This morning I was working on a chapter about how black Jamaicans ignored the American missionaries' attempts to control their family lives. The doorbell rang, and lo, a young woman Jehovah Witness was at my door. Wearing a nice sun dress and holding her well-worn Bible, she nervously asked me if I read self-help books, and if I ever thought of the Bible as a self-help book. I answered: well, no, but I can see how some people would see it that way. She then opened to read a verse from Timothy, her hands and voice shaking. I politely told her that I wasn't interested, then returned to my own missionaries, imbued with a new sense of empathy for black Jamaican "sinners" who politely listened, most of the time, to the Americans from Oberlin, and then went about doing things as they saw fit. Maybe they even felt a little sorry for the white Ohioans in their midst.
I also wished the young Witness "good luck" as she left - is that the proper response to a missionary with whom I disagree? I suppose I also have sympathy for missionaries as well as the would-be converts.
When I was home from college one summer, I invited a door-to-door missionary named Gwen into my parents' house, and we talked for a long time about religion, mostly because I was curious about what she was trying to do. We didn't agree, needless to say. She did follow up with a number of phone calls and mailings, so I suppose she viewed the conversation as a success, a potential conversion. I read somewhere that Mormon missionaries rarely convert more than a handful of people in their two-year missions, and I wonder what the conversion rate is for Jehovah Witnesses going around my parents' neighborhood in the mid-morning of a weekday. Not many people are home; and those that are don't, I imagine, convert. But they still go out, even when they're so nervous that their voices are shaking.