Column: COVID has quieted Jehovah’s Witness door-knocking and Long Beach conventions

As you may be aware if you’re home a lot, it’s been a year since Jehovah’s Witnesses have knocked on doors to chat about Jesus and hand out reading material, so it’s understandable to imagine the members of the religion might be getting a bit cranky, or at least stir-crazy by now. You might not miss them, but they miss you.

For nearly 150 years, they’ve logged probably millions of miles and hours offering what they term as Good News throughout neighborhoods, walking slowly from door to door, all dressed up for church—even the younger kids wear dresses or sport jackets and ties—carrying Bibles and copies of Watchtower and Awake! magazines and being told “No, thank you” by the more polite but uninterested people who still bother answering knocks and doorbells before they shut the door in the Witnesses’ faces, with a relative few who engage or are receptive to the message.

The devout followers remained undaunted by rudeness and weather for more than a century, until COVID ended their walk-and-knock program a year ago on March 13.

In addition to the stay-home orders, “We stopped our door-to-door ministry out of respect and love of our neighbor,” says Oscar Hidalgo, the media representative for Jehovah’s Witnesses in Southern California. “We didn’t want to get anyone sick.”

But it’s that same love of neighbors, he says, that has prompted Jehovah’s Witnesses to carry on the spreading of their message through a phone-calling and letter-writing campaign, as well as meeting with one another in Bible studies and other forms of worship and discussion through that medium that allows life to carry on with minimal human contact: Zoom.

Zoom, too, has replaced the Witnesses’ twice-weekly services at their Kingdom Halls, along with their well attended meetings at the Long Beach Convention Center. Losing their conventions has been a major blow to the city, with the group’s cancelation of some 12-14 three-day gatherings at the center last year as well as in 2021.

According to Steve Goodling, president and CEO of the Long Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau, the meetings each draw between 7,000 and 10,000 congregants, and, says Goodling, they bring in an estimated $54 million a year to the city’s restaurants, hotels and other businesses as well as the convention center.

During COVID, the Witnesses have taken to holding virtual meetings, which, Hidalgo says, have resulted in greater attendance, though the interpersonal of the live gatherings is sadly missing, as anyone who’s ever Zoomed through a family or friends cocktail hour can attest.

The letter-writing, though, says Hidalgo, is what’s keeping members busy during the pandemic, and the results are giving door-to-door walking a run for its money in terms of connections.

“We’re having great success with letters,” he says. “Some people appreciate a phone call, but most people are really enjoying getting a handwritten letter. All our members are doing that, writing letters by hand and paying for postage out of their own pocket, everyone’s doing it; it’s a worldwide effort.”

Hidalgo says that interest in the Jehovah’s Witness religion has increased during the coronavirus pandemic.

Visitors to the religion’s website, which is translated into more than 1,000 languages, has increased by nearly 51,000 in the U.S. during the last year, he says, with people requesting a Bible study to follow or a Witness to reach out with a phone call to discuss religion and other subjects.

“Because of COVID, we’re finding more people looking for spirituality, to find some type of comfort, something to give their life purpose,” says Hidalgo.

So are the days of well dressed people strolling slowly down your block and knocking on your door over? They are not, says Hidalgo.

“We’ll be knocking on doors again, but not anytime soon. It will take some time, but we will do that, because it’s a direction we get from Jesus and the Bible. It’s what we do.”

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Tim Grobaty is a columnist and opinions editor for the Long Beach Post. He began his newspaper career at the Press-Telegram in 1976 as a copy boy and moved on to feature writer, music critic, TV critic, copy editor and daily columnist. He’s the author of several books, including I’m Dyin’ Here, and he lives in Long Beach.