Where have all the door-knocking Jehovah’s Witnesses been?

Pandemic pushes religious outreach into virtual mode in Lansing and beyond

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SUNDAY, May 16 — It’s been more than a year since the COVID-19 pandemic pushed Jehovah’s Witnesses to stop knocking on doors for their ministerial outreach both in Greater Lansing and across the country. For some, it’s a welcomed relief from unsolicited guests.

Others have asked: Where did they all go? And what have they been doing instead?

“A lot of phone calls and letters,” said Keenan Stutz, a spokesman for the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Stutz said about 1.3 million Witnesses across the country suspended their door-to-door and face-to-face forms of public ministry in March 2020 — shifting congregation meetings to videoconferencing and instead calling thousands of residents rather than making home visits.

That included about 960 active Witnesses from nine congregations in the Greater Lansing area.

“As part of that, we’ve actually found that we’ve been able to connect even more with people,” Stutz said. “It was always our goal to reach everyone in the community. We’re still going house-to-house, but instead of in-person, it’s just making calls out address to address.”

In pre-pandemic 2019, Jehovah’s Witnesses officials had tallied over 2 billion hours spent on streetside outreach among its approximately 8.7 million adherents worldwide. And while members might be losing face-to-face contact, their faith has only continued to grow, Stutz said.

Lansing residents Dave and Susan Price joined a Jehovah’s Witness congregation in the late ‘60s and have since lost exact count of how many doors they’ve knocked in the last 50 years. They estimate it to be several thousands — mostly in southwest Lansing and Dimondale.

“We were used to meeting people at their homes. Now we’re calling them on their phones, writing letters and trying to share a hopeful message with them,” Susan Price said. “Some people have been really impacted by the pandemic, are without hope and really appreciate it.”

Dave Price said it took him a week or two to stop feeling like a telemarketer. Before the pandemic, he wasn’t much of a conversationalist on the phone — even with family and friends.

“Neither of us were comfortable doing it in the beginning but we both started to really feel the value of it and were enjoying doing it,” Dave Price added. “On a day of going door to door, we might visit 50 homes. Maybe 10 would answer the door. Many more people answer the phone.”

Unlike home visits, Witnesses can also now leave voicemails for those who are unavailable — further enhancing local outreach efforts, Sue Price added. The shift saved them gas money too.

“I have appreciated how cordial most people have been when we talk to them,” Dave Price said. ‘We appreciate their kindness and we hope they appreciate our desire to reach out to them.”

Added Sue Price: “It’s a real privilege to share the Bible’s message with our community.”

Outside of Michigan, Witnesses reported a 30% increase in outreach in northern Virginia and parts of West Virginia, attributed in part to adherents’ ability to contact larger numbers of people.

The bitterly cold winters in Minnesota normally push parishioner Terri Whitmore to bundle up with a long down coat and snow boots for her door-to-door ministry. Nowadays, she sits at a dining room table, sips on hot tea, makes phone calls and can share the exact same message.

In December, for example, she was able to conduct twice as many Bible studies than usual.

“After a nice phone call, it energizes you,” she said. “You can’t wait to make the next call.”

Officials said nearly 51,000 people nationwide made a request last year for a Witness to contact them, either through a local congregation or jw.org, the organization’s official website. Each of them have received a letter or a phone call rather than the usual in-person visit to their homes.

“It has been a very deliberate decision based on two principles: our respect for life and love of neighbor,” said national spokesman Robert Hendriks. “But we are still witnesses and, as such, we must testify about our faith. It was inevitable that we would find a way to continue our work.”

As case rates decline, local residents are still safe from unsolicited door knocking — for now. Witnesses haven't made any definite plans to resume public ministry in Lansing or elsewhere.

“We are still waiting to see how things develop,” Stutz explained to City Pulse this week. “When love of neighbor and the sanctity of life are at the heart of your decision making process, we are careful to make sure we have gathered enough information to make the best decision.”

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