t was the summer of 1993. “Scorching” is the word I would use to describe the weather. Have you ever stepped into a sauna when someone has poured a whole bucket of water onto the hot rocks, and it’s so steamy you can barely breathe? That’s how hot it seemed in the American Deep South that July.
It was my first summer working as a colporteur. I had memorized the script, perfected the at-the-door smile, and become pretty good at praying while I spoke—just as they taught us. In my right hand and resting against my forearm lay a cookbook, Bible Answers, The Great Controversy, He Taught Love (The Desire of Ages), two children’s books, and Steps to Christ. On my left shoulder was a bag bulky with backup books and a side pocket for the money I earned.
The first couple of weeks had gone well. Everyone on the team told me that I was a natural. But on my fourth week, I hit the metaphorical wall so hard that I almost didn’t get back up.
Hitting the Wall
On Sunday, there was pep in my step; my script was crisp and fresh. But the dozens of times I was turned down drained me.
On Monday, I hopped out of the van and started off with the belief that Sunday had simply been an off day. This day would be different. Well, it was different—much more brutal! People weren’t even opening their doors!
On Tuesday, the temperature rose so high that when this really nice couple let me into their air-conditioned house and served me lemonade, I stalled so that I wouldn’t have to go back out into the heat. They kept asking me what I was doing outside in weather like this. I was beginning to wonder the same thing!
Still on Wednesday, no one was buying books, but I received bottles of water on a consistent basis. People felt sorry for me.
After we had finished for the day, my team members were in the van counting their day’s earnings. It seemed as though everyone else was having a good week, flush with sales money and testimonies. A kind friend handed me 20 dollars, explaining that she knew I was having a tough time and wanted to help me out.
Questioning the Calling
That night, I began asking myself questions. Why am I here? Is there something amiss in my spiritual walk? Is God showing His displeasure with something I’m doing? Is my script bad? I couldn’t come up with any answers.
Thursday was the last working day of the week for us. Before I stepped out of the van, my team leader prayed with me and promised to accompany me to a few homes. He had done that on Tuesday with no success. I may have been a “trooper,” a “soldier,” and all that, but I was not stupid. If this day were as dismal as the others, I would take the hint and spend my summer in other pursuits.
That morning, it was the usual heat and rejection, but I was growing immune to it. Plus, I took comfort from the fact that this would be my final day “in the field.” Yet after lunch, it was starting to grate on me again. After hours of work, I had gotten only a couple dollars for a single Steps to Christ. My leader called me on the walkie-talkie periodically, asking whether I needed more books. “No” was my pitiful response each time.
Ben’s outreach to Grace is a perfect example of Total Member Involvement (TMI). TMI is a full-scale, world-church evangelistic thrust that involves every member, every church, every administrative entity, and every type of public outreach ministry, as well as personal and institutional outreach. To learn more about TMI, please visit tmi.adventist.org.
Serendipitously, as the sun was setting, I was just finishing up a block. It was a “dead” neighborhood, with either no one home or no one answering their doors. The last house sat about 50 yards from the street and had a dignified austerity, with ferns and ivy growing on its brick walls. I squinted to see whether I could catch a glimpse of a car in the driveway; I had probably walked 10 miles that day and didn’t want to take another step if it wasn’t necessary. But there was a car there, a gray Lincoln, so I begrudgingly walked up to the door.
Trekking up the meandering driveway, I was buoyed by the thought that this was the last house I would ever canvass. As I neared the front door, the trees in the yard afforded me shade from the heat. Drenched and spent, I pressed the doorbell, momentarily hearing chimes ring throughout the house. Ten seconds ticked by, then I rang it again. I had just started to trudge back down the walkway when I heard the mechanisms of a door moving. Great, I thought, one more rejection for the road.
I did an about-face, and in the doorway stood an old woman. She was tiny but with a feistiness expressed in the lines on her face.
“Hi, ma’am,” I said, gearing up for my final spiel. “I’m—”
“Are you going to stand there or come in?” she interrupted, gesturing with one arm.
As I stepped inside, the air-conditioning enveloped me like a cool sheet. Praise God! I thought as she closed the door behind me.
“Ma’am, I am—” I began again.
“Oh, have a seat!” she commanded. “You’ve got to be tired.” I plunked down on a very comfortable couch; a tall glass of orange juice was soon in my hand.
Her name was Grace. Before I knew it, 30 minutes had passed. We had talked about everything from the weather to school, to family, and even to religion (she was a nondenominational Christian). I had broken some of the rules I had been taught—not to stay too long in a house, not to reveal your religion lest prejudice arise. I also broke a rule that I hadn’t yet heard but somehow knew was a no-no: when she asked me how selling the books was going, I confided that it had been a bad week. When I told her that, she commiserated; her husband of 56 years had died two weeks before, and the funeral had been on Sunday. Suddenly my “bad” week was put into perspective.
Time to Go
After an hour of talking, I sensed it was time to leave, if for no other reason than to let my leader know that I was OK. It was well after dark now, and I hadn’t phoned in yet because we were told not to use the walkie-talkie in someone’s home. I felt strangely refreshed by this last visit because I had been more interested in making a connection with a new friend than in making a sale.
Grace and I arose and, in a touching moment, embraced. She walked me to the door, and, once I stepped out, she asked offhandedly, “Aren’t you going to ask me if I want to buy your books?” That had actually crossed my mind early in the visit, but I had dismissed it after hearing about her husband.
“I will give you the most beautiful book I have ever read,” I told her, selecting He Taught Love from my bag.
“Bless your heart,” she whispered, a tear welling up and slowly trickling down her cheek as she accepted the book from me.
In the van that night, everyone was again counting their money. I didn’t have much to count, but I felt that I had had an experience that was much more valuable than all the money in the world. Money wouldn’t be my primary motive anymore; it would be making real connections with people to complement the books about Christ that I sold. I knew that I would not quit working as a colporteur that summer no matter how bad it got. In fact, I worked as a colporteur for two more summers after that one. It was that night that I truly became a literature evangelist.
A Surprise Guest
The next day, Friday, was one of much-needed relaxation and recreation. Our literature evangelism team cleaned up for the Sabbath, did some shopping, ate at a nice restaurant, and spent some time in nature. At church on Sabbath, we participated in the service. I was slated to give the Scripture reading. When I reached the pulpit, I announced the text, waited as the pages turned, and scanned the congregation of the medium-sized church. My eyes stopped on an elderly woman smiling and waving at me in the back row. It was Grace.
All through the rest of the service, I tried to figure out what Grace was doing at the Adventist church. She had told me she was nondenominational, so she probably didn’t attend here. Was it because I said I was a Seventh-day Adventist? Had she come on a hunch and found me here?
After the service, as I stood shaking hands with the members who were spilling out of the sanctuary, Grace finally appeared. She smiled up at me, and we embraced. I asked her what she was doing here. Her smile got wider as she handed me a white envelope. “I forgot to pay you for your book.” Slightly embarrassed, I said, “No—that’s not necessary,” and attempted to give her back the envelope. But she had moved on to grasp the hand of the man who had taken up the tithes and offerings, and another person took my hand to shake.
By the time I had shaken the final hand, Grace was nowhere in sight. I stepped back into the sanctuary and sat in the last row, removing the envelope from my pocket. On the front in neat cursive handwriting was written “Benjamin Baker.” Inside a note, also handwritten, read: “Dear Benjamin, Your visit was the first time I have felt joy in my heart since my husband died. Thank you so much for the beautiful book you gave me. We have a friend in Jesus. I can never pay you for your gift, but here is a little token of my appreciation. Sincerely, Grace.”
Folded into the note was a check for $1,000.
In Awe of God
Well, as colporteur groups do, we moved on to the next city. I ended up having an extraordinary summer doing God’s work. As I said earlier, I did this work for two more summers after that. I sold thousands of books and had as many experiences. But I never forgot Grace.
Two decades later, I was on the computer doing some research, perusing the Seventh-day Adventist obituary index, a database of obituaries of church members in Adventist periodicals. There are thousands of names in the database. I can’t tell you exactly how this happened, but I came upon an obituary entry that sent a chill up and down my spine. I quickly clicked my way to the site where I could view the actual entry. It was a very brief column from 17 years before. “A widow . . .
in a Southern town . . . converted to Adventism near the end of her life . . . from a book . . . now rests, awaiting the last trump.”
I am in awe of God’s grace.