Knock, knock: Jehovah’s Witnesses resume door-to-door

Jehovah’s Witnesses have restarted their door-to-door ministry after more than two and a half years of hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic, reviving a religious practice the faith considers crucial and cherished.

From coast to coast, members of the Christian denomination fanned out in cities and towns on Thursday to share literature and converse about God for the first time since March 2020.

In the Jamaica Plain neighborhood of south Boston, Dan and Carrie Sideris spent a balmy morning strolling, knocking on doors and ringing the bells. Dan Sideris said he had been apprehensive about evangelizing in person in “a changed world”, but the experience erased any trace of doubt.

“It all came back pretty naturally because we don’t have canned speeches,” he said. “We try to engage with people about what’s in their hearts, and what we say comes from our hearts.”

The couple were surprised at how many people opened their doors and were receptive.

A man paused a Zoom call to accept his brochures and set up an appointment to continue the conversation. At another home, a woman spoke of the number of family members who had died in the past two years – something the Siderises could relate to, both having recently lost their parents. Another woman was too busy at the moment but spoke to Carrie Sideris through the window and said she could come back on Sunday.

“I was looking forward to this day,” she said. “When I rang the first doorbell this morning, a complete calm washed over me. I was back where I needed to be.

Jehovah’s Witnesses suspended door-to-door outreach in the early days of the pandemic’s outbreak in the United States, just as much of the rest of society also went into lockdown. The organization also ended all public meetings in its 13,000 congregations across the country and canceled 5,600 annual gatherings around the world – an unprecedented decision that was not taken even during the Spanish flu pandemic in 1918, which killed 50 million people worldwide.

Witnesses continued their ministry by writing letters and making phone calls, but it was not the same because it lacked the personal touch, said Robert Hendriks, national spokesman for the denomination.

“To us, going door to door is an expression of the impartiality of our God,” he said. “We go up to everyone and let them choose whether they want to hear us or not.”

Even before the pandemic, door-to-door ministry was accompanied by anxiety, as Witnesses never knew how they would be received in a given home. In 2022, this is even more the case, and evangelizers are advised to be aware that lives and attitudes have changed.

“It’s going to take an extra level of courage,” Hendriks said.

The organization does not enforce masks or social distancing, leaving those decisions to each individual.

The denomination has cautiously restarted other activities: in April it reopened congregations for in-person gatherings, and in June it resumed public ministry where members set up carts in places such as subway stations and distribute literature.

Returning to door-to-door service, seen not only as a core belief but also as effective ministry, is a big step toward “returning to normalcy,” Hendriks said.

However, other denominations such as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have moved away from door-to-door ministry. Spokesman Sam Penrod said the church had been doing this “for at least a decade” before COVID-19.

“Social media has become an effective way to reach people interested in learning more about the Church in recent years and has become invaluable in the early months of the pandemic,” Penrod said by email, adding that missionaries continue to minister in person but do not go door to door.

But for Jehovah’s Witnesses like Jonathan Gomas of Milwaukee, who started door-to-door with his parents when he was “old enough to ring a doorbell,” a spiritual life without it seems inconceivable.

“When you’re in the community, you have your hand on the pulse,” he said. “We haven’t had that feeling of closeness to the community for over two years now. I feel like we’ve all become more distant and polarized.

Gomas, his wife and two daughters all learned Hmong in order to better reach members of this community, and locals are often pleasantly surprised to open their doors to fluent speakers of their language.

“I think it made them listen even closer,” he said.

In Acworth, Georgia, Nathan Rivera said he really missed seeing people’s faces and reading their expressions.

“You see and appreciate those responses, and it’s a lot more personal,” he said. “You build common ground and relationships that you could never develop over the phone or by writing a letter.”

The son of Cuban refugees who arrived in the United States in the 1980s, Rivera said the door-to-door service is an important part of his spiritual identity and “feels like Christ.”

“We show respect for each person’s right to hold a different belief,” he said. “If they don’t want to hear what we have to say, we politely thank them and move on, acknowledging that we can’t judge anyone. We’ll just keep knocking.

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Maria D. Ervin