The Proselytizing Pious

Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose origins date back to the late 19th century, are well known for their missionary activity. Although the group’s controversial doctrines often elicit hostility, its members, who number 6.8 million, are dedicated to proselytizing throughout the world. The Globalist spoke with national spokesperson J.R. Brown.

TYG: Is there a specific demographic on which you focus your message in the U.S.?

JRB: We don’t focus on a specific demographic because our message is for everyone. We approach every home and, often, as many individuals as possible.

TYG: In American communities, what are your most effective strategies? Are there certain parts of the community that are particularly receptive to your message?

JRB: We’re doing very well in immigrant communities in places like New York City. Immigrants’ ties here are not usually the same as in the place they left, and so we fill a vacuum. We do well among Hispanics, whether they speak English or Spanish, and this is due to the fact that they have what we call a “teachable” disposition. They have warm religious feelings and are inclined to listen to something when it is presented in a way that appeals to them, that something better is ahead.

We have an active program teaching Witnesses whatever language we’re going to get results in—not only Spanish, which we view as a second language here, but Chinese, Hindi, Portuguese, French, and even sign language. If you’re going to reach a person’s mind and heart, you’ve got to come to him with the language he learned at his mother’s knee.

TYG: How have you adapted your traditional tactics to the increasing ubiquity of cell phones, blogs, and email?

JRB: We have greater adaptability, but we are careful not to change our fundamental approach, which is going door-to-door. That said, we are very active in “phone witnessing.” Normally we take a group out to a “territory.” But, with so many people not at home, you have to use other means to get at them. In a number of Kingdom Halls—which is where we meet—we have a block of telephones and maybe four of us spend the morning calling people, talking to them or leaving messages, and then we’ll have follow-up work, where we endeavor to reach someone who has been spoken to before. Our calls are not so much at random because we usually accumulate phone numbers from people living in a community, meaning that people aren’t talking to strangers in India or somewhere.

TYG: In 2002, six Witnesses were abducted in the Philippines by a group associated with al-Qaida. How have you been brought into political developments in Washington, especially surrounding the War on Terror?

JRB: We strive to stay completely out of politics. But we recognize that there is a difference between getting involved in “politics” and using the governmental organ that is responsible for security and human rights. So we regularly send people down to D.C. to meet with representatives of the State Department, because in a number of countries in the world we as Jehovah’s Witnesses are experiencing difficulties—abuse, violence, and, sad to say, even death. The reason we appeal to the State Department is because most of these countries are receiving financial aid from the U.S. on the premise that they will guarantee human rights.

In Georgia, we faced widespread abuse—our houses were even burnt down—which was spearheaded by renegade and defrocked members of the clergy, because they felt they were losing membership as a result of religious freedom and our work. But then the government more or less just allowed it and didn’t take any action to stop it, so it got out of control. We’re often viewed as a formidable enemy because we’re about hands-on contact: it’s not a matter of building a church and telling people to come to it. We go right to the home.

TYG: What percentage of your missionaries are American?

JRB: Let’s be realistic—in many places, because of Americans’ reputation abroad, it is far better to use our European representatives. Belgians and English and a few others take the lead, since we are just not getting the same results in many places with Americans as we did in the past. In some places like Iran and Iraq, most of our membership has fled; these places are quite dangerous because, as you know, in any Muslim country, working there as practicing Christians—in particular seeking what they would call “converts”—is not allowed.