For every door that has opened for lifelong San Antonio Jehovah’s Witness Joe Doctor III, plenty have slammed in his face.
He’s learned not to take it personally.
As a so-called “publisher” — one who publicly identifies as a follower of Jehovah through a door-to-door ministry — Doctor is one of 6.5 million Witnesses worldwide who aim to reach every household at least once a year with one mission: to love thy neighbor and share Jehovah’s kingdom.
“We know that every door we knock on is a challenge,” said Doctor, 43. “If we talk to somebody one day and they are hostile, we feel in our hearts we’ve planted a seed.”
With 85 English and Spanish Jehovah’s Witness congregations in San Antonio, Witnesses ferry their message across city blocks with methodical perseverance and unyielding sincerity.
But the right to ring a doorbell or wedge their literature in a doorframe represents decades of hard-won battles.
“You may be irritated when somebody wakes you up on Saturday morning and knocks on your door,” said Jehovah’s Witness General Counsel Philip Brumley, based in New York. “But you might think on another hand, isn’t it nice in this country we have a freedom to do that?”
David Casillas (left) and Joe Doctor III meet with Roger Casias (right) at his home recently after asking permission to talk to him about their religion. ‘We feel we’re doing God’s will, preaching the good news to everyone,’ Doctor says of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Covington was second only to Thurgood Marshall in the number of successful civil liberty cases he argued, many with far-reaching implications for all Americans, Brumley said.
Witnesses won cases that allowed them to distribute information without taxation, a precedent that later affected the right of newspapers to do the same, said Trinity University assistant communications professor Jennifer Jacobs Henderson.
They have argued that politicians might not have the right to canvas door-to-door and people could be forced to salute the American flag against their will, Brumley recalled.
The greatest blow to the religion in the United States came with the 1940 Supreme Court case Minersville School District vs. Gobitis, which said that Jehovah’s Witness children could be forced to salute and pledge to the flag in school, a violation of their allegiance to Jehovah.
The ruling opened the door for Witness persecution across the country, said Henderson, who’s writing a book on the religion’s contribution to First Amendment rights. In Texas alone, there were mob beatings and an attempt to hang a Witness.
Minersville was overturned in 1943 with the case West Virginia Board of Education vs. Barnette, known as the flag salute case, Brumley said.
In a recent 2002 victory for Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Court ruled that the city of Stratton, Ohio, could not force religious groups and political canvassers to obtain a permit before taking to the streets.
Both decisions weren’t just boons for the Witnesses: it meant more rights for everyone, Brumley said, calling the religion and the paths Witnesses forged in the name of freedom of expression “a slice of the American pie.”
But the right to sacrifice time for their religion, which began in the late 19th century with a focus on evangelism and the coming of the millenium, didn’t come easily. Between 1935 and 1950, at least 10,000 Witnesses were arrested in the United States for their door-to-door ministry, Brumley said. They’ve had to fight for their right to refuse blood transfusions because Witnesses believe blood is sacred.
Abroad, the Nazis persecuted them during the Holocaust; at least 2,500 died in concentration camps, Brumley said.
Though they are Christian, many of their beliefs are different from those of other Christian groups. Their name originates in Isaiah 43:10, Brumley said: “‘You are my witnesses,’ is the utterance of Jehovah, ‘even my servant whom I have chosen, in order that you may know and have faith in me.'”
Witnesses also believe Jehovah is the one and only true God and that Jesus is his son. They discount the idea of the Holy Trinity. Witnesses believe Earth will be restored to paradise, and unrepentant sinners do not face hell but cease to exist upon their death. They do not use religious symbols in their worship.
San Antonio Witness Vivian Riley, 59, remembers friends from San Antonio who were jailed when they refused to fight in the Vietnam War. Jehovah’s Witnesses refuse to bear arms because doing so violates Jesus’ commandment to love they neighbor, Brumley said. The 1953 case Dickinson vs. the United States clarified draft exemptions for ministers — all Witnesses are considered ministers, Brumley said.
“There’s forces that like to restrict religions,” Brumley said. “We are then obligated to push back in the other direction.”
Perfected to a science
For Riley, the cases have only ensured her right to complete her mission: “If you saw a neighbor’s house on fire, you’d run over, wouldn’t you, to warn her. That’s how we feel about our message.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that God, through the Bible, instructs them to spread a message of love throughout the world. Brumley references Matthew 24:14: “And this good news of the kingdom will be preached in all the earth for a witness to all the nations; and then the end will come.”
The well-known door-to-door ministry is a requirement of all Witnesses, and they have perfected their work to a science.
They carry laminated territory cards of individual neighborhoods and chronicle each house they visit on small sheets of paper, noting points of interest or concern in every household like “worried about crime” or “searching for the meaning of life.”
Children are encouraged to publish, as are the elderly. Some publishers graduate to become “pioneers,” who make a yearlong commitment to log 70 hours of ministry every month.
“This is something since I was younger that I’ve wanted to do,” said Lisa Riley, 34, Vivian’s daughter-in-law, who started her year of pioneering last September. “It’s hard to explain. It’s just been wonderful.”
The time of publishing excludes the hours Witnesses spend in five meetings sprinkled throughout the week at each congregation’s Kingdom Hall, the name for their gathering place.
Clearing up misperceptions also consumes a large part of their ministry: No, they are not Mormons. Yes, they can drink alcohol, in moderation. One woman who Doctor’s wife, Kim, encountered thought Witnesses lived in communes and grew their own food. Witness David Casillas said he’s had to politely ask his co-workers to remove his name from the office birthday list because Witnesses don’t celebrate them.
“Nine times out of 10 they (people) are ignorant as to what our beliefs are,” said Casillas, 39. But after some explanation, “they realize you’re just like everyone else.”
Converting isn’t necessarily their goal, either, Doctor said. They don’t want to shove the Bible down anyone’s throat.
“We feel that if a person makes a decision that they do not want to follow God’s principles and become a Jehovah’s Witness at this particular moment, we still feel satisfied,” Doctor said. “We feel we’re doing God’s will, preaching the good news to everyone.”
Lisa Riley’s daughter Jasmine, 11 and a publisher since she was 8, explains her tenacity like this: “There are so many more people that don’t know about God’s kingdom,” Jasmine said.
‘No Jehovah’s Witnesses’
Though many of the big battles for Witnesses in the U.S. have been won, the day-to-day challenges continue.
On one Saturday morning spent publishing, Kim Doctor and another publisher knocked on a door on the city’s Southwest Side. When it’s opened they began with a Bible verse. “No thank you,” said the woman who answered.
At the next house they encountered a sign pasted on one door: “Aqui somos catolicos” “We are a Catholic household.”
Kim knocked and when she received no answer, left behind a pamphlet.
Other days the signs are clearer. In one neighborhood, she spotted a string of placards that specifically said “No Jehovah’s Witnesses.” Sometimes people call the police or yell obscenities. Kim once even heard a man murmur to his dog, “Sic ’em,” as she and her fellow publishers passed.
It’s all opposition they’ve learned to take in stride because they never know whose door could open and whose life they could change.
“We’re not there to argue,” Kim said. “We’re there to share. And it’s up to them if they want to listen or not.”
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