The Last House
It was the summer of 1993. Scorching is the word I would use to describe the weather. Have you ever gotten out of a Jacuzzi and stepped into a sauna and the person in there has turned the whole bucket of water over onto the hot rocks and it’s so steaming that you can barely breathe? That’s how hot it was in the American Deep South that July.
It was my first summer colporteuring. I had memorized the canvass, 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 I gripped 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. Maybe I was. 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 canvass was crisp and fresh. But the dozens of times I was turned down that day, how shall I put it, drained the battery on my cell phone a little.
On Monday I hopped out of the van and started off with the belief that Sunday had been simply an off day. This day would be different. Well, it was different—much more brutal! This day people weren’t rejecting me; they 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 I wouldn’t have to go back out into the heat and leave that cocoon of cool. They kept asking me what I was doing outside in weather like this. I was beginning to wonder the same thing! Mind you, I was so young at that time that I wasn’t questioning my calling or even my faith in God. I was just seriously entertaining the thought of quitting colporteuring and going back to my air-conditioned house in California.
Still, on Wednesday no one was buying books, but I was getting handed water bottles on a consistent basis. People felt sorry for me. If what Jesus said is literally true, that “if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward” (Matt. 10:42), then those neighborhoods I worked in are filled with people who will be in heaven!
At dusk on that Wednesday, after we had finished for the day, my team members were in the van counting their day’s earnings. For a literature evangelist on a bad “jag,” this is the worst time of the day—worse even than being rejected at the door. It seemed as though everyone else was having a good week, flush with sales money and testimonies. A kind friend handed me $20, explaining that she knew I was having a tough go of it and wanted to help me out.
Questioning the Calling
That night I began asking myself questions. Why am I here? (Not on earth but in the South colporteuring that summer.) Is there something amiss in my spiritual walk? Is God showing His displeasure with something I am doing? Is my canvass 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 get out and work a couple of doors with me. He had done that on Tuesday with no success. I was 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 from Steps to Christ, nothing else. My leader called me on the walkie-talkie periodically, asking if I needed more books. “No” was my pitiful response each time.
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. This last house sat about 50 yards from the street and had a dignified austerity, with fern and ivy growing on its brick walls. I squinted my eyes to see if 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.
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. One last time, and that was it for me. I turned around and started to trudge down the walkway. Then I heard the unmistakable sound of 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 a very old woman (I guess that when you’re 14, everyone seems very old!). 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.
At the threshold the air-conditioning hit me like a tidal wave. 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 soon in my hand.
Her name was Grace. Before you knew it, 30 minutes had passed. Grace and I 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 tell 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 house, though, because I had met the aim of the “evangelism” in literature evangelism: to deeply connect with a person and make a friend.
One last time, and that was it for me. I turned around and started to trudge down the walkway.
Grace and I rose 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. “Bless your heart.”
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 would not be my primary motive anymore; it would be making real connections with the people to complement the books about Christ that I sold. I knew that I would not quit colporteuring that summer no matter how bad it got. In fact, I colporteured 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 divine-hour 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 audience of the medium-sized church. In the back row my eyes stopped on an elderly woman smiling and waving at me. It was Grace.
All through the rest of the service I tried to puzzle 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 white 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—on to the next city. I ended up having an extraordinary summer doing God’s work. As I said earlier, I colporteured 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.