Robert Hendricks doesn’t take offense when people look askance at him or utter commonly repeated misconceptions about the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Since he was baptized at 15 years old, Hendriks has been a Jehovah’s Witness, perhaps the most misunderstood denomination of Christianity.
“In our society, I think generally speaking, we don’t take offense to the fact that most people don’t know who we are because generally speaking people know who they are, they know who they’re familiar with,” said Hendriks, U.S. spokesman for the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“There’s great misunderstanding of each other in our society, and so we try to foster an understanding of who we are by being very open with our neighbors, by generally speaking in the past 100 years, except for the last year, actually going to them and talking to them,” he continued.
Since early last year that has been made more challenging because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced the Jehovah’s Witnesses to suspend their door-to-door meetings and in-person preaching for the first time in a century. But it hasn’t stopped their commitment to help educate others about who they are and what they believe in.
In Westchester and Putnam counties there are an estimated 8,700 Jehovah’s Witnesses who belong to one of 97 congregations across the two counties. The first congregation in White Plains dates to 1951, Hendriks said. The first congregation in New York State was established in 1908.
In Rockland, there are almost 2,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses associated with 20 congregations.
The more than 10,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in the three counties are part of an estimated 1.3 million Americans that belong to the denomination. Hendriks explained that unlike many other faiths and Christian denominations, being born into a family whose parents or grandparents are Jehovah’s Witnesses, as he was, doesn’t make the children Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Instead, you must be baptized, which only happens when you are old enough to accept the responsibility of actively preaching and spreading the word to others, he said. For many, that means waiting until adulthood. For others like himself and his sister, they were 15 and 18, respectively. Hendriks said it’s a very personal decision whether to make that determination and when to make it.
“Looking back on my life, I was so blessed,” Hendriks said. “I was born into a family that had this faith. For me, I think it made my life a lot better than it would have been. But I had to make my own personal decision and that’s (the case) with every Jehovah’s Witness.”
Despite considering themselves Christians, many who are part of other faiths and denominations don’t look upon the Jehovah’s Witnesses as a mainstream religion. Hendriks said the biggest misunderstanding is that its members don’t believe in Jesus, something that he has heard repeatedly throughout his life.
“It’s a very difficult thing to hear because not only do we believe in Jesus, we try to follow in his footsteps and we try to believe he is our savior, so without Jesus there is no salvation,” Hendriks explained. “That’s how we feel and that is a typical belief of Christianity, right?”
Rather, there is a misconception that they believe in Jehovah rather than Jesus. But to Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jehovah is God’s name, and the original writings mentioned it nearly 7,000 times, Hendriks said. The rest of Christianity believes that God and Jesus are one; while Jehovah’s Witness do not.
“Our understanding of the Bible is that Jesus is a created being, that he is God’s son, that he is the king of God’s kingdom, that he is our savior,” he said. “But we do not believe that he and his father are one person, so that really is the distinguishing element between Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christianity overall.”
Other differences that separate Jehovah’s Witnesses and the remainder of Christianity Hendriks said is that they believe God has not abandoned his original purpose for the Earth just because two people, Adam and Eve, sinned.
Yet another difference is that Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t believe that either everyone goes to heaven or winds up in eternal torment, he said.
What may be puzzling to many, Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t celebrate Christmas because Christmas is not a Christian celebration, but rather a pagan celebration, Hendriks said. They are also certain that Jesus was not born on Dec. 25.
They celebrate only one holiday, the day of Christ’s death, Hendriks said.
While their beliefs have gone against the grain of other Christian denominations, Hendriks said it’s important for Jehovah’s Witnesses to be honest with others about what they believe in.
“It’s very important for us to be open about who we are, to be transparent of who we are and to be able to look back what we say,” Hendriks mentioned. “What we say is what we preach – we preach love of our neighbor. So if we love our neighbor, then we’re going to be open to them and make sure we are participating in the community in a very real way. That’s what we try to do all over Westchester County.”
Before the pandemic, their freedom halls were always open to the public and collections are never taken during their meetings, and that will continue when it is safe to meet again. The website, www.jw.org, has no paywall so the Jehovah’s Witnesses may be open to people of all backgrounds. They have printed their bibles in 200 different languages.
Like nearly all faiths, the emergence of COVID-19 last year profoundly impacted the Jehovah’s Witnesses. They switched to online meetings and much of their outreach was virtually or by phone. For the Jehovah’s Witnesses, as distressing as it was to suspend in-person contact, there was no other choice, Hendriks said.
“We say that life is sacred, but we’ll go to your door and put you at risk?” he said. “No, we have to be consistent.”
But the upside is that more people have attended Jehovah’s Witnesses’ meeting than ever before because the reach was greater, Hendriks said. During the past 14 months, millions of phone calls around the world have been made.
It was 41 years ago as a teenager that Hendriks made the decision to follow in his parents’ footsteps and be baptized as a Jehovah’s Witness. So why does he believe he has been so blessed?
“They taught me who God is and who his son is and it’s a gift that’s greater than life because it’s allowed me to use my life in a way that is so much better than if left to my own devices,” Hendriks said.