Jehovah's Witnesses still going door-to-door in a closed-door world

Jehovah’s Witnesses Mary and Jonathan Burns share Bible verses and literature with Pinellas Park resident Leslie Pevey, center. The Burns have visited Pevey several times over the past six months.
Jehovah’s Witnesses Mary and Jonathan Burns share Bible verses and literature with Pinellas Park resident Leslie Pevey, center. The Burns have visited Pevey several times over the past six months. Tampa Bay Times

Like any group of spirited salesmen, this crew swaps stories about the big scores, those times when people couldn't wait to buy what they were selling.

"We were out in service on Sept. 11," remembers power-suited Jonathan Burns, his colleagues nodding. "People were inviting us in, giving us updates, showing us the TV. It's now very rare to get invited in."

Sharon Graham, 80, can match that bad-world, good-business tale: "When we were living in Detroit and the riots came, people were actually coming over to our house, coming to us. We didn't even have to go out!"

It's rarely that simple these days for the salvation peddlers at the Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses. It's not that there isn't bad news anymore; it's just that people have a new way of processing bad news — or not processing it. The Witnesses fully acknowledge they are the last of a thinning breed: door-to-door, face-to-face salesmen, shoe-leather agents in a guarded age when technology, social media and cyber-dependence are making more and more transactions devoid of human contact.

The Witnesses are a heads-up, hit-'em-where-you-live organization trying to do business in an increasingly head-down society. They weren't always the most universally welcomed group in your neighborhood; now it's even worse.

"People have more personal boundaries these days, more than in the past," says Keith Heatly, 42, who is getting ready to lead his 10-person crew into the Crescent Heights neighborhood. "I don't even think neighbors really know each other that much anymore. And Jehovah's Witnesses get caught up in that. Maybe back in the day life was simpler, safer. Maybe it's not us; maybe it's a sign of the times."

• • •

Jonathan Burns is sweating on the sidewalk. It's August-hot in April, giving this otherwise leafy street in Crescent Heights a thick doomed air, rugged conditions for door-to-door salesmanship, especially when you're lugging around a heavy satchel full ofWatchtower pamphlets.

Jonathan's wife, Mary, eyes her husband's glistening forehead and offers him a tissue. When you're trying to unload a commodity of this scope, you want to look cool when making a pitch. A public-ministry shift runs about two hours or so.

There is no "quota" when you're preaching the Truth as a Jehovah's Witness. This isn't Glengarry Glen Ross, salvation in lieu of steak knives. Jonathan admits "it would be nice" if people he met going door-to-door joined their church. But really, he says, he just wants you to read the Bible: "What they do with the education is up to them."

The Witnesses usually go out in big groups, often couples or families, then split up into pairs to go house-to-house; neighborhoods are assigned to the closest Kingdom Hall. "When you look out your window, you don't want to see a dozen Jehovah's Witnesses at your door," smiles Heatly. "We're not there to disturb a community."

Today there are 10 Witnesses hitting up Crescent Heights together. This includes the Mitchell family and its two youngest members, son Devin, 9, and daughter Mya, 7. Mya, who is paired with mom Angela, says she gets a lot out of public ministry. Like what? "I get treats at the end of the day. I get slushies."

Mya and Angela are gently rebuffed after their pitch: "My daughter and I would like to share an encouraging word." No thank you. Not interested. Thanks, no. And on and on.

Heatly and his door-to-door partner, Izudin Banjanovic, are greeted with darkly comic hostility. "I'm not dressed, and I'm busy!" one woman shrieks before slamming the door on them. Heatly tries to keep his composure, saying to the closed door: "Understandable, ma'am. We'll stop by another time."

• • •

At more than 8 million strong, Jehovah's Witnesses are a revealing example of how society and culture have changed.

They have refused to change their business plan when basically everyone else has. "We see Mormons out there from time to time," says Heatly. "But it's mostly us." Heck, their business model is in their name; public ministry — that is, knocking on your door to spread the good word — is an act of "witnessing." Vacuum-cleaner salesmen and Avon ladies had options after door-to-door sales became more regulated in the '70s and '80s; the Witnesses don't have a choice.

Witnesses have always been routinely maligned for their public ministry, a door-to-door doctrine that is ingrained in their worship — that is, coming to your door, calmly asking you about happiness, possibly even skeeving you out. Their rights are protected by the First Amendment; their feelings are not. And yet their persistence in the year 2015 is quaint, old-school, even rather charming depending on your tolerance.

James Graham, Sharon's 82-year-old husband, says even our more personal searches for meaning are plugged in and Wi-Fi-ready these days, and that works against his core sales pitch: "A lot of people go straight to the Internet for answers. We want them to go to the Bible."

But first those potential clients have to open the front door, make contact with another human. And that, too, is becoming a rarity. "When we knock on that door, we can hear the conversations inside," says James with a chuckle. "You can hear them say, 'Don't you open that door!' "

• • •

But sometimes they do open the door.

Jonathan and Mary Burns, both 37 and owners of an auto-interior company, approach a finely landscaped house, a two-story dwelling that sits proud and brick-built on a street corner. Jonathan rings the doorbell, running a quick thumb across his wet forehead.

A young, blond woman answers, swinging the door open wide; she's holding a small, docile dog that may or may not know, and may not even care, that it's wearing a shock collar. Jonathan and Mary introduce themselves. "If my voice sounds funny," he says, "it's the pollen from all these oak trees."

The homeowner, who we'll later find out is named Michele, smiles, clears her throat, waits. The dog, who we'll later find out is named Lola, eyes the Jehovah's Witnesses. Jonathan starts his pitch: "We'd like to talk to you today about happiness. What do you think is the biggest hindrance to happiness these days?"

"We fool ourselves about what makes us happy," Michele says, not missing a beat. She lists off 2015 scourges: technology, money, fame, social media. "That doesn't make us happy."

Jonathan and Mary try to hand Michele Watchtowers; she declines. They try to read her a passage from the Bible; she declines that, too, adding, "I'm Catholic."

There is awkward silence. Jonathan, now very sweaty, clears his throat.

"My parents always taught me to be receptive to anyone who comes to your door," Michele says. "Nowadays, people are so skeptical and hesitant. But you know, we're not the same faith but we have the same ideas about what makes us happy."

Family, faith, kindness.

"Thank you," say Jonathan and Mary.

"Thank you," says Michele.

Happiness, bought and sold.