Jehovah’s Witnesses are returning to NJ after a long COVID break and knocking on the door

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When Susan Cohen knocked on the door for Jehovah’s Witnesses after a two-and-a-half-year pandemic hiatus, she feared the door might be slammed in her face.

“After COVID, I didn’t know what to expect,” said the Montclair woman, who has shared her faith through the Witnesses’ door-to-door evangelism for nearly 45 years.

Her worries proved unfounded this fall when she and her colleagues around the world returned to the field. Cohen, a self-proclaimed “people person,” spent her first day sharing stories and literature with neighbors in Glen Ridge and West Orange.

“People were so happy to be able to talk face-to-face,” said Cohen, whose energy seems to betray her 76 years.

It was a different experience than before the pandemic, when people were rarely at home and often refused to speak, she recalls.

“You’re taking your time now,” Cohen said. “Many feel vulnerable after what we’ve been through – the war, a terrible economy, so many people dying from COVID. People are in a desperate situation and many are longing for hope.”

Jehovah’s Witnesses are a Christian denomination with more than 8.6 million adherents around the world, including 1.3 million in the United States, according to the Warwick, New York-based group.

Face-to-face appeals are not only a mainstay of the faith, but a practice that the group has fought for decades to preserve, said spokesman Robert Hendricks. In June, Jehovah’s Witnesses celebrated the 20th anniversary of a US Supreme Court ruling that protected their right to knock on doors without being required to seek government approval.

The group suspended door-to-door evangelism in the early days of the pandemic, just as the rest of society went into lockdown. It has also closed its 13,000 US congregations and canceled in-person gatherings. (The members met again in April of this year).

“The pandemic has taught us that there are many ways to reach people,” said Robert Acevedo, a Jehovah’s Witness elder in Elizabeth. “We’ve learned to reach people through letters and phone calls and virtual Bible studies.”

“Awareness is fundamental”

Cohen continued her ministry through letters and phone calls to strangers and found she could reach more people remotely than she could on foot. With many working from home — and craving human connection — she found people who were grateful for uplifting conversations.

The modified insert was still successful, according to Jehovah’s Witnesses. The group grew during the pandemic, baptizing an additional 500,000 people worldwide, Hendricks said. COVID has been difficult, but “it has made us stronger and better,” he said.

Yet such tactics lacked the face-to-face interactions that Witnesses believe are vital.

“Outreach is fundamental. It’s a seminal teaching of Jesus,” Hendricks said. “The last thing he ever said was about evangelism. We picked up this coat. This is us. We are witnesses. If we do not testify about our Creator, then we are not witnesses. We don’t preach for ourselves, we turn to our neighbors.”

Door-to-door visits officially resumed on September 1st.

Since then, Cohen has found plenty of Zoomsters willing to step out of the virtual grind to discuss deeper issues.

During her travels around North Jersey, she asked one person why children suffer and what happens after death. Another wanted to talk about friends and relatives lost to COVID-19. A couple who speak only Turkish were thrilled when Cohen showed them a short Bible video in their own language.

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One woman dropped on her front door and said she never wanted a Bible study before the pandemic but is now eager for it. Cohen said she would return to her regularly.

On a recent trip, Cohen went door-to-door with Montclair colleague and friend Sandy Massillon, who became a member a decade ago after taking a free Bible study course. The return to the field is gratifying, she said.

“It helps us feel more connected to our neighbors,” she said, “and personally offer them the comfort they need.”

Origins of Jehovah’s Witnesses

Jehovah’s Witnesses are a Christian denomination whose beliefs differ from traditional Christianity. It grew out of the Bible Students movement founded by Pittsburgh preacher Charles Taze Russell in the late 1870s. The teachings of the religion are established by a group of elders based in Warwick.

MPs who are politically neutral view much of secular society as morally corrupt. Holidays like Christmas and Mother’s Day are not observed by beliefs that claim their pagan origins. The group also does not accept most blood transfusions, citing a biblical prohibition on taking blood. In serious cases, members typically request that doctors seek the best alternative that respects their religious beliefs.

Famous members included the late singer-songwriter Prince, who was christened as an adult; Michelle Rodriguez, the “Lost” actress who was raised a Jehovah’s Witness; and tennis champion Serena Williams, who was raised in the faith.

According to the 2014 Pew Religious Landscape Study, Jehovah’s Witnesses, who make up less than 1% of adult Americans, are among the most racially and ethnically diverse religious groups in America: 36% are white, 32% are Hispanic, 27% are black, and 6% are black another race or a mixed race.

“Being part of such a diverse denomination means I’m part of the largest family on earth,” said Massillon, who is of Haitian descent. “It has been my experience that I can find myself in any part of the world and find a family that will love me and accept me as their own.”

The vast majority, 65%, are converts who were raised in a different faith, according to the Pew study.

That includes Cohen, who was raised in a conservative Jewish family in Passaic before converting nearly half a century ago. Although she learned Hebrew as a child, she never studied the Bible or connected much with her family’s faith or traditions, she said.

In 1975, when she was a divorced mother with a young son living in Verona, she heard a knock on her front door and opened it to a Jehovah’s Witness. She wasn’t looking for religion but wanted to know what the Bible says and began studying with the Witnesses, she said. Eventually she joined the group.

Cohen knows firsthand how powerful the human connection of the “witness” can be.

“Face-to-face contact is much more personal. With eye contact, people feel reassured more easily,” she said. “This can help them feel more comfortable asking the questions that are on their hearts and pave the way for more meaningful discussions.

“My goal is not to force anyone to become a Jehovah’s Witness, but to use the Bible to answer their questions and tell them their purpose in the world,” Cohen said. “Whatever they do with that information is up to them.”

Deena Yellin covers religion for For full access to her work, which explores how the spiritual intersects with our daily lives, Please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

E-mail: [email protected]; Twitter: @deenayellin

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