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Jehovah's Witnesses stay virtual as 1 pandemic-induced 'year without knocking' becomes 2

A north Fargo family, along with other Jehovah's Witnesses, use technology and traditional means to keep their ministry going through the pandemic.

A family of four sits in front of a laptop
The McEwen family, who are Jehovah's Witnesses, gather in the living room of their north Fargo home on Jan. 6, 2022, for a Bible study session via Zoom.
Chris Flynn / The Forum
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FARGO — The McEwens of north Fargo have become proficient in technology — and moving furniture — to best practice their faith during the pandemic.

Jim McEwen, his wife Abigail, and their children, Aidan and Keera, are Jehovah’s Witnesses who previously relied on door-knocking and face-to-face interactions.

But they and others like them have found new ways to fulfill their ministry.

They rely more on letter-writing and phone calls to spread what they call “the good news.”

And twice a week, they pull out a computer and web camera and rearrange the living room furniture into a space for virtual Bible study and meetings.

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The McEwen family rearranges furniture in their north Fargo home and sets up a folding table so they can attend service meetings via Zoom.
Chris Flynn / The Forum

“Before COVID, there were never gliders under our sofa,” Jim said with a laugh.

The quality of interactions in those electronic get-togethers hasn’t suffered, he said, adding he considers the video conferencing platform Zoom to be “a real blessing.”

In March 2020, Jehovah’s Witnesses suspended public ministry nationwide as COVID-19 spread.

Soon after, their facilities known as Kingdom Halls, including in Fargo and Moorhead, shut down worldwide, and virtual gatherings became the norm.

The so-called “year without knocking” will soon become two years as the pandemic wears on.

Robert Hendriks, the U.S. spokesperson for Jehovah’s Witnesses, was asked when they’ll return to in-person interactions.

“We have no idea. Omicron really took us by surprise,” Hendriks said, referring to the latest and highly infectious virus variant.

He said pilot in-person meetings were held in November at its U.S. branch in Puerto Rico, where vaccination rates were high and infection rates were low.

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Only those vaccinated and masked could attend, and people seemed comfortable in the setting, Hendriks said.

A second pilot program began in Connecticut but was quickly shut down when Omicron began circulating.

“I think we'll be ready to recommence the pilot program when we see safety emerging in various areas of the world again,” he said.

Minister for life

There are as many as 1.3 million Jehovah’s Witnesses who are part of around 13,000 congregations in the U.S., according to Hendriks.

Globally, there are an estimated 8.6 million followers.

According to a study by Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan fact tank, Jehovah’s Witnesses are among the most racially and ethnically diverse religious groups in America.

However, they have a low retention rate relative to other U.S. religious groups. Among adults raised as Jehovah’s Witnesses, 66% no longer identify with the group, the study said.

On the flip side, 65% of current adult Jehovah’s Witnesses are converts who were raised in another faith.

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When a person is baptized as a Jehovah's Witness, they become a “witness” or minister for life, Hendriks said.

The organization and its congregations haven’t felt pressured to return to their gathering spaces during the pandemic because there is no monetary imperative.

“We don’t take collections at meetings,” Hendriks said, adding that staff including elders, pastors and himself as spokesperson, are all volunteers.

Missing the interaction

Jim McEwen, 53, is employed by Bernatello’s Foods and became involved in Jehovah’s Witnesses in college.

His wife Abigail, 44, works in nutrition services at Fargo North High School and is a third generation Jehovah’s Witness.

“The whole reason we do it … is love,” she said.

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Jim and Abigail McEwen at their north Fargo home on Thursday, Jan. 6, 2022.

Their son Aidan, 14, and daughter Keera, 12, come to the table willingly.

“They could sleep in, play video games, whatever else they'd like to do, but they feel just as strongly about it as we do,” Abigail said.

When knocking on doors pre-pandemic, Aidan McEwen said, it could be nerve wracking to talk with someone he’s never met before.

“But on the other hand … you get to provide comfort to those that will need it,” he said.

Keera was also nervous but still enjoyed sharing her favorite Bible verses, Revelation 21:3-4, which talk about the coming end of pain and suffering.

It’s a reference, her dad said, to the belief of Jehovah’s Witnesses and other Christian denominations that we are living in what the Bible calls “the last days” or end-times, when Jesus will return to Earth.

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The setup for a virtual Bible study session is shown in the home of Jim and Abigail McEwen of north Fargo on January 6, 2022.
Chris Flynn / The Forum

Jim McEwen said he can’t wait to return to spreading the “good news” and seeing others in person, whenever that day comes.

“I miss that interaction,” he said.

Huebner is a 35+ year veteran of broadcast and print journalism in Fargo-Moorhead.
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