For Jessica Iwajomo, the joy she finds in her faith is too important, too good to keep to herself.
Because of that feeling, she has spent the past 28 years knocking on doors to talk about the Jehovah’s Witnesses faith. In mid-March, the novel coronavirus pandemic abruptly slammed that door shut.
But suspending in-person ministry was the right thing to do, Iwajomo said.
“As people who care for other people and especially their well-being, you can’t be spreading the good news and spreading something else with the good news,” Iwajomo, who belongs to a Kingdom Hall in Aurora, said. “That love of neighbor was a priority.”
The pandemic has altered religious practices everywhere, forcing the way people gather, take communion and pray. Perhaps no religion is more dependent on face-to-face contact than the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are known for handing out literature on street corners and knocking on neighbors’ doors to talk about their faith.
Now, the religion’s 1.3 million American followers are writing letters and making phone calls.
Iwajomo, her husband, Gideon Iwajomo, and their children, Siona and Ayo, send handwritten letters. She writes daily. Gideon writes on Mondays, his regular day off. They work with the children to write on weekends when they aren’t in school.
“I wanted to send you a note of comfort, since we are unable to visit you personally due to the coronavirus situation. Is there something that has helped you to deal with the stress? Something that has really provided me with positive thoughts and guidance is a scripture at John 14:27 that says, “I leave you peace; I give you my peace. I do not give it to you the way that the world gives it. Do not let your hearts be troubled nor let them shrink out of fear,” Siona’s letter reads.
Because Jehovah’s Witnesses are a worldwide religion, practiced by 8.6 million people around the globe, church leaders saw what was coming in early February as the first cases of the novel coronavirus arrived in the United States.
By mid-March, they called for Kingdom Halls everywhere to close.
And with that directive also came the suspension of door-knocking, Robert Hendriks, the Jehovah’s Witnesses U.S. spokesman, said. The church made the decision because of religious principles that say every life is sacred and loving neighbors is a must, he said.
Jehovah’s Witnesses started door-to-door proselytizing in 1914, and it became the church’s core mission in 1919 after a convention in Ohio.
Even before the pandemic began, the Jehovah’s Witnesses recognized change needed to come to the door-knocking tradition.
Hendriks, who was baptized into the religion at 15, said when he was young and visiting homes with his family on Saturday mornings, people answered a doorbell at about 90% of the homes they visited.
Today, it’s different. People are shopping, at children’s sports events or on weekend road trips.
When the pandemic ends, door-knocking will resume. But the phone calls and letter writing will continue, he said.
As part of the new letter-writing approach, the Jehovah’s Witnesses started a global campaign to send personal letters to political leaders of local, state and national governments around the world.
This month, Hendriks signed letters to each of the U.S. Supreme Court justices to thank them for their work and gently preach the gospel. The letters also include a copy of The Watchtower magazine, the main publication distributed by the Witnesses.
For Robert Ratliff and his wife, Taraneh Ratliff, the pandemic not only robbed them of their jobs, but it also stole a big part of their social life. Shortly after Colorado went on lockdown in the spring, he lost his job as a digital marketing specialist and the restaurant where she worked was forced to lay off its servers. The couple, who lived in Denver, moved to Colorado Springs to live with his mother.
On top of unemployment, they no longer could attend twice-weekly church services or walk neighborhoods.
“It was difficult in the beginning to not see friends and go out and have those face-to-face conversations,” Taraneh Ratlifff said.
Now, the couple writes letters, mostly in Persian, which is her native language, and mails them to other Persian speakers in Colorado. They also make phone calls.
With letter writing, it’s hard to know when their message makes an impact.
“We may not personally see the response because only a handful of people write back,” she said.
And phone calling has come easier than expected, with few people being rude to them. Most people hear them out, she said, because so many people are searching for anything positive in their lives.
Taraneh Ratliff begins by introducing herself and explaining that she simply wants to offer words of comfort and read a scripture.
“There’s just so much on people’s minds right now,” she said. “Why is this happening? The more we talk the more positive it gets. They know why I’m calling, and I know how they’re thinking.”
And the couple, like the Iwajomo family, looks forward to the day when they can return to door-knocking.
“As soon as it’s safe,” Robert Ratliff said. “We look forward to it.”
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