Mindy Gerlach, a Jehovah’s Witness all her life, is spreading the good news. But today, as usual, most people don’t want to hear it.
On this warm morning, Gerlach and her friend Emerald Acquah are knocking on doors in an older neighborhood in Roseville. They’ve been doing this for nearly two hours, and so far no one has talked to them.
“You don’t take it personally,” Gerlach says as the two walk by a house with a dog barking in the front yard. “You just keep going.”
In recent weeks, the two women and many other local Jehovah’s Witnesses have increased their door-to-door evangelization. Members from 29 Jehovah’s Witness congregations in the Sacramento area are participating in a campaign with a goal of knocking at every home in the region. They want to invite as many people as possible to a convention in San Francisco that begins Friday.
“We did this last year, and it was a huge success,” says Rick Gerlach, Mindy’s husband. He often goes door-to-door with his wife and Acquah, alternating houses they visit. “It gives us a chance to explain who we are.”
Walk into almost any neighborhood on a Saturday morning (that’s when Jehovah’s Witnesses are most likely to go door-to-door) and chances are you’ll see them: women in long skirts or modest dresses, men in suits, children in their Sunday best.
With their Watchtower pamphlets in their hands, they cheerfully knock on doors, asking for a few minutes of a harried resident’s time. They don’t seem flustered by the slammed doors or the polite “not interested,” or even by the person who refuses to answer the door. (They say they can tell you’re home.)
There are 6.7 million Jehovah’s Witness, organized into 100,000 congregations worldwide, according to a Jehovah’s Witness fact sheet. The name Jehovah, the church believes, is the only true name for God.
But odds are, many people don’t know a lot about the group, says Joel Engardio, who directed “Knocking,” a documentary on Jehovah’s Witnesses that recently aired on the PBS series “Independent Lens.” Engardio was raised as a Witness — and spent much of his childhood knocking on doors — but is not a member today.
“They get a bad rap because they act so differently,” Engardio says. “They’re apolitical … they don’t salute the flag, they don’t vote. They just want to be able to practice their beliefs.
“They practice traditional Christianity with a twist.”
That twist is a belief in the literal return of Jesus Christ to Earth to establish a perfect paradise, with only a select few going to heaven, according to David Weddle, a professor of religion at Colorado College in Colorado Springs who has written extensively about Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Jehovah’s Witnesses belong to the American Adventist tradition, he says. They believe in the literal reading of the Bible and will not pledge allegiance to any government because their allegiance is to Jehovah only. And they’re not afraid to fight for their beliefs.
“What most people don’t know is that they have probably done more for the civil rights of minority religious groups than anyone else,” says Weddle, referring to several court cases Jehovah’s Witnesses have won in order to practice their beliefs. “A lot of groups have certainly benefited from what they’ve done.”
Still, there are dissenters, and many of those are former Witnesses. “Watch the Tower” (watchthetower.com) bills itself as the official Web site of ex-Jehovah’s Witnesses. Readers can post their personal stories about the group or buy a video by a former Witness. Many believe it is a cult.
“They are a dangerous cult because, once you join, you vow to be loyal to headquarters. You lose all your American rights, you’re not allowed to vote, stand for the national anthem or participate in patriotic activities,” says Paul Blizard, a member for 28 years before leaving in 1982. He is now a pastor of a Southern Baptist church in West Virginia. He says he no longer has contact with relatives who are still Witnesses.
“They’re not allowed to talk to me,” he says.
Weddle, who is not a Jehovah’s Witness, believes it is not a cult but says the practice of “disfellowshipping” — in which members shun former Witnesses — may lead some to think it so. “Amish also practice this, but no one thinks of them as a cult,” he says.
The religion’s most public belief — and the one that gets the most attention — is its practice of door-to-door evangelization. Witnesses say they should spread their message to as many people as possible, no matter how futile it seems.
Engardio, whose mother is a Witness, says she has gone door-to-door for 30 years and has never converted anyone.
Gerlach and Acquah say their goal isn’t to convert — it’s simply to spread the message. They spend three to four hours knocking on doors every day — even on 100-degree-plus days.
“We just bring water,” Gerlach says. They estimate they visit about 100 homes, and out of those, two people will engage in a conversation.
On this day, the two women walk up to a tidy house on a tree-lined street. The homeowner, Marti Anderson, takes one look and knows who they are.
“I’m sorry, I’m not interested,” she says politely.
Gerlach doesn’t give up.
“Can we leave this with you?” she asks, handing Anderson a piece of paper. “It’s an invitation.”
Anderson pauses. She doesn’t want it but doesn’t want to be rude, either. She accepts the paper, thanks them and shuts the door.
Later, she says that she had been expecting a concrete deliveryman and that she wouldn’t have opened the door if she had known Jehovah’s Witnesses were knocking.
“I respect what they’re doing,” she says, “but I’m not interested.”
Gerlach and Acquah say most people are polite. “Very few are outright rude,” Gerlach says. The two women say it’s important to present a professional image, so they’re both dressed in long skirts and comfortable shoes.
“It shows respect,” Acquah says.
The women have time to go door-to-door because Gerlach does custom sewing out of her home and Acquah is retired. Their partnership has been a success.
“She’s easy to work with,” Acquah says.
Organizers at the Kingdom Hall, where Jehovah’s Witnesses meet, have divided the area so that groups work in select neighborhoods only. The two women visit a home every four months.
Shortly after noon, the two stop for a lunch break and a Bible lesson. That evening, after most people have returned home from work and are settling in, the two women go back out and knock on doors.