Flying Under the Radar, Part 4

This is the second-to-the-last post in my series “Flying Under the Radar.”  This particular focus of this post is the door-to-door work aka “witnessing.”  My intent with the series is to provide a look at the inside of a very insular religion: Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs).  I was raised a strict JW but formally “disassociated” myself in the early 1980s.


“This good news of the kingdom will be preached in all the inhabited earth.”  Matthew 24:14  (on the homepage of the JW official website).

Preaching the Good News of Jehovah’s Kingdom

In the late 1950s, my mother, on a visit from a small, rural town in southern Norway, met my American father and married him 2 months later.  My birth came 10 months later.  I have no doubt my mother (22 years old) and father (23 years old) were dazed as they found themselves parents with very little in common.  My father was a pre-med student working 2 or 3 jobs.  Living in student housing, my mother also worked in clerical or secretarial jobs while I was in daycare.  When she was home with me, my father was usually away at school, the library, or one of his jobs.  My mother never liked Americans, had no Norwegian friends, and few American friends, so she must have felt very alienated.

One day when my mother was home alone with her new baby (me), two neatly-dressed JW women came to the door. My mother would later tell me that she listened and invited them in because they had such friendly smiles. I have no doubt that had the Mormons visited her first … well, the rest, as they say, is history.

JWs are unique in their door-to-door activity. While Mormon males are expected to do two-year missions after high school, all JWs are required to regularly engage in door-to-door activity all through their lives. When I was young, all JWs were expected to go door-to-door a minimum of 10 hours a month; I started counting the “10 hours” when I was around 8 or 10 years old. Every month each JW would complete a little form (available at a counter in the bank – sort of like in a bank), indicating: how many hours s/he spent door-to-door, how many magazines, books or booklets “placed” (they never use the term “sold”), how many “call backs” (return visits to people with whom the JW left magazines, book or booklets), and how many home bible studies were conducted. This information was then aggregated for the congregation and then submitted to the JW headquarters (WBTS – see previous post) in New York.

Few outside the JWs understand or know how this works.

 Why Are JWs in Your Neighborhood?

You have probably seen JWs Kingdom Halls. (They don’t call their meeting places churches; it’s “the Hall.”)  Upon meeting other JWs, they will ask, “Which Hall do you go to” which is asking to which congregation they belong. The congregation names refer to geographic locations (e.g., Napa Congregation or Medford Congregation).  Each congregation has a geographic “territory,” and that territory is contiguous to the territories of the neighboring congregations of JWs.

One of the congregation elders served as the “territory elder.” He was responsible for maintaining, updating and coordinating how JWs “work” (witness by going door-to-door) the territory.  In the free time before or after a meeting in the Hall, the territory elder would stand behind a counter with a box (think large shoe box) containing “territory cards.” They were literally cards (thin cardboard) about 5″ x 3″ on which was glued a piece of a map.  As a JW checked out a territory card, s/he would then be responsible for “working” that territory as indicated the little map.

There were multiple ways to “work” the territory:

    1. A JW could take the territory card and with another JW (2 for safety – though I’d add it also helps stave off complete and utter boredom), drive to the neighborhood on the territory map, pick a street from the map and start walking and knocking on doors.
    2. A JW, along with any other interested JWs, show up at the Hall on a specified time and date to meet an elder or ministerial servant (think elder-in-training) who would have checked out a territory card. The elder/ministerial servant then assigned pairs (unless people had previous plans with whom to pair), and all would leave en mass to descend on an unsuspecting neighborhood.(There are ways to avoid using territory maps. You may have seen JWs who stand in groups on street corners. The people who do that either have mobility problems (but that doesn’t absolve someone from witnessing!), or, frankly, are lazy and just want to stand in one place (been there, done that). You may also have seen JWs walking around a large public building, each holding magazines or tracts in their hands. (If you want to avoid engaging with them, it’s best not to meet their eyes.)

JWs Keep Track of the “Not-at-Homes”

Have you ever had a JW knock on your door?  Here are the scenarios:

  • If you don’t come to the door, as they walk away, they pull out a form and mark down your street address with a code that indicates the “householder” (you) is “not-at-home.” Within the next week or so, they will come back to knock at all “not-at-homes.” The list is probably culled a bit more but the remaining not-at-homes will probably have at least one more (attempted) visit.
  • If you answer the door and they leave without “placing” any literature with you and you don’t seem open to another visit, they will walk away and not mark down anything.
  • If you answer the door and nicely tell them you are too busy to talk, they will probably write your address down to try again when you’re not too busy. After all, you were nice, so that might mean you’re interested.
  • If you answer the door and take some literature just to get them to leave, well, now you’ve just encouraged them. It’s like feeding wild raccoons. They’ll be back. They write down your address and note the literature they left with you. They may also leave other notes such as “seems nice” or “has children” – anything to personalize the next visit.
  • If they return to talk to you because you either seemed friendly and “open” or took some literature, their goal is to establish a home Bible study with you with the ultimate goal of converting you (and your family), to the JWs.
  • If you try to have a philosophical discussion with them about religion, the conversation will end quickly.  They are not there to debate the finer points of spirituality, religious studies or philosophy and mostly likely would fail miserably if they tried.  They are not scholars; they are zealots “trained” on JW doctrine and literature.

If you don’t want JWs to ever come to your door again, you do have options (at least you did when I was a JW): You can

    1. tell the JWs on your porch that you’re disfellowshipped (when I’ve done that the JWs pale, turn and almost run away with surprising speed).  When I was a JW we’d  make a note on the back of the territory card to skip that house in the future.
    2. ask for the name of their congregation, call its number in the phone book, get the name of an elder and ask to speak with him, tell him you are the homeowner and tell him to put the address on a “do NOT call” list. When I was a JW, on the back of the territory cards, the elder would write down the addresses of people who called and did that.

Extreme Witnessing:  Pioneers

While all JWs were expected to spend a minimum of 10 hours witnessing, there were categories that indicated true zealotry:

  • “Temporary Pioneers” (people who committed to spending at least 80 hours a month witnessing door-to-door);
  • “Pioneers” (people who committed to spending at least 100 hours a month witnessing; and
  • “Special Pioneers” (people who moved to “where the need is great” [translation: few JWs in the locality] and witnessed 100 hours a month.

There is no monetary recompense for either witnessing or pioneer service. Simple math tells you that any pioneer has little time to earn money. Not uncommonly pioneers are janitors so they could work at night.

Ultimate Witnessing:  Missionary Work

A special category of JW witnessing work is done by JW missionaries. These are people who are invited to attend the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead – the JW missionary school in New York (see Wikipeda). The JWs refer to it simply as “Gilead.” Both single and married couples may be invited. At Gilead, they receive more doctrinal training and frequently language education as they will be sent to countries “where the need is great.” Unlike most missionary groups, JW missionaries do not provide any other service (e.g., hospital, schools, etc.) than witnessing.  A parent whose child attends Gilead has unquestioned bragging rights as it reflects on the parents’ piety.


Another category that makes parents swell with pride is having a child who’s been selected as a Bethelite.  Bethel is the name given to the JW branch offices where teams of JW volunteers become part of the Bethel Families and provide the labor needed to produce the JW literature.  Some Bethelites may be assigned to work on the Bethel Farms to raise the food needed to feed the Bethelites. (The term “indentured servitude” comes to mind.)  (To be asked out on a date by a current or former Bethelite was a high honor!)

There is no greater thrill for a JW parent than to say, “My daughter’s a Special Pioneer,” or “My son is at Bethel.” Before I washed my hands of it, I was a Temporary Pioneer (starting when I was in high school – so you can imagine how tired I was all the time). My mother hoped I would be invited to Gilead and be trained as a JW missionary.

I dashed those hopes, and my mother and sister have shunned me since.  Both told me that when I admitted I was wrong and returned to “the Truth,” they could talk to me.  It’s been close to 30 years; I wonder if they’re still waiting.


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28 Responses to Flying Under the Radar, Part 4

  1. MarlisB says:

    Very interesting, thank you for your insight. I used to be visited occasionally in my early years on our street. But they don’t come anymore. Maybe it’s because I have some non-christian symbols painted by my door to invite the Goddess Lakshmi into our home. Whatever. At their last visit, I made them aware of what those symbols mean and they stopped coming. One JW, a customer of mine, tracked me down at home and relentlessly pursued me until I threatened her with a restraining order. I am agnostic with a pagan/earth-based faith bent after having dabbled in other religions. Keep your religion to yourself, and I’ll keep mine to myself should be a universal courtesy. Don’t you think?


  2. Yes, they are very single minded of purpose and as such refuse to listen to anything outside of their “Truth.” 😦


  3. Knit for You Designer says:

    Very interesting. My grandmother and cousin are JW. My grandmother could not visit us on holidays 😦 My cousin is a devoted JW. I opened my door to JW and studied the bible. It took them almost a year to explain in detail the “yellow book of Jesus”. They repeat and repeat everything published as if it is a form of brainwashing. What I did not like is when they quote the Bible as JW are God’s chosen people because of the name given by the founder “JW.” They believe that anyone not a member is not God’s chosen people. I tried to explain this to the person I was studying with and she refused to understand because they are the true worshipers. Very interesting read. Thanks


  4. Ahhh, when I was a JW, I would have taken your willingness to share that you were an atheist as an opening! 🙂 Yes, they always seem like nice people – and many are – but they adhere to and follow a religion that is not very nice.


  5. Very interesting! Thanks for explaining. I like your motto too: “doctrine without dogma” … powerful phrase! More religious/spiritual practices should borrow that!


  6. thetinfoilhatsociety says:

    DH is more of a ‘unitarian universalist’ type of Pagan; I have a combination of Druid and Buddhist philosophy and practice. You would think they would clash but they work surprisingly well together, at least the way I practice. Most of our friends are Pagans of one sort or another, from Shinto to shamanism and everything in between. When we get together for group ceremonies our motto is doctrine without dogma – meaning, we have discipline in our practice, but what works for me may not be what’s right for you. And we all learn from each other.


  7. I’ve only had JWs come to my door once in the 31 years I have lived in this house. (Mormons and Baptists are a different story.) Two ladies knocked on my door one afternoon, and one of them told me that so far all the people in the neighborhood had told them they were Christians and sent the JWs packing. I told the women that I wasn’t a Christian, and their faces lit up, and they told me they weren’t Christians, either, they were Jehovah’s Witnesses. I smiled and told them I was an atheist. They said that was interesting, nice talking to you, ‘Bye!

    They seemed like nice people, so I felt bad for them. They thought they had found a kindred spirit only to discover I was even worse than an apostate. 🙂


  8. What a great idea! Thanks for sharing it!!! There are so many ways to go … let’s see … Wicca? Druid? 🙂


  9. thetinfoilhatsociety says:

    Another way to make them go away and not come back is to tell them you are Pagan. I ended up having to do this because my husband made the mistake of taking the literature to get them to go away. We *are* Pagan, we just usually don’t tell strangers that though. So far they haven’t been back and it’s been well over 7 months.


  10. Wow – I never heard of a group that tries to reason with newly converted JWs to unconvert them. What an admirable goal!

    I, like you and for the very same reasons, have never been rude to a JW who comes calling (I feel sorry for them – especially the young people). If they’re persistent (as you recount), I pull out the “I’m disfellowshipped” card. Once I had to do that when a determined young woman with a little boy (maybe 3 years old) wouldn’t give up, and as her eyes widened and mouth dropped, she quickly grabbed her son and, as if she expected my eyes to start shooting out rays or something, actually shielded him with her body and started walking backward. The problem was not only that there were about 8 steps going down to the street at the bottom of our porch, but she was pushing her son behind her! Nervous, I opened my screen, stepped out on the porch, held out my arm and said, “Oh, be careful – there are steps behind you.” With that, she grabbed her son, dragged him down the stairs and galloped down the sidewalk. Unbelievable.

    So you may want to warn about any steps or other hazards before you use the “I’m disfellowshipped card!” 🙂



  11. lionsdaughter says:

    Disfellowshipped…thank you…will be using that one. My husband, who is a “listener” in his line of work allowed a JW to talk talk talk one day TWO summers ago, and they have been back numerous times. Most of the time I’m still in my pajamas, so I don’t answer the door. Last week I was vacuuming my car when an adorable 20-something stepped out with her 6-year-old daughter.

    I stopped her before she started speaking and just said something about how I already believed, and then she started exclaiming how nice the weather was, i.e. engaging me in conversation. But I didn’t want to be rude when there was a sweet little girl standing next to her.

    These posts have been so interesting. My husband’s family actually supports a missionary in Japan whose sole job is to unconvert (not a word) newly coverted JWs in Japan. Their families bring the individual to him and he very gently discusses some of the points you make here.


  12. I am always sad to hear when a person loses family contact because of religious, spiritual etc. beliefs. 😦 It certainly says something unfavorable about the “goodness” of that religion, spirituality or belief. I think my anger at how I was treated pushed aside sadness. :/



  13. needleandspindle says:

    I have always wondered about how the witnessing system actually worked. This post is anthropological in its detail. One of my inlaws lost her mother and sister to a cult and they won’t visit because they are told she has bad energy. She has young children whom they will never know. I see her pain and can only imagine the sadness you must have felt at times. Cheers to you for your strength and making a new life for your own family.


  14. I am sure they scampered away red faced and your husband’s nakedness became whispered about for weeks! 🙂 All I have to do is tell them I’m disfellowshipped and they act like they’ve meant the anti-christ, close their mouths immediately and back away. (I am not exaggerating!) Once they hit a “safe” distance from me, they will turn and trot as fast as possible without actually running!


  15. I am sure they are still waiting and praying for me to come to my senses and return. :/


  16. Good for your mom! Sadly, I can relate to that little boy’s experience. We went door-to-door in all weather (sort of like postal carriers) – blistering heat, torrential rain, tear-producing winds – knowing we were doing god’s work: witnessing about Jehovah. I think that the insidious manner in which JWs have to allow their religion to take over their lives is what makes it lean more toward a cult!


  17. heatherinsf says:

    I remember the JW visiting my neighborhood as a child. It was 103F outside and these 2 adults were dragging a small boy around by the hand, the boy was panting and red faced and they refused to let my mom give him water. She called the police after they left but we never did see what happened. It’s sad when some people let religion control their lives to the point where it dictates seeing non-religious family members. I hope your family realizes what they are missing out by not being in your life, and good for you for following what you feel is right for you.


  18. tgonzales says:

    Thank you so much for explaining all of the JW religion. I am looking forward to the last episode, but I can’t help but be saddened by your Mother and sister disowning you. I’m sure with their mindsets they are still waiting for you to change your mind. 🙂 Hugs, Tamara


  19. Ah I see, thanks for clearing that up. I wonder do Catholics have the same view of excommunicated members? I think we’re a bit more lenient with who gets to stay in the church and who doesn’t.


  20. Catholics “excommunicate;” JWs “disfellowship;” some religions “shun.” A JW is disfellowshipped by a committee of elders when s/he commits (or is thought to commit) a grievous wrong (by JW definition) and is unrepentent. The disfellowshipping decision is announced at a meeting generally followed by a rousing talk that just happens to focus on the type of wrongdoing engaged in by the person just disfellowshipped. Once disfellowshipped, no other JW can speak to or have “fellowship with” her/him.


  21. Thank you. In retrospect, I realize it took a lot of courage. At the time, however, I just knew I had no other choice than to leave. Staying was unthinkable!


  22. Thanks for popping by and reading. It’s not exactly an “uplifting” series of posts, though! 🙂


  23. I never thought of the window issue … no Kingdom Hall that was built ever had regular windows – at most just a row of small windows at the top of the walls. For a while my congregation met in a building that used to be an Arthur Murray Dance studio; that one had nice big windows (making it much easier for not paying attention!).


  24. Thank you for the great explanation about the inner workings of JW. We used to have a number of witnessers visit us but that stopped after my husband answered the door naked, having just gotten out of the shower. They’ve never come back.


  25. What does it mean to be “disfellowshipped”?


  26. Thank you for these informative posts about JW´s. I read them with interest, not because I know any JW´s, but I think it´s important to know about it.
    To me religion seems like a form of escape, or at least “buying” some easy comfort. At the same time I have the highest regards for people who chooses to be religious. We all have different needs and a different base for our beliefs.
    But any belief, religion or behavior that gives you special rights over others; -rights to harass, -to exclude or even physically harm others – is not religion. It´s simply extremism!
    Breaking out of any extremism takes courage! A lot of courage!
    You broke put of extremism and you ended up paying. I guess it´s like “a generation lost”. But you´ve made ground for new, and in my mind, healthier generations. I think you are very courageous!!


  27. Deb says:

    What an interesting read. I am definitely going to have to go back and read part 1-3.


  28. starproms says:

    That was very interesting, thank you. I have often wondered about the doorstep visitors, of which we seem to get a lot round here. I have various ways of sending them on their way (kindly). Truth is I never have the time to talk to them because they always call at an inconvenient time, i.e. when I’m cooking the dinner or attending to a member of the family. A few times I have engaged in a conversation, but that just makes them return and I have no intention of joining their faith. I have seen the Kingdom Hall here in my home town and since it has no windows, I would never deem to enter there.


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