Witnessing to the masses Oft-maligned group hopes to boost its image during trip to Saginaw

Witnessing to the masses Oft-maligned group hopes to boost its image during trip to Saginaw

DENISE FORD-MITCHELL
THE SAGINAW NEWS
Jehovah’s Witnesses Gary C. and Evonne M. Bocksch park on Holly Lane and gather religious literature for their door-to-door ministry in the sweltering temperatures roasting the blacktop in Saginaw Township.

They choose their first house and gather their courage. There’s a vehicle in the driveway, but no one responds to the Saginaw Township couple’s knock. They repeat at a second house; again no response.

As the duo approaches a third house, the homeowner darts inside. A fourth homeowner tracking their movements from the front door closes it as they head that way.

“That’s OK,” Gary Bocksch (pronounced Botch) says without skipping a beat. “We don’t push it. We typically find one in 100 genuinely interested in what we have to say. But it’s that one that makes it all worthwhile.”

Evonne Bocksch adds, “Most of the people are nice. There are some who are not interested but will take the reading information.”

William P. McCarthy, 62, doesn’t close the door or rudely greet the pair when they ring the doorbell to his home.

“We need all the peace and help we can get, especially with this war going on,” McCarthy tells the Bocksches. Agreeing, the couple hands the General Motors Corps. retiree a “personal invitation” to join them at the “Deliverance at Hand!” District Convention beginning Friday and share a few biblical scriptures of encouragement.

Combating stereotypes

Thrilled with McCarthy’s receptive response, the couple crosses to another home .

An elderly woman cautiously cracks open her iron security door to hear Evonne Bocksch’s invitation to join her at the upcoming Jehovah’s Witnesses convention in Saginaw.

“I’m a Republican,” the woman blurts out as she accepts a convention flier. Realizing she has misspoke, the woman clarifies, “I’m a Presbyterian and a Republican,” before turning away.

Rejection comes with the territory, the couple admits. Jehovah’s Witnesses are one of the most attacked and criticized religious groups in America.

Jehovah’s Witness organizers are hoping a three-weekend convention in Saginaw will counter their image problems.

The difference

Jehovah’s Witnesses do not believe in the Trinity (God the father, the Son and Holy Ghost) — the cornerstone of mainline Protestant denominations.

Witnesses believe God is the all-knowing, all-powerful Creator. The relationship between God and Jesus is like that of father and son: Jesus is the first creation of God. He was fully human when he walked on Earth. The Holy Spirit is an active force which intervenes for God on earth. The three — God, Jesus and the Holy Spirit — are separate entities.

That belief coupled with the biblical scripture 1 John 4: 2-3, is the primary bone of contention, says the Rev. Mark Karls, 59, pastor of Ames United Methodist Church, 801 State in Saginaw.

“You can’t help but love them because they are so serious about their faith and their search for God,” Karls says. “However, most mainline Christians believe the scripture ‘By this you know the spirit of God: Every spirit which confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is of God and every spirit which does not confess Jesus is not of God. This is the spirit of antichrist, of which you heard that it was coming and now it is in the world already,’ means Jesus coming in the flesh is the same as God coming in human form. However, they don’t believe Jesus was God in human form.

“It’s baffling because that’s the absolute clearest part of scripture telling us how to determine whether something is of God or not, but it’s interpreted so differently. I don’t argue with them. Instead I just point to the magnificence of Jesus and leave it at that,” Karls says.

Another reason people shy away from Jehovah’s Witnesses is their unwillingness to learn or respect the doctrines of other faiths, says the Rev. Rodrick A. Smith, 44, pastor of Zion Missionary Baptist Church, 721 Johnson in Saginaw.

“It sets Jehovah’s Witnesses apart from all the other denominations when you deny … the divinity of Christ and the Trinity,” Smith says. “Growing up, we were always cautioned to stay away from Jehovah’s Witnesses and not to let them into your house because people didn’t consider them a denomination, but a cult because of their beliefs. I never knew what their beliefs were until I went to seminary.

“Unfortunately, one of the adverse affects of Jehovah Witnesses knocking on doors for so long, is whenever people see anyone coming to their door today, they automatically assume ‘oh, here come those Jehovah’s Witnesses again,’ then they slam the door in your face, too. The perception that only the Jehovah Witnesses go around knocking on doors makes it really hard for other ministries trying to reach out to folks.”

The mission

If all goes as they plan with the convention, more residents will welcome them into their homes, instead of greeting followers contemptuously.

This year, leaders of the 6.6 million-member denomination in 235 countries — including more than 950,000 in America — for an extensive campaign requiring members to hand-deliver about 75,000 ‘personal invitations’ to their “Deliverance at Hand!” District Convention this weekend in Saginaw.

Followers are using the fliers to convince nonmembers to reconsider longheld stereotypes characterizing believers as closed-minded, cultist pesters.

The first three-day session — expected to draw at least 5,400 followers — begins at 9:30 a.m. Friday, and continues through Sunday, July 30. at TheDow Event Center, 303 Johnson in Saginaw.

Organizers are repeating the free event Friday through Sunday, Aug. 4-6; and Aug. 11-13, enabling attendance by 11,000 additional followers from its 49 Michigan congregations. Saginaw, Bay and Midland counties are home to 11 congregations, representing more than 1,000 members.

“Ignorance is the worst enemy of anything,” says Daniel R. Ferriss, 45, an elder in the Grayling congregation. “There are so many things people looking in from the outside don’t know or understand about us. We’re good people who tend to dwell on the positive.”

Ferriss, who wasn’t raised in the faith, is trekking with his wife, Rene (pronounced Reen) to Saginaw for the first weekend of the conference. He joined Jehovah’s Witnesses more than 18 years ago.

“My personal goal during the three days is to learn how to be a better public minister, better myself as a Christian and improve my understanding of the Bible,” he says.

When they’re not at convention events, some members will bunk with fellow Witnesses, while others will join the Ferrisses at hotels throughout the community. What mid-Michigan residents won’t encounter, however, is a surge in the number of Witnesses going door-to-door promoting Bible education, Ferriss says.

“With the number of people we’re expecting, it’s not feasible. So members will continue their public ministry when they return to their respective home territories,” he says.

Doorbell ministry

When Gary Bocksch is not pounding the pavement “spreading the Kingdom message” as a volunteer elder with the Saginaw North congregation at 6025 Shattuck in Saginaw Township, the 57-year-old Mott Community College professor teaches electronics at the Flint campus. Evonne Bocksch, 55, is a homemaker. They were raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses and raised their five children, now 27 to 37, in the faith.

The couple and their fellow North congregation members will attend the second convention session at TheDow.

“We try not to be a bother to anyone,” Gary Bocksch says. “We know there are people who don’t want to talk with us, and that’s OK. We try to find folks who are interested in having a free home Bible study with us.”

On this particular day, the couple starts their door-to-door ministry on Lawndale heading north to Tittabawassee in Saginaw Township. After a short drive from the Kingdom Hall, they pull their car into the driveway of a retired Saginaw teacher’s home. They’ve befriended the man, but he’s not home. They place a religious tract detailing some of their beliefs in his door before leaving.

“Our mission is to show people how Bible principles can help them in their lives,” says Gary Bocksch as he travels east on Tittabawassee before turning south on Coralberry to Holly Lane, where he continues knocking on doors.v

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