It's been one year since Jehovah's Witnesses worldwide adjusted their hallmark methods of sharing comfort and hope from the scriptures due to the pandemic.
For many, the change from ringing doorbells and knocking on doors to making phone calls and writing letters expanded and invigorated their ministry.
"Witnesses have embraced this shift, finding the good in these trying times," said Joseph Castano, who reports a 30 percent increase in the Witnesses' preaching activity in his region of northern Virginia and nearby parts of West Virginia. "In fact, I hear many saying, 'I'm able to do more now.'"
In March 2020, the some 1.3 million Witnesses in the United States suspended their door-to-door and face-to-face forms of public ministry and moved congregation meetings to videoconferencing.
"It has been a very deliberate decision based on two principles: our respect for life and love of neighbor," said Robert Hendriks, U.S. spokesman for Jehovah's Witnesses. "But we are still witnesses and, as such, we must testify about our faith. So it was inevitable that we would find a way to continue our work."
In the bitterly cold winters of Arden Hills, Minnesota, Terri Whitmore normally bundles up for the door-to-door ministry in a long down coat and snow boots--sometimes with removable cleats to help navigate icy sidewalks.
Now she sits at her dining room table, sips on hot tea, and calls people on her cell phone to share the same message. In December, she conducted more than twice as many Bible studies than in any prior month. "I'm having a blast," she said. "After a nice phone call, it energizes you. You can't wait to make the next call."
Her "go-to" topics for conversation with her neighbors are COVID-19, civil unrest, and government. "Some people feel like they have nothing secure to hold on to," she said. "The power of God's word is amazing. You can just share a scripture and you feel like they're settling down."
Nearly 51,000 people in the United States last year made a request for a Witness to contact them, either through a local congregation or jw.org, the organization's official website, according to Hendriks. Since the outbreak, the Witnesses have followed up on these requests via letters and phone calls instead of in-person visits.
"Our love for our neighbors is stronger than ever," said Hendriks. "In fact, I think we have needed each other more than ever. We are finding that people are perplexed, stressed, and feeling isolated. Our work has helped many regain a sense of footing - even normalcy - at a very unsettled time."
Merchants in Pueblo, Colorado, had become familiar with Summer Olsen as she would stop by from time to time with an encouraging Bible message. "I'd share a short message of encouragement and positivity from the Bible," said Olsen, 28. "Those in the business community in Pueblo are friendly and professional, so it was always enjoyable to have a quick conversation and perhaps leave a Bible-based magazine that their employees might enjoy reading."
The pandemic curtailed Olsen's personal contact with the merchants but not her efforts--through letters. "Our message can still go out even when we can't," she said. "In my letters, I really tried to express my appreciation for everything these business people have done to adapt to and overcome the challenges of this pandemic. Their efforts contribute so much to our community."
In her 12 years as one of Jehovah's Witnesses, Olsen values "feeling the joy and satisfaction that comes after a long day spent focused on helping others. Even if I can't speak with them in person, I want to continue helping others to learn about the hope in the Bible because the hope and wisdom found in the Bible is too precious not to share," she said.
In the rural areas of Salina, Kansas, where the wheat and corn fields stretch for acres, the Milbradt family sometimes drives miles from one house to the next to reach their neighbors. Now, instead of buying gasoline to fill up their vehicle for the ministry, they spend money on paper, envelopes, stamps, and crayons.
"We look for ways to add variety to our ministry," said Zeb Milbradt. He and his wife, Jenny, help their boys--Colton, 8, and Benjamin, 6--write letters to children's book authors, local police, and hospital workers. Sometimes the boys even include with the letters hand-drawn pictures of the Bible's promise of a global paradise.
"We've been able to get the message to people who we wouldn't necessarily reach otherwise," said Jenny Milbradt.
A letter Benjamin sent to nurses at a regional health center included a quote from the Bible's prophecy at Isaiah 33:24 of a coming time when no one will say, "I am sick." The center's marketing secretary replied to Benjamin, informing him that she scanned and emailed his letter to 2,000 employees. It "made so many people smile," she said.
Witnesses have also made a concerted effort to check on distant friends and family--sometimes texting links to Bible-based articles on jw.org that cover timely topics, such as isolation, depression, and how to beat pandemic fatigue.
"Former Bible students have started studying again," said Tony Fowler, who helps organize the ministry in the northern portion of Michigan's Lower Peninsula.
"Colleagues at work have now started to show interest. Some have started Bible studies with family members who showed very little interest before the pandemic."
Castano has been reaching out to Witnesses who had long ago stopped associating with fellow Witnesses. "The pandemic has reignited their spirituality," he said, adding that many are attending virtual meetings with some sharing in telephone witnessing and letter writing even after decades of inactivity. "It's been pretty outstanding," he said.
Fowler and Castano both report about a 20 percent increase in online meeting attendance. But perhaps the most significant growth is in an area that cannot be measured by numbers.
"I think we've grown as a people," Fowler said. "We've grown in appreciation for other avenues of the ministry, our love for our neighbor, and love for one another. We're a stronger people because of all of this, and that's a beautiful thing to see."