COVID forced Jehovah’s Witnesses to adapt after door knocking halted

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Susan Cohen used to spend hours each day knocking on doors around Montclair, seeking to share the faith with her neighbors. 

Then came COVID, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, like all of us, were forced to adapt.

Few religious groups faced as drastic a change as the Witnesses, the Christian sect known for its door-to-door evangelism and huge conventions. Criticized by some for its unconventional practices, the group has made countless unannounced visits to homes around the world in an effort to spread the word. 

Now, in an era of lockdowns and social distancing, adherents like Cohen have had to switch to phone calls and letters, in a break with more than a century of tradition. It has proved an adjustment for the 75-year-old, a self-described “people person” who misses her in-person appeals.

Still, in recent months, she’s discovered she can evangelize remotely. In fact, she may be reaching far more people now.

“My career now is my ministry,” said Cohen, who grew up in a Conservative Jewish family in Passaic before converting almost a half-century ago. “Nothing has given me as much enjoyment and fulfillment as what I’m doing now.”

On a typical morning before the pandemic, Cohen used to visit about two blocks’ worth of homes. With many people at work, few came to the door. Now, she can make dozens of calls in a few hours. And with more people working from home — and pining for a human connection — many are answering, she said.  

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Jehovah’s Witnesses, a Christian denomination whose beliefs are distinct from mainstream Christianity, grew out of the Bible Student Movement founded by Pittsburgh preacher Charles Taze Russell in the late 1870s. The religion’s doctrines are set by a group of elders based in Warwick, New York.

Members consider much of secular society morally corrupt and prohibits participation in politics and the military. Celebrations of holidays such as Christmas and Mother’s Day, as well as individual birthdays, are banned. The group also forbids blood transfusions, even in life-threatening cases, citing a Biblical prohibition on ingesting blood.  

“Public witnessing” to spread the Bible’s message is a central pillar, but that kind of in-person ministry has been on hold since the pandemic began.

A ‘dizzying’ change for Witnesses

“it was a dizzying moment in our history, because it’s the first time it’s ever happened,” said Robert Hendriks, a spokesman. “When you look at our history you will find that we have fought long and hard for our right to preach in this country, establishing our right to worship in some 50 Supreme Court victories. For us to suspend the very thing that defines us was a shock for the entire organization.” 

“The congregation has been called to testify to their faith by Jesus Christ himself,” he said, noting “his last words to his followers in the Bible where it speaks of going from house to house.” 

There are almost 8.7 million Jehovah’s Witnesses in 240 countries around the globe, Hendriks said, including 1.3 million in the U.S.

In the past year, 240,000 adults around the world were baptized as Jehovah’s Witnesses, according to the group. That’s down from previous years but still “pretty extraordinary,” Hendricks said. “For most of 2020, we didn’t hold large conventions and assemblies. Most of these baptisms happened in private pools, bathtubs and lakes.” 

Like other members, Hendriks has discovered the joys of letter writing. He crafts each message based on information about prospective recipients found on the internet.

“It’s more personal, and I know it will get to them,” he said. “Not everyone will get back to me. But the important thing is that they read it and we put a message of comfort into their heart.”  

There are no immediate plans to return to in-person meetings. More than 19,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses worldwide have succumbed to COVID-19, even as all in-person meetings and conventions were suspended, according to the group’s website. 

Without face-to-face contact, followers like Cohen have taken to calling strangers to spread the word. Addresses and phone numbers are drawn from an assigned roster to avoid calling any person more than once.    

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Phone etiquette has taken on a greater import: Cohen keeps her tone calm and pleasant as she calls. If someone isn’t receptive, she respects their wishes and moves on. If nobody picks up, she leaves a message. “Sometimes, they call back.” 

When she reaches someone, she asks how they’re doing. People will talk about the pandemic, their families and daily routines. But Cohen often finds they have questions. “They want to know why there’s so much suffering in the world, and what happens after death,” she said. She offers to share a scripture, and more often than not, they find it comforting. 

“My purpose is not to make them become a Jehovah’s Witness,” she said. “My purpose is to show them what the Bible has to say. What they do with the information is strictly up to them.”

Eager for connection

Recently, Cohen calmed a frazzled Amazon customer service rep, who was having a hard day. The woman revealed she was commuting long hours to work and felt burdened by her frantic schedule. Cohen gently suggested the Jehovah’s Witnesses could offer answers to some of her deeper questions and directed her to the website.

“She was grateful,” Cohen said triumphantly. 

Robert Acevedo of Lodi, a Jehovah’s Witness for 33 years, added, “You have to adapt to the times. We can’t do it like before.”

After months of social distancing, many he’s reached are eager for conversation.

Raised in a Catholic family in Queens, Acevedo, 50, was always interested in the Bible and spirituality. In high school, “one of my classmates was a Jehovah’s Witness,” he said. “It made a lot of sense to me.”

Growing up in Passaic, Cohen learned Hebrew in Sunday school but never studied the Bible or connected much with her family’s faith and traditions, she said. 

She enjoyed an eclectic life and worked in a variety of fields, including design, editing, decorating and event planning. In 1975, she was a divorced mother with a young son living in Verona. When she heard a knock on her front door, she opened it to a Jehovah’s Witness. 

“I was not searching for another religion. However, I had a desire to know what the Bible actually said,” she recalled. “I was astounded by what I read. The knowledge opened my eyes to a much deeper understanding.”   

Courting controversy

While members say the religion has given them inspiration, some have accused the Witnesses of being a cult that controls followers with overly strict routines, shuns those who leave and endangers people with its ban on blood transfusions. 

Mark Silk, a religion professor at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, said Jehovah’s Witnesses “do not engage in normal civic behavior and try to separate from public life. They don’t vote. They don’t celebrate birthdays and national holidays. They don’t recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Their views are out of the mainstream.” 

Rick Alan Ross, founder and director of the nonprofit Cult Education Institute in Trenton, described Jehovah’s Witnesses as “a troubled organization” and “a difficult environment.”

“This is a group that has predicted the end of the world several times so their children grow up with a great deal of fear for the future,” he said. “They don’t allow children to participate in Boy Scouts or Little League because they believe that organizations outside of their society are under the influence of Satan.”

The group has a high rate of attrition and has been accused of covering up cases of child sexual abuse, he said.

Hendriks called the cult accusations baseless.

“All of our meetings and conventions are public,” he said. “Everything we’ve ever written since 1950 is online and searchable. We offer everything for free. We don’t have a leader on Earth. We believe in the Bible and try to practice it. We’re as mainstream as can be.”

Deena Yellin covers religion for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to her work covering how the spiritual intersects with our daily lives, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: yellin@northjersey.com 

Twitter: @deenayellin