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:
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.