Who’s that knocking? Jehovah’s Witnesses flock to the Bay Area
Matthai Chakko Kuruvila, Chronicle Religion Writer
Friday, July 6, 2007
Roughly 70,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses are converging at the Cow Palace in Daly City for a series of conventions this summer, and they’ll be knocking on tens of thousands of doors along the way.
By the end of the summer, each believer will have attended a three-day convention that consists of intensive Bible study, prayer, song, mass baptisms and a biblical drama. They also will have invited thousands of perfect strangers.
Those gathering at the Cow Palace will have tried to knock on every door from the Oregon border to Reno to the Central Coast. It’s a process that will be repeated for 287 conventions in 75 cities around the nation this summer in the largest mobilization of the year for the nation’s 1 million Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are strict biblical literalists who say the Bible does not call for a celebration of Easter, Christmas or individual birthdays. Save for the commemoration of Jesus’ Last Supper, the regional conventions are the most important events of the year for the faithful.
It all begins at front doors with people like Sybil Lovelace. She will attend a Cow Palace convention beginning today.
For the past three weeks, Lovelace’s 105-member congregation has canvassed 4,400 homes and 2,200 apartment units in West Oakland. They customarily visit those same homes every three months, but the convention is a reason for one more trip. Lovelace has been out knocking for all but three of the past 21 days.
She’s heard stories from front doors about a mother addicted to crack, a father returning from prison, and teenage girls suffering from low self-esteem.
It reminded Lovelace of her duty: to tell people about Jesus and his father, Jehovah.
There is urgency to her work. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that we are living in the “end times,” the final period before Armageddon, when wickedness and evil will be wiped off the Earth.
“It’s like a hurricane warning,” Lovelace said. “You want to make sure everyone has an opportunity to understand what’s happening.”
Those who ignore the warnings, Jehovah’s Witnesses believe, will perish.
Jehovah’s Witnesses’ socializing with nonbelievers is often limited to their door-to-door work. Their theology emphasizes life after Armageddon, often illuminated through paintings of Paradise in their worship halls.
The door-to-door proselytizing is a practice for which Witnesses have become both renowned and ridiculed. Yet, despite the ubiquity of their door-to-door “witnessing,” their beliefs are largely unknown to others.
And in spite of their singularly religious mission and relatively separatist ethos, their imprint on constitutional law is pronounced. Legal experts say Jehovah’s Witnesses’ lawsuits to protect their beliefs have done more over the past century to protect First Amendment freedoms than any other organization.
The right to refuse to say the Pledge of Allegiance, the ability to pamphleteer without government monitoring and the expansion of the Bill of Rights into state law are among the many precedents established or strengthened by litigation by Jehovah’s Witnesses, said Professor Jesse Choper, a constitutional law expert at the UC Berkeley School of Law.
But for the average Jehovah’s Witness, it’s about saving souls.
Lovelace calls it her job. The 53-year-old mother of two daughters knocks on doors more than 70 hours a month, making her a “regular pioneer,” one of her church’s most active proselytizers.
She notes in a datebook which homes she’s visited. She returns to homes where no one answers or where someone expresses interest.
The obstacles are small and large.
There are pit bulls and locked gates. Last year, Lovelace walked onto a front porch just as a car drove up and a passenger began shooting at people standing on a nearby sidewalk. She fled, but it only strengthened her resolve.
“That’s why we’re out with God’s word,” Lovelace said. “If people come to know what Jehovah’s standards are and apply them and use them, they wouldn’t have these shootings.”
Unlike many other faiths, Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t operate soup kitchens, social service organizations or hospitals.
Those institutions do good works, said Ray Vaden Jr., 56, the convention overseer for the events at the Cow Palace. But that’s not the point.
“The best thing we can do is to share what we think is the best way of life,” said Vaden, a manager at a Silicon Valley computer hardware company.
Others, Vaden noted, believe social service work can temper society’s inequalities, but those efforts have not ended the need.
“Man has never been able to eradicate those injustices,” Vaden said.
Edith McDonald volunteers in a food pantry three days a week but said she does so primarily to get another venue to talk about the Bible. She sees many social services as enablers of vice.
“The majority of them take the money and buy alcohol and drugs,” said McDonald, a West Oakland resident who also belongs to Lovelace’s congregation.
McDonald, 62, said true salvation will come after Armageddon, when 144,000 people will be raised into heaven and others who are saved will live in an eternal paradise on Earth.
“In the long term, Jehovah is going to make sure there’s plenty of food,” she said.
On a recent morning, Lovelace rang the doorbell at the home of Leslie Bowling-Dyer, 38. They had a polite exchange.
Bowling-Dyer later told a reporter that she objects to how Jehovah’s Witnesses imply that “they alone have come upon some true revelation.”
“I find that kind of exclusivity kind of suspect,” said Bowling-Dyer, who has spent the last 13 years doing campus ministry around the Bay Area and is getting her master’s in divinity at the American Baptist Seminary of the West in Berkeley.
Bowling-Dyer said Christian social obligation was dictated by Jesus, who said followers would be judged based on how they treated prisoners, the hungry and the sick.
Jehovah’s Witnesses, she said, focus too much on the individual and the afterlife, forgetting that real needs exist around them that they may be able to alleviate.
“It’s our responsibility as Christians to try and be involved in addressing those things and to take them into consideration,” she said.
Lovelace sees it differently.
“Jesus healed the sick and fed the hungry, but the main thrust of his teaching was God’s kingdom and what God’s kingdom will do on a permanent basis,” she said.
She measures success carefully. If she can share one Bible verse with one person, Lovelace believes she’s been successful.
After 33 years of door-to-door proselytizing, Lovelace can count five people she’s led to Bible study, which led to baptism. She said biblical knowledge helped one person stop having sex outside of marriage, become a more responsible parent, and put down the bottle.
“You can’t put a price tag on a life,” she said.
E-mail Matthai Chakko Kuruvila at firstname.lastname@example.org.