Witness Protection

North Shore/May 14, 2004
By Joel Beck

Nothing puts people on edge quite like a stranger at their doorstep. So why do the Jehovah's Witnesses insist on the door-to-door ministry? Because the law says they can - and yes, God told them to.

It takes just a few minutes of polite conversation with a Jehovah's Witness to arrive at a rather baffling question: Why are people always calling the cops on these nice folks?

When it comes to shady characters lurking in the neighborhood, the neatly pressed suits and sunny dispositions of the Jehovah's Witnesses don't exactly evoke widespread terror. Moreover, the religious literature they're famous for peddling - with Utopian-like illustrations of a nothing-but-smiles populace - may be vaguely creepy in a "Stepford Wives" kind of way, but there's nothing about the Jehovah's Witnesses' practices that screams "better call 911."

But people do. All the time.

"With the way the crime rate is today, you can understand how people are a little afraid when they see strangers," admits Carl Mackay, an elder with the Jehovah's Witness Kingdom Hall in Lynn. "I can understand how people feel because I might feel the same way if a stranger came to my house."

Such was the case in Topsfield just last month when police received a call about a suspicious vehicle turning in and out of neighborhood driveways and strangers knocking on doors. After determining that they were in fact Jehovah's Witnesses, the responding officer suggested that it would be in the ministers' best interests to register with the Topsfield police department before engaging in their door-to-door activity.

But as Topsfield Police Chief Dan O'Shea soon learned after receiving a letter from the legal department at the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society - the New York-based parent organization of the Jehovah's Witnesses - a 2001 Supreme Court ruling upheld the Witnesses' constitutional right to continue with their public ministry without having to obtain a permit (see adjacent story).

People can call the police all they want, but the bottom line is that the Jehovah's Witnesses have the right to deliver the word of God directly to your doorstep. Like it or not.

"It creates a little bit of a Catch-22 for us," says Chief O'Shea. "In this day and age, a lot of people are leery of anybody coming door to door. And not just in Topsfield. It creates the same quandary everywhere."

Proselytizing as Jehovah's Witnesses' cause may be, O'Shea speaks for hefty portion of the population when he says the Jehovah's Witnesses' aren't always welcome at every household.

Put aside, for a moment, the people who call the police when they see them coming. What should be even more alarming for the Jehovah's Witnesses are the number of folks who simply cringe, roll their eyes or lock their doors at the mere sight of them.

No one ever said spreading God's word would be easy. But doing so at the private homes of total strangers borders on the impossible.

"Most people are not resentful toward them, but they do kind of joke when they say 'oh yeah, here come the Jehovah's Witnesses,'" says former Topsfield Board of Selectman chairman Joe Iarocci, who sent a letter of apology to the Watchtower Society after the police incident.

"Let's face it, if the Jehovah's Witnesses are canvassing the neighborhood, I don't think too many people will be upset if their house gets skipped," Iarocci adds.

So why bother? You might think they'd get tired of having doors slammed on their face and explaining to police that they're not stalkers. But judging by the 6.5 million Jehovah's Witnesses practicing worldwide - making it one of the fastest growing religions in the world - it's clear that they're having some success in delivering their religious message.

And they don't plan on ceasing operations any time soon. So hold off on dialing 911.

"We do it because people are ignorant of the scriptures of Jesus and the instructions he gave to early Christians," says Mackay. "How are people going to know if we don't show them or tell them about the scriptures? How will they know what choices to make?"

Tensions Rising

You won't find any mug shots or "wanted" posters of Jehovah's Witnesses at your local police department. That's the good news.

The bad news - at least for the Jehovah's Witnesses - is that there are plenty of scary people in the world, many of whom will prey on innocent victims even in the sanctuary of their own home. Consider that and it's no wonder people tend to peer suspiciously through the curtains before opening their front door.

"Nothing surprises you anymore," says Topsfield's Chief O'Shea. "Twenty years ago, it used to shock the conscience when something bad would happen. Now it's just another murder or another rape or another child molestation. They just don't have the same effect on society as they once did. I think that's a sad statement."

While O'Shea maintains that the public has become significantly desensitized to the impact such violence, Topsfield's Iarocci points out has also become acutely aware that it exists more than ever.

"The doorbell ringing today is much different than the doorbell ringing 40 years ago," says Iarocci. "There's sort of a different perspective now of what stranger is at the door. For obvious reasons, things have changed tremendously. I don't think there's that graciousness of receiving visitors without suspicion as there had been in the past."

For that reason, O'Shea was a little taken aback when he received the letter from the Watchtower organization saying that Jehovah's Witnesses aren't legally obligated to check in with local police before going door to door. In an age that's defined by an all-time peak in public safety awareness, O'Shea says it's not unreasonable for the police to want to know who's roaming throughout the neighborhoods.

"I certainly don't have any issues with the officer who made that decision on the street," says O'Shea. "He thought he was doing the right thing and I probably would have done the same thing if I was still out on the road working.

"(The officer) thought they should really come in and present themselves to the department so we know who they are and where they're going so we can ward off phone calls," Shea adds. "The residents may not like the fact that they're going door to door, but they are entitled to it."

Salem police Capt. John Jodoin concurs. Although Jodoin says that Salem doesn't receive many complaints of door-to-door religious soliciting, he says a relationship with the police department will ultimately work to the advantage of Jehovah's Witnesses in any community.

"I would think it would actually be better for them," says Jodoin. "It would add an air of credibility to their actions by showing they have a permit from the city that allows them to do this. The courts have ruled that religious organizations don't have to do so, but at least the homeowners are reassured that this is a legitimate function. "

That's not to say the Jehovah's Witnesses are completely callous to the concerns of residents who may be wary of opening their doors for them. As Mackay points out, many Jehovah's Witness ministers actually do have ongoing discourse regarding their whereabouts with local authorities in many communities.

But that doesn't mean they have to check in with the police at all times. Nor do they intend to, if Topsfield is any indication.

"We recognize that we need to do it in a tactful way," says MacKay. "But to be unified, it was good that our organization sent that letter down (to Topsfield). The scriptures say there is a need to go and preach the good news of God's kingdom. We do have the right to be in the door-to-door ministry."

A better way?

Travis Wallace likes to crack jokes about the Jehovah's Witnesses. As a local stand-up comedian who worked the North Shore weekend comedy circuit for several years before eventually settling in New Hampshire, Wallace saw the Witnesses as a pretty good source of material.

One of Wallace's favorite anecdotes involves the time he was doing a show at a Motel 6 in Bangor, Maine that had rented out 96 of its rooms to more than 250 Jehovah's Witnesses. After being told by the motel's manager not to expect too many of the Witnesses to turn out for the comedy show, Wallace begged to differ.

"I told him 'are you kidding me? Two hundred and fifty Jehovah's Witnesses?'" recalls Wallace. "I'm going to go and knock on their doors for a change."

All kidding aside, Wallace actually does raise an excellent question when asked his thoughts about the practices of the Jehovah's Witnesses - one that at first blush seems almost too simple.

"If people don't like them going door-to-door, then why don't the Jehovah's Witnesses have their own Sunday morning television show?" wonders Wallace. "You'd think it would cut down on the people who call the cops on them."

It does seem a tad curious that in the age of mass communication, the Jehovah's Witnesses would ignore seemingly more efficient opportunities in reaching out to the masses through television, radio and e-mail. They do have a Website at www.watchtower.org, but beyond that, the Jehovah's Witnesses are still perfectly content going door to door.

"You could suggest that we go on television, but it costs money to go on television," says Mackay. "The foremost way is always going door to door. The reason is because we like the privacy of people's homes. When you're in a group setting, you have a lot of people interpreting the bible the way they feel it should be interpreted.

"Also, people don't always want to express themselves in a group setting," he adds. "It's a lot easier for people to have a bible discussion at their home. The scriptures say that the early Christians went from house to house, so that's what we do."

You have to wonder, however, if the early Christians had access to a speedy Internet service provider whether they would have sent out a monthly e-newsletter rather than knock on door after door.

But as Watchtower associate general counsel Paul Polidoro points out, the door-to-door practices have always been the preferred choice of the Jehovah's Witnesses.

And answering the front door remains the choice of every homeowner.

"The homeowner has a right to protect himself," says Polidoro. "Invariably, if someone doesn't wish to hear whatever message somebody brings to the door, they either tell them or they don't answer the door. We've always felt that it's the homeowner's choice to decide for himself or herself."

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