Jehovah’s Witnesses fan out across region

Jehovah’s Witnesses fan out across region; say end is near and invite all to their convention
Sunday, June 25, 2006

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John Beale, Post-Gazette photos
Geoff Parsons holds an umbrella for his wife, Joanna Parsons, as the Jehovah’s Witnesses go door to door on Walters Lane in Springdale Borough. The Parsons, of Franklinville, N.J., came to Pittsburgh to work with local Witnesses.

By Ervin Dyer
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It’s 10:30 a.m. and a mix of sweat and rain bead up on the brow of Dave Hickok.

He’s been on the streets of Springdale Borough for about an hour with at least 10 other Jehovah’s Witnesses, knocking on the doors of strangers in this quiet, leafy town to tell them the end is near.

Mr. Hickok, 60, a mortgage banker, in his trench coat and smile, is a pleasant figure from West Deer who became a Witness 54 years ago in Seattle. He’s joined by four other faithful, including his daughter, Jennifer Myers, as they march door to door. Not far from them is a team of five. And not far from them is another team of five.

It’s a scene that’s playing out across the county and across the country as Jehovah’s Witnesses, in an unprecedented effort, seek to invite as many people as they can to their annual convention.

The yearly gathering of Witnesses, a Christian faith founded in Pittsburgh 136 years ago, is a huge worship celebration. This year, it has special significance because Witnesses are seeking to get out the word to millions of households that Armageddon, or the end of the world, is imminent. Or, as the invitation says: Deliverance at Hand.

The signs are everywhere, Mr. Hickok said.

World wars have ruled the current generations. Fear is dominant, especially with the rise of terrorism. There is a breakdown in family structure. The magnitude and frequency of earthquakes is growing. There is an increase in pestilence, such as AIDS.

For Witnesses, there is no time like the present to share the message. And their conventions, with record numbers of people, are spreading across the country this summer before being launched around the globe.

In Allegheny County, there are between 8,000 and 10,000 Witnesses.

Before the end of next week, many of them will travel to Cleveland for the three-day district convention. In this district, which covers Western Pennsylvania and northern Ohio, there are 120 Witnesses congregations between here and Cleveland and their goal is to personally deliver the invitation to more than 5.2 million households.

The evangelism, or field service, as they call it, which includes more than 5,000 volunteers, began about three weeks ago.

Mr. Hickok is a member in the Cheswick congregation, where there are 100 people out inviting.

There are 6.6 million Jehovah’s Witnesses in the world and they believe the time is near when good will trump evil in a final battle that wipes destruction and sickness off the face of Earth and restores it as a Garden of Eden.

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“We never want to leave a bad impression because another Witness will be coming behind us.” — Dave Hickok, Jehovah’s Witness for more than 50 years.

They are serious about their field ministry.

Each neighborhood, or territory, is mapped out. Blocks become circuits and each is given a full canvassing and then checked off so no Witness goes there again within a year. It’s a calibration that’s done to prevent repeat evangelism.

Then there are ministry classes, where field workers are trained to speak, smile and make eye contact. When there is rejection, they are trained to leave graciously.

“We never want to leave a bad impression because another Witness will be coming behind us,” Mr. Hickok said.

There is on-the-job training as well.

Such as learning how to approach doorsteps.

Joanna Parsons, a visiting Witness from Franklinville, N.J., offers a lesson in never approaching a home without checking for dogs.

First you look, she said, a careful survey of the area. Then you pucker your lips to whistle, to see if you can call the animal. If there’s a fence, you rattle the latch. If there is still no sign of a dog, she said, you send your husband to the door.

Witnesses dress sensibly and conservatively so they do not distract from their message or offend. Mr. Hickok has on a pin-striped shirt and tie. The female service volunteers are in skirts and sandals.

The Bible, which they believe is God’s infallible, inspired word, is the foundation of their faith. God, whom they call Jehovah, is supreme; Christ is his son and is inferior to him. They shun worldly concerns such as Christmas, birthdays and voting. Members come from all social, economic and racial backgrounds and they worship and study in Kingdom Halls. Only men can be elders in the church.

Though this is her first year as a field service volunteer, Mrs. Myers, who is eight months’ pregnant, sometimes does 70 hours a month on the streets. She’s out Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and, sometimes, Sunday.

She’s usually paired with Jennifer Armstrong, a stay-at-home mom who has done the field service for seven years.

They’ve been to about 20 homes halfway through their service and hand-delivered two invitations, a typical percentage of the people they visit who allow them to come in, Mr. Hickok said.

When no one is home, they leave the invitation under the mat or in the mailbox. The volunteers will note the address and sometimes follow up with a letter.

As the group makes its way through the rain, a Springdale officer cruises past, twice.

“There’s the police,” whispers Mrs. Armstrong, who adopted her mother’s faith when she was 10. “People often call the cops on us because they don’t know us from the neighborhood.”

Mrs. Armstrong’s father, Robert Bernhard, a former Lutheran, eventually switched, too, and learned to read through Bible study with Jehovah’s Witnesses. He’s 75 and was with one of the other teams passing out invitations nearby.

For years, the Witnesses have walked streets and stood on corners, quietly evangelizing by chatting about the Bible with their neighbors or passing out their journal, The Watchtower, which is published in Spanish, French, Korean and other languages.

They’ve reached millions, but many still view them with doubt. Jehovah’s Witnesses consider themselves Christian but are not regarded as such by Catholics, Protestants or Orthodox, who say that a co-equal Trinity is a key component of Christian belief.

“The conventions give the public a chance to come out and see what it’s all about,” Mr. Hickok said.

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