Jehovah’s Witnesses explain beliefs
I must have been 16 when I first hid from a Jehovah’s Witness.
I was at home on study leave when two men in white shirts approached the front door.
My time at Catholic school informed my suspicions about who these men were. As they politely rang the doorbell I froze.
Filled with guilt I didn’t move until I heard them leave.
I know people who’ve been caught in their underwear making breakfast and others who’ve hidden in plain sight to avoid the Jehovah’s message.
It’s a scenario Jehovah’s Witness elder Terry Smith can relate to.
“Before we were Jehovah’s Witnesses my wife used to hide,” he chuckles.
“Sometimes we get toddlers answer the door saying ‘mummy said to say she’s not home’.”
“If people feel too nervous to come to the door it’s not a major, we usually leave some literature or call them later on.”
For many West Aucklanders this is likely to be the only experience they’ve had with the religion which arrived in New Zealand in 1903 with two members.
In 1940 the faith was declared illegal in New Zealand, with the attorney general saying its members devoted themselves to “vilification of religion, of their fellow-citizens, of the state, and of the Government”.
Mr Smith says the outlawing was because witnesses would not go to war.
The religion is no longer illegal and in 2006 there were about 18,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses across the country, meeting in about 100 Kingdom Halls.
The end is near
Mr Smith is an elder at the Waimauku Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall.
An elder is a spiritually mature man who guides other witnesses through spiritual teaching.
Jehovah’s Witnesses believe the bible was inspired by God and is historically accurate.
Their belief system based on the bible’s principles differs markedly to the perceived norms of today’s society.
Members do not celebrate Christian holidays or birthdays, vote or salute national flags and believe the end of the world is near.
Perhaps the most controversial is the refusal to give blood or be given a blood transfusion, even if it will save a person’s life.
This principle came into the public spotlight last year when the parents of a 2-year-old Auckland girl suffering a rare kidney disease wouldn’t allow her to receive a life-saving blood transfusion following a kidney and liver transplant.
The case went before the High Court and the toddler was placed into the guardianship of the court, and doctors were given consent to treat the child.
Mr Smith says difficult situations can arise but the medical fraternity has “developed ways to treat us according to our beliefs”.
“Hospitals are developing ways to perform bloodless surgeries offered to Jehovah’s Witnesses. We believe the soul represents the whole person and blood represents the life force of the person.”
He says while many people feel the Bible is out of date, Jehovah’s Witnesses feel the opposite.
“We apply its principles in all situations in our life to overcome obstacles,” he says.
“There are so many stresses on people today. Everyone we call on has their fair share of problems with money, crime or family.
“We feel there has never been a more appropriate time for us.”
Jehovah’s Witnesses believe “the end of the system is near” and according to Mr Smith, this is not cause for concern.
“We don’t mean the literal end of the world but the end of the system means the removal of wickedness in the world and God’s government becoming the world’s government.”
Geoff and Denese Clarke are pioneers.
But unlike the term used to describe Sir Ed, Jehovah’s pioneers are the members who have the daunting task of going into the wider community to spread their religious message.
But the couple say despite the dogs, the rejection and sometimes abuse, its a task they are proud to do.
As auxiliary pioneers they spend 20 hours a week sharing what they describe as “the good news”.
This work is unpaid and the couple work part-time installing medical alarms to afford the necessities of life.
“I used to a be a business analyst and my wife worked in decor and design when our children were at home,” Mr Clarke says.
“But we felt like there was something better we could do with our time.
“We have been cleaners as well so we can do this work. Even though we have to make sacrifices, we think we are getting a good deal,” he says.
Reading the Bible every day and discussing its meaning is an important part of family life, Mrs Clarke says.
“Our children aren’t deprived by us not celebrating birthdays. We have a family day on that day and we give gifts spontaneously, not because we have to on a specific day.”
Fellow pioneer Louise Peat says they do face challenges going door to door.
“You do occasionally come across someone abusive.
“We don’t take it personally.
“You have to defuse the situation with kindness and sometimes you feel sorry for them because you wonder what is going on in their life to make them react that way.
“We can go into rough areas but you look past that and don’t judge the situation, we just work with the person.”
Pioneers go across New Zealand and all over the world to spread their message. They even visit prisons and businesses.
On a typical house visit, a pioneer will offer the person religious literature published by the Jehovah’s Witness organisation. This is often a magazine titled The Watchtower which looks at modern issues in today’s societies with a religious slant, published in 209 languages across 45 million copies.
“If people are genuinely not interested and don’t want to be called on, we respect that and will leave them be,” Mrs Peat says.
“But you also find that you end up becoming a listening ear for people if they are going through something at that moment.”
Glen Eden pioneer Robyn Tusa, who became a Jehovah’s Witness as an adult says they don’t force people to listen to their message.
“People are pretty relaxed out west. We are taught to read faces and pick up signs about when people won’t be interested.”
Waimauku elder Mr Smith says the ultimate aim of door-knocking the community is to follow the important commandment.
“We just want to share the good news and do as Jesus said, love your neighbour. We don’t want to force people to become a Jehovah’s Witness.”
Ready steady build
Auckland’s housing crisis could probably be solved if Jehovah’s Witnesses were on the case.
Under the quick-build system, witnesses are able to put up their Kingdom Hall buildings in a weekend.
Teamwork is crucial for Jehovah’s Witnesses and trade skills are popular among the congregation, Mrs Peat says.
Waimauku’s Kingdom Hall was the first hall in New Zealand built under the quick-build system in 1987.
Glen Eden’s equivalent was built in 1993 and follows a more modern Kingdom Hall design, she says.
“From the foundations to the landscaping, the work is started on a Thursday or Friday and completed by the weekend. Sometimes people can get quite shocked to see a building go up that fast.”
The buildings are funded by the congregation through donations and with loan assistance from the Society Kingdom Hall Fund, used for hall building around the world.