A pioneer, according to the Oxford American Dictionary, is “an initiator of a new enterprise, an inventor, etc.” I’m not sure why those of us who devoted 90 hours a month to the "full-time ministry" were given this title.
Preaching from house to house was not something new, as Jesus’ disciples had done so in the first century. Perhaps the organization, the Watchtower Society, had the third and final definition in mind: “go before, lead, or conduct (another person or persons).”
Those of us who chose the pioneer way of life spent most of our time in the field service — going door-to-door and conducting Bible studies with anyone interested — leading our fellow brothers and sisters who could not (or would not) devote such a large amount of time.
No one ever told us we had to do it. However, it was intimated that if you were a truly spiritual person, you would do all you could do to become a pioneer. Why would you not spend this much time devoted to the preaching and teaching work if your circumstances allowed for it, knowing that the End was near?
Earthly paradise was just a breath away. And when paradise arrived, then would be the true rest. Then would be the time to reap the benefits. Now was the time for the hard labor.
A full-time pioneer was expected to spend 90 hours a month in the preaching work; an auxiliary pioneer put in 60. I became a full-time pioneer for the first time in 1988, a year after graduating from high school. This was why I turned down encouragement by my teachers to apply for college; my goal was to devote as much time to Jehovah’s work as possible.
I knew some pioneers who scheduled "marathon" days of eight hours, starting in the early morning at 5 or 6 a.m. with what was called “street work” — witnessing at trolley stations, bus stops, or driving around to local Laundromats. I found this to be the hardest type of witnessing — approaching people publicly.
Most of us settled into a routine of standing on a street corner, holding up a Watchtower, Awake, or a handful of Bible tracts, waiting for people to come up to us. This rarely, if ever, happened. Pedestrians would rush by hurriedly, avoiding eye contact.
Or we would hand out back issues of magazines and count those as “placements,” which looked better on our field service reports. Every month we were required to fill out the little slip of paper called “Field Service Report” with our total hours spent in the preaching work, number of books placed, booklets and brochures, Watchtower and Awake subscriptions, individual magazines and number of return visits. We were told this wasn’t to somehow "quantify" our efforts in serving Jehovah, but merely an effective way of keeping track of the worldwide work and its growth.
The hardcore pioneers actively approached people with openers such as:
“Good morning. What do you think of the current situation in the world today of [insert headline].”
Or something simple such as:
“How would you like to live forever in a world where there is no more [insert problem].”
Although we were constantly reminded by the Society that it wasn’t the hours that really counted but the effort, we nevertheless counted every possible minute as field service time. We counted even the minutes it took to drive between Laundromats, which sometimes added up to 10 or 15 minutes, or even little stops at doughnut shops, where we would leave back issues of our magazines and sit and have a snack at the same time. Those of us with a sensitive conscience about such things started subtracting time when the break lasted more than 15 minutes.
We stopped our street work to attend the service meeting, which started at 9:15 a.m., every day of the week and consisted of an elder or ministerial servant reading the “Daily Text” at someone’s home. The “Daily Text” was a scriptural verse and commentary on it from the Watchtower or Awake magazines.
We started counting our field service "time" again at about 10 a.m., or whenever we reached the territory for the day, going till about noon. That was a total of about five hours if we got started with street work at 6 a.m.
After a short lunch break, we made return visits to householders who had formerly shown interest in our message, even the least bit. This completed a true “pioneer” day.
My longest days were about four hours, which meant I set aside such four-hour days at least three times a week, which meant I’d still have to spend about six hours in field service on the weekend. Even then, that would only amount to 72 hours a month. I always felt like a failure and could never make the 1,000 hours a year, the goal of full-time pioneers.
Actually, 90 hours a month meant 1,080 hours a year, which left you about a month’s vacation time. I mostly fell into the 800-to-900-hours-a-year range. Each year I would tell myself I’d meet the goal the following year. I think I only made the 1,000 hours once, in 1994.
* * *
Territory: Terra Nova Apartments (Section 8)
Time: 11:30 a.m.
Annabel, my service partner for the morning, is wearing her flowery summer dress with a V-line in front and back, no nylons and high-heeled red pumps. Her wavy, long layered dark hair flows down her back, past the V-line. I’m doing my best to keep up with her, shoulders hunched over, even though she doesn’t walk too fast up the steps leading to our next door.
She pauses, faces me, gathers all her hair to her left shoulder, as she continues our conversation about her recent family trip to Hawaii. I listen to her intently, nodding, imprinting her mannerisms and movements in my mind for emulation; she is a cutout of what I would like to appear to be.
I follow her up the concrete steps, holding on to the dull-brown iron railing to maintain my balance. The flight of steps leads to two doors — on opposite sides, only a few feet away from each other.
Since both doors are painted the same olive-green, except for the black plastic numbers, we choose to knock on number “3” first, hoping the other door doesn’t open at the same time. There is a knocker under the peephole, but Annabel chooses to knock with her knuckles. It’s her turn, and after two seconds a man answers.
“Good morning. My name is Annabel and this is my friend Tina,” she begins, “and how are you today sir?” The man looks Hispanic, wearing a red cap. He has a dark mustache and his eyes are barely visible under the visor. He stands halfway behind the door.
“I’m okay,” he answers, hesitantly extending his right hand to shake Annabel’s. He opens the door wider. “I’m Juan. Are you those Jehovah’s?”
“Yes, we’re Jehovah’s Witnesses.”
Annabel takes one step back. The day is hot and muggy, mid-August, and I’m relieved we don’t have to stand in the sun. Still, the plastic straps of my sandals are pressing against my moist skin, cutting grooves into my toes. We’ve been going door-to-door for an hour and a half now. I’ve lasted this long many times before, but it feels extra long today.
I am leaning my weight into my left leg, arms folded. I’m standing as a silent partner. Annabel can handle any householder on her own; her entire family — mother, father, and three brothers — are devout Witnesses, and she has a gregarious, charming personality that can win anyone over. She enunciates every word clearly with a winning, underlying intelligent sound.
“Wouldn’t it be refreshing to find a real solution for sickness, old age, and death?”
She’s using a simple conversation starter from Reasoning from the Scriptures, our field service guidebook. Juan nods his head in hesitant agreement. Annabel notifies her two-person audience that she is turning her Bible to Psalm 37:10, 11.
I know this one by heart: And just a little while longer and the wicked one will be no more; And you will certainly give attention to his place, and he will not be. But the meek ones themselves will possess the earth. And they will find their exquisite delight in the abundance of peace.
Her poetic voice pauses at the right spots, rises, and then halts. I lick the sweat beading down my lip. It feels like an oven despite the shade. Floating behind my focus is chocolate frozen yogurt with sprinkles on top. I don’t have to follow her every word because I know this scripture quoted a thousand times in Bible talks and in almost every publication. One can cheat on one’s thoughts and still remain essentially committed to the cause.
Annabel then drops down to the clincher, verse 29: And the righteous themselves will possess the earth and they will reside forever upon it.
This is the strongest support for our belief that human beings in the future will live on a paradise earth. The book we are offering householders as a special campaign this month is entitled: You Can Live Forever in Paradise on Earth. Annabel wisely, though predictably, uses this verse to lead into her offer.
Juan opens the door more widely now, stepping closer. Behind him I see a narrow hallway, the carpet lined with a plastic streamer with raised bumps, sullied with dirt and lined with scattered pairs of shoes. This reminds me of my own home — the entranceway of our home protected in the same way. I imagine there is Filipino heritage somewhere in this household.
“Imagine,” Annabel says, “Jehovah God is offering us everlasting life, right here on earth.”
“You Jehovah’s make things sound so simple,” Juan interrupts, “evildoers destroyed, meek ones living forever. Do you really believe human beings can live forever in our physical form?”
“Well, yes, that’s what God promises us, right here.” She points to verse 29.
“But — Annabel is it? Everything physical and material dies. Even cars rust, get old, and break down.”
In my silence I agree — everything physical does break down.
“We age, we grow old, and then we die. That’s the way it has always been. There’s no way around it.”
I stand there speechless — and so does Annabel.
She starts to shuffle through her Bible bag and pulls out the dark chocolate-colored Reasoning from the Scriptures. This mini-encyclopedia contains every possible counter-answer for every possible conversation stopper. It is the Bible for our Bible.
At our weekly service meeting, the five-minute Bible talks we give each week are based on a subject from this book. I’ve given these talks dozens of times, and they always go smoothly. Sometimes we demonstrate an oppositional opinion in these presentations, but then we demonstrate how to use the Reasoning book to counter any argument. It always works on stage. This time, it’s not a demonstration. It’s for real.
Annabel is flipping through the pages, and I take mine out as well. I flip to the index and look for “everlasting life.” There is nothing under that heading giving a scientific explanation for how the human body could live forever.
“Let me share with you other scriptures that support this promise,” Annabel says.
Good thinking; there are plenty of other scriptural promises. But the man wants a logical explanation.
“You haven’t answered my question. Doesn’t everything physical eventually die?”
“Yes.” I speak up. “For now they do, that’s all we know for now. But as Annabel showed you from the Bible itself…”
“It says it in your Bible, too,” I say defensively. “Would you like to take out your copy of the Bible too?”
“No, I know what my Bible says.”
He watches me as he pushes his hat back. His eyes are bulging, pulsating, and bloodshot.
“That’s not my point. I said — and you young ladies are not really listening — we just cannot live forever as humans, unless you’re thinking fantasy, comic strip immortality.”
Immortality. I had struggled inwardly with the idea before. Those who go to heaven to rule over the earth will be immortal because they will be in spirit form like God. But those of us with the earthly hope will simply live forever, not be immortal.
Live forever somehow. But what’s the difference between being immortal and living forever? Wouldn’t living forever be the same as immortality? I had always resigned myself to the fact that someday, it would all become clear. Someday. Not now.
I feel the plastic straps scraping deeper into my skin. But when I glance down, there are no traces of blood. Trust in Jehovah. My heart races as I look to Annabel to save us. She tells Juan she can see he has differing views and that we just want to share the wonderful hope set out for us in the Bible. She reaches out to shake Juan’s hand. He pulls it away. She thanks him for his time.
He steps out of the door completely this time, nearly shutting it behind him and speaking softly now, as if he doesn’t want anyone inside to hear.
“You two are very young,” he says. “You ought to look more closely at your beliefs. What about what your leaders’ prophecies about the year 1975 that the end of the world was supposed to come? Well, it’s still here.”
I look at Annabel and Annabel looks at me. We both know it is time to leave. And I know what Annabel is thinking — Juan is dangerous; Juan has had dealings with apostates — those who’ve left and spoken against the organization, who are part of the evil slave class, never to be forgiven, to be everlastingly destroyed at Armageddon. They use this kind of technique all the time — trying to plant doubts in the minds of Witnesses.
We’ve both heard the argument about 1975 before — the Witnesses falsely prophesied the end was going to come and it didn’t. They were wrong. They misled their people, and when the end didn’t come, hundreds left. This is not their first failed prediction, nor their last. Juan is not an apostate, but clearly, by his choice of words, he’s had contact with them.
Annabel tells Juan that we really must be leaving and we hurry down the stairs as he continues, “Think for yourselves. Stop blindly following those white men in New York!”
Annabel follows me down the stairs. I watch my steps closely, holding tightly to the handrail. Neither of us says anything. She takes her pen and writes his address down on the not-at-home slip. She marks this door as one not to call on ever again. I nod my head in agreement, even though I think of how the man never said he didn’t want to be called on again. We usually write down such a thing when someone has made it clear in no uncertain terms that they never want to be visited by the Witnesses ever again. But I agree as she writes extensive notes.
We walk faster now, and as Annabel relates what we could have and should have said, I nod in agreement. I am yearning for a quiet moment when I can rethink all that was said and all that was not. Everlasting life. Flesh and blood. The cycle of life and death.
But for now, Annabel suggests we take a break, and I tell her I’m craving frozen yogurt to cool my hot and tired feet.