This coming Thursday, Jehovah’s Witnesses nationwide will go back to door-to-door preaching, after a two-and-a-half-year hiatus due to the pandemic.
For Bed-Stuy couple Kerri and Samantha Dowridge, the return comes with a few nerves, a lot of excitement, and the need for new pairs of sneakers.
The married Jehovah’s Witnesses, both in their early 30s, said they are preparing mentally, spiritually and physically to go out and meet neighbors in person again.
“There’s some nerves there, of course,” said Samantha—who has been baptized for 19 years.
“But I’m so excited to get back out there and meet our neighbors in person again. We’ve all gone through so much during the pandemic.”
Kerri, baptized for 15 years, echoed his wife’s excitement. “We’re all set and ready to go,” he said. “It’s a great energy of anticipation. We’re thrilled to be a part of going back in person.”
The couple—married 6 years this October—said their day will start with a good cup of coffee and making sure they’re at their best. That includes preparing with the right pair of walking shoes. “We haven’t had to use those in a while,” Samantha quipped.
The couple will go door-to-door together and have been preparing for the big day by practicing on one-another and at their Kingdom Hall, located at 1260 Bergen St. in Crown Heights.
Kerri has ministered in Brooklyn—and Bed-Stuy—for a good portion of his life and said over the years, he has seen the demographics change. But overall, he just sees an enduring commonality between people wanting to live better lives and improve their mental health.
He has never had a situation where things got out of control. But he recognizes that door-to-door ministry is not welcomed by all.
“This is Brooklyn, so everyone is not receptive. We respect everyone’s decision or choice, and we leave just as good neighbors,” he said.
“One of the things you learn is how to interact with people. Even if people are not receptive, that’s alright; sometimes it’s a bad time. It’s just about being relatable and sharing neighborly love.”
“I feel a little rusty going in,” Samantha said. “But during the pandemic, we got to write letters to our neighbors and speak on the phone. And the message we’re sharing is all the same. It’s just the matter of the location.”
The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ suspended door-to-door ministry in March 2020. The decision was a proactive response by the organization to keep communities and congregants safe, it said.
“It was a very difficult decision, because preaching is not just what we do; it’s really who we are,” said Robert Hendriks, a U.S. spokesman for Jehovah’s Witnesses told BK Reader. He noted that the pause came before the pandemic had even fully reached some states.
Prior to that, Jehovah’s Witnesses had been preaching door-to-door without interruption for more than 100 years through an economic depression and two world wars. But COVID-19 demanded a different response.
“Many, many hours and prayers went into that decision. And no doubt at the end of the day, even though it was a shock to the system, the wisdom was clean,” Hendriks said. “Without question it was a decision that saved many lives.”
During the pandemic, the Jehovah’s Witnesses pivoted to virtual ministry, letter writing and phone calls. Hendriks said they believe it’s possible that hundreds of millions of letters were sent by Witnesses in the months that door-to-door ministry has been on pause.
The pandemic also saw some surprises for the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The number of newly-baptized Witnesses worldwide jumped by more than 400,000, with a 3% increase in the United States (there are nearly 1.3 million Jehovah’s Witnesses in the U.S. now).
In Brooklyn, there are 43 physical houses of worship for Jehovah’s Witnesses, and a total number of 9,012 congregants.
It’s estimated that thousands of those newly-baptized had never interacted with the organization before, Hendriks said.
“If someone asked me three years ago could that ever happen, I would say of course not.”
Despite this, the Jehovah’s Witnesses have no plans to abandon door-to-door preaching for virtual, with Hendriks saying it is still the most effective way of ministering to the people.
As more than a million Jehovah’s Witnesses prepare to go back to door-knocking this week, he says many, like the Dowridges, will be preparing for an act of courage.
“We do it because we want to share something most important to us, and in the best of neighborhoods in the best of times in the best of weather, knocking on the door of someone you don’t know is always an act of courage.”
Hendriks said the Witnesses know they’re going back to a changed world, and some communities more changed and divided than others. Masks will be optional, and Witnesses will take their neighbors cues.
“We’re also dealing with our own inhibitions and feelings of inadequacy because we’ve had no practice at this for 2.5 years,” Hendriks said.
“Christianity is at its best about practicing, not perfecting, and we’ve been out of practice with this aspect. So we’re very much looking forward to being in a rhythm and routine and seeing what our neighbors reactions will be.”