Jehovah's Witnesses to share in their public ministry at Chicago Marathon for the first time in three years
As elite athletes race past iconic skyscrapers and well-known landmarks during the Chicago Marathon next Sunday, Oct. 9, they'll also run past another familiar sight: Jehovah's Witnesses standing next to mobile carts featuring colorful literature in a variety of languages.
This year's event, considered one of the top marathons in the world, is expected to draw more than 40,000 runners from all 50 states and from more than 100 different countries as well as an estimated 1.7 million spectators. Participants will gather in Grant Park to begin and end the 26.2-mile course that will take them through 29 Chicago neighborhoods.
"Being able to talk to people from all over the world is super exciting," said Chicago resident Paul Schmidt, who will be among the more than 800 volunteers standing with cart displays throughout the city this week.
Neal Barth, of Naperville, Illinois, shared similar feelings. "I'm excited to go each and every year, especially this time. Not only are people coming out of the pandemic where a lot of things were paused, but an event like this is really international in scope," he said. "We get to meet people from all over the world and it's really exciting to learn their backgrounds."
Jehovah's Witnesses in Chicago enjoyed sharing in this unique work during the 2017, 2018, and 2019 marathons; then, in early 2020, the Christian organization suspended all in-person forms of their ministry out of concern for the health and safety of the community. The in-person marathon itself was also canceled in 2020, with organizers shifting to a virtual experience.
Earlier this year, Witnesses all over the world recommenced their public preaching work.
"We believe that the early decision to shut down all in-person activities for more than two years has saved many lives," said Robert Hendriks, U.S. spokesperson for Jehovah's Witnesses. "We're now ready and eager to reconnect with our neighbors once again -- person-to-person, face-to-face. It's not the only way we preach, but it has historically been the most effective way to deliver our message of comfort and hope."
Volunteers from all over Chicagoland and northern Indiana, speaking a variety of different languages and ranging in ages from their late teens to their seventies, are looking forward to participating at more than 40 different locations around the race route.
"A lot of work goes in behind the scenes to plan and organize the volunteer efforts at an event like this," Barth said. "People take time off work and readjust their schedules to be able to be there, and it doesn't feel like work because we enjoy it so much."
"Highlighted on the signage is a free Bible study course, which shows you the Bible's positive message, the kind of hope that it holds out, as well as why we can trust the Bible," Schmidt said. "And it is completely free." This interactive Bible study course can also be found on the official website of Jehovah's Witnesses, jw.org.
"I think this message is timely because all over the world, there has been an uptick in social unrest, divisiveness, economic challenges, mental and emotional illness," Barth said. "Whatever challenges they're going through, this is a universal message that can bring people hope in a hopeless world."
"We get countless people thanking us for being there, happy to see us, even if they don't want anything," said Barth's wife, Laura. "There's a peace about those carts and our message that people are drawn to."
2022 marks the 10-year anniversary of Jehovah's Witnesses' use of mobile displays of Bible-based literature on the streets of Chicago, the local program having kicked off in 2012. While "cart witnessing" began in large metropolitan areas in the U.S. in 2011, the practice quickly spread to tens of thousands of communities around the world, becoming a fixture in rail and bus stations, airports, harbors and main streets. Those traveling to and from Chicago before and after the marathon will also spot carts at O'Hare International Airport, Midway International Airport, and at CTA and Metra stations throughout the area.
"We feel good doing this volunteer work, giving back to the community," Schmidt said. "When we have such a positive message like we do, such a positive hope for the future to share with people, we feel that's an expression of our love for our fellow man."
"I'm grateful that we get to be back in this work again this year," Laura Barth said. "And grateful to the city of Chicago, too, for allowing us to be down there."
Schmidt invites any who might be curious to take a closer look. "Take a little time to stop by our carts and see what it's all about."
To learn more about Jehovah's Witnesses, their history, beliefs and activities, visit jw.org, the organization's official website, which features content in more than 1,000 languages.