In the past few years, Jehovah's Witnesses, whose local annual district convention continues this weekend at the Tacoma Dome, have increased their focus on reaching nonnative English speakers in America, in response to the growing number of immigrants.
The lesson began in a way not at all unusual for a Chinese-language class.
“Ni hao,” the students said, practicing how to say “hello” in Mandarin.
“Wo xing Ba,” they continued: “My surname is Ba.”
But then came some not-so-typical phrases the students practiced saying in Chinese:
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“Do you want to deepen your Bible knowledge?”
“We want to give you this tract.”
The dozen students gathered on a recent Saturday in a building near Seattle’s Chinatown International District were all Jehovah’s Witnesses taking part in what’s become an increased focus for the faith in recent years: targeting nonnative English speakers in America.
Those targeting Chinese speakers, for instance, are making a push to invite people to a Chinese-language Witnesses convention in Fairfield, Calif., on July 23-25. It’s similar to the effort other Witnesses have been making locally, inviting people to the annual English-language district convention that started last weekend and continues this weekend at the Tacoma Dome.
Reaching out in numerous languages worldwide is nothing new for Jehovah’s Witnesses, which is known for its door-to-door evangelism. The faith claims about 7.3 million members worldwide and prints its publications in some 500 languages.
But in the past few years, Witnesses have increased their focus on reaching nonnative English speakers in this country, in response to the growing number of immigrants.
“We’ve had a definite push,” said national Jehovah’s Witnesses spokesman J.R. Brown. “We sort of mapped the whole United States. We send our followers out to the homes. As they started meeting more and more foreign language-speaking people, if we did not have the persons to take care of that, we were notified” at headquarters.
That’s resulted in classes across the country where Jehovah’s Witnesses who speak, say, Spanish or Korean or French volunteer to teach other Witnesses who want to learn those languages. They use an accelerated curriculum designed to get students going door-to-door quickly.
Locally, classes have been held for those learning Spanish, Russian and Korean, among other languages. Arabic and Thai classes are in the works.
For the current Chinese class, students meet weekly at Yesler Kingdom Hall, home of the Chinese-language congregation. (Witnesses call the buildings they gather in “Kingdom Halls” rather than churches.)
On a recent Saturday after their lesson, some students headed to Chinatown International District. Fluent Mandarin speaker Pae Wen Taylor and new Chinese speaker Mira Won asked passers-by if they spoke Chinese and handed out tracts and invitations to conventions and services.
They met with varied success.
Some people they met spoke Cantonese, not Mandarin. Others ignored them, declined or even handed back the tracts. But some took the handouts and talked with the women.
“It depends on where you are. About half will take the tracts,” said Taylor, a Seattle real-estate agent.
Won, an architect from Lynnwood, decided to learn Chinese after her Korean-language congregation looked through the phone book for Korean-sounding last names. Turned out, about a third of those families were Chinese.
“We met Chinese in our area and didn’t know how to speak to them,” she said.
Certainly, other denominations and faiths reach out to nonnative English speakers. But few do so with the intense evangelizing focus of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Members scour phone books and the Internet, compiling databases of, say, Chinese-sounding last names.
Many spend numerous hours going door-to-door — Taylor spends about 70 hours a month.
Other locals target cruise-ship workers, many of whom are from other countries. Witnesses can’t board the ships, but they seek out workers as they come on or off the ships, or at nearby bus stops and businesses.
And many keep meticulous records, jotting down notes next to each home they call on. The notes might say “NC” — not Chinese, or “ABC” — American-born Chinese, or that the person isn’t interested, or to follow up.
Each Witness sends in a monthly report detailing how many hours the member spent evangelizing, how many tracts or magazines the member placed, and whether the member conducted Bible studies.
Members say it’s because of their beliefs.
Witnesses consider themselves Christian, although they differ from Orthodox Christianity in several key ways, including not believing in the Trinity but rather that Jesus is God’s son, not God.
They say the Bible — the Witnesses’ version is called “New World Translation” — commands them to spread the gospel, person-to-person.
They also believe the world as we know it is coming to an end, and they want people to develop a personal relationship with their Creator so they’ll be deemed worthy by God of living on the earthly paradise they believe God will establish on Earth.
All members are required to evangelize, though there’s no minimum quota of hours, said Brown, the national spokesman. Those members who don’t, get visits from elders.
The organization has created a social structure that rewards those who spend the most time evangelizing, said Michael Hamilton, a Seattle Pacific University associate professor of history who specializes in American religion.
“Social esteem is closely associated with the amount of time you spend evangelizing,” he said.
Nationally, the number of Witnesses has risen from about 1 million to 1.2 million over the last four years, in part due to the growth of non-English congregations, particularly Spanish, French (mainly from Haiti) and American Sign Language.
Though the number of Witnesses in Washington state has remained flat at about 31,000 over the past few years, the number of Witnesses who are not native English speakers has grown. Out of 357 total congregations statewide, 91 are what Witnesses call foreign-language congregations — chief among them Spanish, Korean and Tagalog.
But the aggressive evangelizing also has annoyed some. The town of Stratton, Ohio, required Jehovah’s Witnesses and other door-to-door solicitors to get permits before knocking on doors. Jehovah’s Witnesses challenged that ordinance all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which declared the law unconstitutional.
“We try not to annoy people,” said Dave Keegan, who coordinated the Seattle Chinese-language congregation for years. “It’s of no benefit to them or us to talk to someone who’s not interested.”
Keegan says he finds people who come from other countries are often more open to hearing their message.
Reaching new immigrants is “a key, not the key” to the Witnesses’ future growth, Keegan says. “We believe that God’s the one that draws people of all nations. We’re just the tools that are used to help these individuals come to a knowledge of God.”
Janet I. Tu: 206-464-2272 or firstname.lastname@example.org