WARRENTON - Every faith and each Church body has been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, but Jehovah’s Witnesses faced a distinctive challenge last spring with the onset of COVID-19, as the threat of the virus enveloped the globe. After all, Jehovah’s Witnesses are known for public outreach, for going door to door, and for staging large-scale conventions. Surely, going virtual would hinder the traditional practices that represent the core of their convictions. Wouldn’t it?
“When the organization told us, ‘You cannot go out and knock on doors; you cannot go to somebody’s home and preach the Gospel,’” said Jehovah’s Witness National Spokesperson Robert Hendriks, “well, that was earth shattering.”
Instead of going door to door, Jehovah’s Witnesses like Warrenton couple Tyrone and Gracie Davis pivoted to phone calls, letters and worshipping via Zoom. With fewer than three months of preparation, Jehovah’s Witnesses shifted their annual in-person event last year to a virtual format. The organization followed suit this year and instead of 6,000 separate conventions, including the annual one planned for Raleigh, there was one “Powerful by Faith” virtual convention, delivered in more than 500 languages over six weekends in July and August, reaching an estimated 15-20 million people in 240 countries.
And what had initially felt like an “earth shattering” change transformed into a faith-strengthening experience instead for Jehovah’s Witnesses everywhere, according to Hendriks and the Davises.
“Even though we can’t reach out and touch each other,” said Tyrone, a lifelong Jehovah’s Witness, “we can see each other and we can hear each other.”
Hendriks, a Long Island, N.Y. native, said the decision to go virtual wasn’t a true dilemma, despite the jarring nature of the changes it brought on early in the pandemic.
“There was no debate,” Hendriks said, specifically of altering the convention format. “It was very clear. As Christians, we love our neighbor. As Christians, we love life and we’re going to preserve life. And as Christians, we’re unified because we love one another.
“I think all of us can say what we have found out is that spirituality is not about a building. It’s not even about meeting in person together. It’s about our relationship with our creator, our relationship with others. And those things have never been stronger.”
Davis believes there are more than 150 practicing Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Warren County area. His wife Gracie also grew up in the faith, nearby in Gaston in Northampton County.
The Davises would have this year and last year attended the convention planned for Raleigh’s PNC Arena, which can seat more than 20,000 for events like these.
Hendriks said conventions are part of the DNA of Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose beliefs are quite often misunderstood. They believe in Jesus and his resurrection, Hendriks said, but not that Jesus is God; rather that God, the father, created Jesus. The goal of public outreach, according to Hendriks, is less about conversion and more about reintroducing the value of God’s word and the Bible.
The inspiration to be Witnesses comes from Acts 20:20: “You know that I have not hesitated to preach anything that would be helpful to you but have taught you publicly and from house to house.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses weren’t about to let COVID stop them fulfilling that mission.
Being known for public outreach, in whatever form it takes, is not something they shy away from.
“Everyone today is a Christian because the Apostles preached from house to house,” Hendriks said. “... So for people to know us for our preaching work, that’s a badge of honor. We love that because it’s an expression of our devotion to our God. It’s an expression of our love for him and for our neighbor.
“And finally, it’s an expression of how we take Jesus’ example very seriously and try to follow in his footsteps. In essence for us, it’s who we are and we’re proud of it.”