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For Jehovah's Witnesses, it's all about spreading the word

Church members say their door-to-door preaching is akin to a search-and-rescue operation. Sometimes they feel down after being rebuffed, but they believe the message is to important to give up.

June 01, 2009|Raja Abdulrahim

There's a joke that there is no such thing as a Jehovah's Witness bystander.

That's because all believers must witness, which means preaching and knocking on doors.

"You bear a certain degree of guilt if you don't," said Harry Thompson of Studio City, who added that he has been witnessing for decades.

Thompson called it akin to a search-and-rescue operation. "If you know that there's a tornado coming through and you don't say anything, you bear responsibility for the lives that are lost," he said. "We look at it the same way."

Thompson, who works in insurance, was one of many speakers at the "Keep on the Watch" convention held over the weekend at the Long Beach Convention Center. With about 10,000 expected to attend, it was the second in a series of 16 conventions in Long Beach this summer that will unite Jehovah's Witnesses from around the world.

Jehovah's Witnesses interpret the Bible literally and believe the world will soon end, leaving the Earth intact and only believers alive for eternity. For many outside the faith, they are known more generally as people who don't accept blood transfusions, don't serve in the military and show up at the door -- well-dressed, carrying a Bible and ready to proselytize.

The preaching is an integral part of being a Jehovah's Witness, Thompson said, and those who want to be baptized -- which happens when a person is ready to become devoted -- are questioned about whether they understand the commitment they must make.

Congregations hold weekly classes at their Kingdom Halls on how to speak with people they approach in such situations and how to handle issues that may arise.

On Saturday, Thompson took part in a conference symposium, "Help People to 'Awake From Sleep.' "

Randy Henderson, who also spoke at the conference, said the emphasis on preaching is based on a Bible passage in which Jesus sends his disciples out in pairs to preach.

For Witnesses, preaching is seen as coming at an especially critical time because they believe signs point to a nearing of the end of time, conference leaders said. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the economic crisis are indications that the world is entering an ominous period, Thompson said.

In his talk Friday, Henderson said circumstances today are similar to those before the great flood referred to in the biblical story of Noah.

Another conference participant, Mark Toti of Carson, said that when he preaches, he likes to use relevant Bible passages that reflect what's on people's minds.

Lately, he said, given the state of the economy, he often quotes from the Book of Timothy: "There will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy . . . treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God."

But the majority of people they approach are not interested in being preached to, those interviewed said. Thompson couldn't put a statistic on it but said that if a dozen Witnesses spent a day knocking on doors, they might have one positive story among them at day's end.

Thompson and others described situations in which residents politely -- or not so politely -- declined to speak. Once, in Burbank, Thompson said, he was confronted by a man who answered the door holding a handgun and telling him to leave.

Henderson, who lives in Hollywood and is an administrator at St. Vincent's Medical Center, said he was recently preaching door-to-door near his home and inviting people to the conference.

"Hello, how are you this morning?" he recalled greeting one woman as she opened the door.

"Get lost," he said she replied. "And I said, 'OK, have a good day.' "

"It was a good day until you came," she said as he walked away.

The woman's neighbor was already on the congregation's do-not-call list, and that day Henderson added her as well. Those who ask not to be approached and those who are hostile to Witnesses are put on the list, he said.

In Henderson's Hollywood district, about 25 people are on it, he said.

Henderson and the others said they sometimes feel a bit down after such a response but believe the message is too important to give up.

"It's not discouraging because I guess I have to go back to the analogy of what rescue workers do," Thompson said. "If we talk to 10 people who say they don't need to be assisted, we walk away feeling good that we tried to assist people."

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raja.abdulrahim@latimes.com

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