COVID and religion: Jehovah’s Witnesses will return to door-knocking


Alex Cochran, Deseret News

This article was first published in the State of Faith newsletter. Sign up to receive the newsletter in your inbox each Monday night.

In March 2020, Jehovah’s Witnesses around the world got a message they’d long feared receiving: They needed to stop their public ministry work.

But rather than come from hostile government officials, it came from their own church. The faith group’s leaders said Jehovah’s Witnesses should stay home so as not to catch or spread COVID-19.

“We never thought our organization would say, ‘Stop your public ministry,’” said Robert Hendriks, U.S. national spokesperson for the Jehovah’s Witnesses. “It took a few days and weeks for many of us to get our minds around it.”

The Witnesses, who are best known by non-church members for their door-knocking efforts, suddenly had to rethink their whole evangelistic strategy. They started writing letters to and calling neighbors and friends, working hard to still contact every household in their area at least once per year.

“Over the course of 2.5 years, we’ve probably written hundreds of millions of letters. Certainly tens of millions,” Hendriks said during our Zoom call, holding up a few that he’s written but not yet sent.

But soon, he and other Witnesses will be able to push their stamps and envelopes aside and hit the streets again. The church recently announced that members can resume door knocking and other forms of public ministry at the beginning of next month.

“Believe it, there will be thousands of Witnesses in this country (door knocking) on Sept. 1,” Hendriks said.

He added that the milestone will come with many emotions, since public ministry is at once an act of faith and love — and a daunting thing to do.

“When you haven’t done it for 2.5 years and when you’re not sure how your community will feel and respond, it becomes an even greater act of courage,” he said.

Different Jehovah’s Witnesses will feel differently about Sept. 1, just as different students feel differently about the first day of school, Hendriks said.

“For some, it will be like the first day of senior year — exciting. For others, it’ll be like the first day of kindergarten, and they won’t want to leave their mother’s leg,” he said.

To learn more about why Jehovah’s Witnesses are so passionate about public ministry, read my story from June on a Supreme Court case focused on their right to door knock.

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Term of the week: Reparations

The term “reparations” is generally associated with efforts to pay Black Americans for harms done to their enslaved ancestors. But reparations can actually refer to a wide range of actions, not all of which involve direct cash payments.

The Washington Post emphasized the broader definition in a recent story on the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia’s vote to put $10 million toward reparations. As the article noted, “Reparations programs vary and can include activities as varied as investments in neighborhoods and in the businesses of disadvantaged peoples, scholarships, direct disbursements, and relational and spiritual work meant explicitly to acknowledge wrongdoing and unfairness and to repent.”

The opportunity for creativity when crafting reparations initiatives has added tension to the diocese’s process, the story said. Some supporters of reparations fear that battles over how to spend the $10 million will distract from the purpose of the program.

What I’m reading ...

A recent New York Times article digs deeper into the shootings of four Muslims in the Albuquerque area, exploring community members’ efforts to move forward together.

Don’t miss The Associated Press’ beautiful series on sacred rivers around the world.

Zide Door Church in Oakland, California, is suing law enforcement over a 2020 raid that resulted in the seizure of about $200,000 worth of marijuana, mushrooms and cash. The church claims that drug use is part of its ministry, according to The Washington Post.

One of the latest editions of pollster Daniel Cox’s newsletter, American Storylines, investigated how the Supreme Court’s abortion decision could affect the future of faith. “I think the abortion issue will push the less religious further away from religion; in some cases transforming religious apathy into animosity,” Cox wrote.

Odds and ends

The rise of social media sites like Twitter made it incredibly easy to keep up with world news and share what’s happening in your own life. But an unintended consequence of this shift is that it’s become harder for social media users to clear all this information from their heads, go out into the world and simply have fun, according to an essay in The New York Times. The piece made me want to spend more of my week seeking out fun.

Christian writer Frederick Buechner died last week at 96. He authored one of my favorite quotes: “Of the seven deadly sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back — in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you.”