Believers learn Arabic to bolster their door-to-door efforts to draw new members.
DEARBORN — Recina Ward will wake up early to get there, clutching her Bible, brushing up on her Arabic.
Ward’s regularly scheduled opportunity to go door-to-door in Dearborn as a Jehovah’s Witness is at hand. She is prepared, waking up at 6 a.m. at her home in Westland to reach the Kingdom Hall on Tireman and remembering her training in talking to strangers about Jehovah.
She will ring the doorbells of many Muslims and Arab-Americans today.
Long famous for using the most rudimentary technique to market their religion — the method of the door-to-door salesman — Jehovah’s Witnesses are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their quest to bring people to their spiritual beliefs. With some 6 million adherents in 230 countries, the Jehovah’s Witnesses say their growing task in Metro Detroit, where there are about 125,000 to 200,000 Muslims, is to speak in Arabic about the Bible.
In the same neighborhoods, just a decade ago, the Jehovah’s Witnesses approached a largely Christian population to talk about the Bible and Jesus Christ. Now, Christianity is meeting Islam on the front porch.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses say 30-40 people affiliated with the Kingdom Hall on Tireman have learned Arabic, and they make trips into Arab neighborhoods on at least a monthly basis. Similar activity is occurring in New York, California and in other areas where there is a substantial Arab and Muslim population.
“Arabic is very difficult,” Ward says. “The alphabet is nothing like ours at all. We learned the alphabet in two weekends. In six months, we have learned to read Arabic and to actually go out and give presentations.”
“This sort of thing is happening more and more, especially since September 11,” said Eide Alawan, a Muslim activist affiliated with the Islamic Center of America. “When they come around, most of the people in my neighborhood are courteous enough to say thank you very much. Our people like to enter conversation with them; to challenge them, so to speak.
“They try to convert us. And maybe we try to convert them. With people praying five times a day, maybe Islam is something that should interest them.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses are Christians, and the Bible is integral to their faith. Muslims acknowledge that Jesus Christ was a great prophet, and they believe in the virgin birth. But they believe in Islam, and that Mohammed is the great prophet of God, or Allah. The Quran is the book from which they learn their faith.
Jehovah’s Witnesses say the reception from Muslims and Arab-Americans is, by and large, cordial.
“So far so good,” said Ward of the local campaign, launched early last year with intensive classes in Arabic at the local Kingdom Halls. “Even if we just say a simple greeting, the people are so happy that we are taking the initiative.”And, so, Jehovah meets Allah.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses, speaking from their small Kingdom Halls in Metro Detroit or from their grand international headquarters in Brooklyn, say their sojourn in Dearborn is respectful on both sides. “They are very, very kind,” said Imad Hamad, director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Michigan. “I know we have our own different perspectives. But this is a right granted to any group of faith or politics, to do their job, as long as they do it right, as long as they do it politely, professionally and do not impose on people. I have never received any complaints. I welcome them.”
Said Ibrahim Hooper, a national spokesman for the Council on American Islamic Relations, “in principle, we are not opposed to people trying to persuade others that theirs is the faith that should be followed. We have no problem with that. Muslims love a good religious debate.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses say that they are called to the door-to-door work by biblical imperative. In a faith that places maximum importance on a strict biblical basis for beliefs, not on “mere human speculation or religious creeds,” the call is tantamount to marching orders.
“Jesus taught his apostles to ‘Go and teach,’ ” said Richard Wertz, 75, of Melvindale, a Jehovah’s Witness who has gone door-to-door for 48 years.
“In Acts, Chapter 20, Paul wrote, ‘While I did not hold back from telling you any of the things that were profitable nor from teaching you publicly and from house to house …’ That was Paul making it clear: You have to go from house to house.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses grew out of a Bible study group that began in Allegheny, Pa. in 1870. Throughout the 1930s and 1940s, Jehovah’s Witnesses fought two dozen cases to the U.S. Supreme Court to continue their door-to-door activities. The high court has ruled in their favor repeatedly, and as recently as 2002.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses use Arabic-language literature and Arabic on their Web site as part of their approach.
“People learn to use English to negotiate their everyday life,” said national spokesman J.R. Brown. “But for really serious matters, like scriptures and the Bible, they don’t have that vocabulary that expresses these deep spiritual thoughts.”
Teaching in Arabic about the Bible became a national strategy of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in places where large Arab populations exist, including Michigan, California and New York City, over the last two years. Jehovah’s Witnesses make no claims about converting Muslims, and they say that is not the point. They say they just want to talk about the Bible, and the good news of Jesus Christ.
But local Jehovah’s Witnesses say that at least a couple of Muslim families have occasionally attended events at Kingdom Halls.
Gaby Semaan, a Christian who moved from Lebanon to Toledo about five years ago, became an Arabic-language instructor for local Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“It’s definitely not an easy language to learn,” Semaan said. Jehovah’s Witnesses say they concentrate the door-to-door effort in Arabic in an area bounded by the rectangle formed by Greenfield, Plymouth, Wyoming and Ford roads.
But language is only one barrier. It is easier to speak about the Bible in French to Haitian Christians than in Arabic to Muslims — especially with Catholics already comprising the largest group of converts to Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“I do a lot of interfaith work,” Alawan said. “I was down at Pius X Church yesterday, Downriver, in Southgate, and I was with some 200 Christian people. I always feel there is a mutual respect at these events.
“But with some groups it is different, especially since September 11. We have had one group in particular, a Christian group, ask for an appointment to tour our mosque. But once they are inside, it is clear they want to talk to us about their faith, and Islam. But our people like to talk about religion, and I think some people are astounded to find out that Muslims believe in Jesus.”
Indeed, Muslims revere Jesus Christ as one of the great prophets, and his mother, Mary, is considered a model for the traditional modesty that leads many Muslim women to “cover” themselves with a veil and longer dresses.
“We basically are Bible teachers,” said Walter Thomerson, the circuit overseer for Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Metro Detroit area. “As far as Muslims are concerned, they consider the Bible one of their holy books.” They have the Quran, but they also consider the Bible a holy book.
“If they want to become a Jehovah’s Witness in good time, fine. “If they don’t, that’s fine too.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses say their reception in Metro Detroit is often cordial, complete with invitations to enter homes, conversations over coffee and sweet cakes and cookies, and much curiosity about these Americans packing Bibles and speaking Arabic. A few Arab families now attend sessions at the Kingdom Hall on Tireman, which is shared by congregations of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Dearborn and Detroit, officials say.
“They are not as insistent as they used to be about their faith,” said Mary Beth Rieth, of the Historic Aviation Property Owners’ Association, a Dearborn neighborhood, who says some of her neighbors — including people of Arab descent and others — talk about the door-to-door approaches of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. “They are more willing to listen to a fair number of people talk about their religion and their beliefs.”
Ward and Wertz say they are generally accepted and that learning about places like Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen as part of their work has made it more interesting.
“Some people are just not interested, period,” Ward said. “I don’t think it is because they are Muslim. They’re just not interested in anybody speaking to them, right then. I think maybe they feel they are being persecuted by the Christian community. But they are always very congenial and very hospitable at the doors.
“You know how people are about religion, though. You know the old saying: Don’t talk politics or religion; that way you don’t get into any trouble.”