Baptisms are one of the main features of the conventions. The rite, performed once in a lifetime, symbolizes the person’s dedication to Jehovah, or God.

Sanchez said he was moved by his love for God to be baptized during this summer’s convention. His parents and three sisters, as well as members of the congregation, gathered at a beach along the river near Big Bend. AJ Long, an elder in the church who has mentored Sanchez, performed the baptism, and Sanchez returned to the beach to hugs and cheers.

“At the beginning, I was a little anxious, but as soon as I got into the water and came back out all my worries were gone, and I was happy,” said Sanchez. “I felt like a new person.”