‘People Would Be So Receptive Right Now, and We Can’t Knock on Doors.’

‘People Would Be So Receptive Right Now, and We Can’t Knock on Doors.’

Brenda Francis settled into the Kingdom Hall in Calhoun, Ga., in mid-March, surrounded by dozens of familiar faces. Signs cautioning against shaking hands and hugging were posted around the room. It felt weird to her but was certainly understandable with the threat of an outbreak looming. She herself already had stocked up on some masks and gloves.

When it came time for members to comment on the Bible readings, Ms. Francis noticed the microphones typically passed around the room were now attached to the end of long poles.

That was the moment Ms. Francis, a 69-year-old widow living in a small, semirural community in the South, realized just how dramatically the coronavirus pandemic was about to reshape her spiritual life, more than anything ever had in the 47 years since she was baptized as a Jehovah’s Witness.

A few days after the boom mics came out in the Kingdom Hall, word came down from the group’s headquarters that, in the interest of safety, Jehovah’s Witnesses should stop witnessing, its practice of in-person attempts at converting people to the group.

“People would be so receptive right now,” she said of her ministry, “and we can’t knock on doors.”

Across America, most religious groups have stopped coming together in large numbers to pray and hold services, in keeping with stay-at-home orders. They have improvised with online preaching and even drive-in services held as parishioners sit in cars. Mormons have stopped going door-to-door in the U.S. and called home many missionaries working abroad.

Jehovah’s Witnesses — with 1.3 million members in the U.S. who hand out brochures on sidewalks and subway platforms and ring doorbells — are one of the most visible religious groups in the nation. Members are called on to share scriptures in person with nonmembers, warning of an imminent Armageddon and hoping to baptize them with the prospect of living forever.

The decision to stop their ministries was the first of its kind in the nearly 150 years the group has existed. It followed anguished discussions at Watchtower headquarters, with leaders deciding March 20 that knocking on doors would leave the impression that members were disregarding the safety of those they hoped to convert.

“This was not an easy decision for anybody,” said Robert Hendriks, the group’s U.S. spokesman. “As you know, our ministry is our life.”

It was for Ms. Francis, who became a Jehovah’s Witness when she was in her 20s with a newborn, and a member knocked on her door in Tennessee and convinced her to attend a Kingdom Hall meeting. She converted. Her family was angry that she no longer came to holiday gatherings; the group doesn’t believe in celebrating holidays or birthdays. Jehovah’s Witnesses became her new family.

The more she studied the Bible, the more she came to believe it led to eternal life. She needed to spread the word.

Showing up cold on someone’s doorstep didn’t come naturally. She was so shy that once, she recalled, her high school principal — “this huge Goliath guy” — stood on her foot in a crowded hallway and she didn’t say a word, but waited in pain for him to move. She had considered a career going door-to-door as a Mason Shoes saleswoman, but after receiving a catalog, she never mustered the courage to even try to make a sale.

To her, witnessing was different. Her faith had helped her stop smoking. It gave her meaning. She had seen people clean up their lives after attending meetings at Kingdom Hall.

“By the time I did go to doors, I was so convinced this was the right thing to do that I had no nervousness,” Ms. Francis said.

Through the years, she learned to build her pitch around a theme — a Bible verse or a current event — and tried not to sound rehearsed.

“You don’t want to sound like a robot,” she said. “You work from the heart. You want enthusiasm.”

Early this year, Ms. Francis had been seeing reports on Facebook about the virus sweeping through Wuhan, China. The host of a show she watched on YouTube, Peak Prosperity, had been warning the outbreak could spread internationally.

She bought masks and face shields, just in case. She started using plastic grocery bags to cover the gas pump handle when she filled up her tank.

By early March, the virus still hadn’t hit Gordon County, where Ms. Francis lives. But the possibility was weighing on her mind. The message on her favorite YouTube show was getting more dire as the host, Chris Martenson, a financial guru-turned-pandemic early warner, ratcheted up his pleadings for viewers to prepare themselves.

Ms. Francis’s 27-year-old granddaughter has a compromised immune system. As a senior citizen, she herself was vulnerable. She did what she always has done and channeled her own feelings into her door-knocking ministry. Do you think, she would ask people as she car-pooled with other members to canvass the county, that the virus is a sign of the end of the world?

“No one was paying much attention,” she said.

Elsewhere, in places like New York where infections were starting to climb, Jehovah’s Witness members were feeling the pinch on their ministries.

One of them, Joe Babsky, for weeks had been easing into conversations with members of his Planet Fitness gym in the Bronx. He knew them by first name only — Jerry who had lost more than 100 pounds; Jason who seemed to spend an hour on each body part; Bernie, a 78-year-old who was more fit than men half his age. Mr. Babsky had shown a few of them Bible verses and had made progress recently with Bernie discussing the logic behind the existence of an intelligent creator.

Then the gym closed.

“All those conversations and others were cut short,” Mr. Babsky said.

Life continued as normal in Ms. Francis’s town of Calhoun. She was convinced things were about to change but she was too embarrassed to wear a mask — until an encounter in Costco when a passing shopper coughed without covering her mouth.

In mid-March, her Kingdom Hall meetings went virtual. Members logged into Zoom to share Bible scriptures. Ms. Francis settled on one that she thought would resonate as she knocked on doors in her neighborhood across the county, which had by then registered a handful of Covid-19 cases.

At the doorstep, Ms. Francis would start her pitch by asking people if they could make one thing in the world go away, what would it be? If the answer had to do with the pandemic, she would recite a couple verses from the book of Luke:

“There will be great earthquakes, and in one place after another food shortages and pestilences; and there will be fearful sights and from heaven great signs.”

All the signs were clear, she would announce. Armageddon was near. Her message finally seemed to be resonating with people.

And then Ms. Francis got word to stop knocking on doors.

“This has been so much a part of our lives, so it was like, wow,” she said. “I have often envisioned in paradise where going door-to-door would not be a thing because everyone knows God.”

This was not paradise.

But Ms. Francis was convinced the end of the world was not far away. There were just too many signs, she said. And so she and many other Jehovah’s Witness members were more compelled than ever to witness any way they could. Many began writing letters or making phone calls to anyone whose numbers they managed to collect before the pandemic hit.

Masked and gloved, Ms. Francis hands out pamphlets and cards with her phone number on them to fellow shoppers at the grocery store.

Last week, she sent a text to a woman in Hawkinsville, Ga., a few miles away, whom she had been contacting from time to time. The woman said her restaurant had to close because of the pandemic and her brother-in-law was sick with the virus. A couple days later he died.

Ms. Francis texted scriptures to the woman and told her that soon all the sickness on earth would be over; all sins would be forgiven; paradise was near.

The next day she received a written response: “Thank you so much for the information. It was such a comfort.”

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