I remember I was in a room with close to 25 other youngsters aged 7-12, all wearing shorts because it was hot out. We were in a church recreation room in West Philadelphia with two older ladies who were obviously in charge. I was 10 at the time and out of school for the summer – we all were – so I could have been anywhere doing anything, but my mom had heard about this program to help kids do outreach for the church as well as assist in paying tuition to a rather expensive private school that we attended. And I was scared.
You see, back then I was nervous about pretty much everything, the shy kid in the back who doesn’t say “boo” and hopes to keep blending in so people don’t make fun of him. That was me. And I saw pretty early on that the “outreach” we were expected to do meant going out in a public place, talking to absolute strangers, and getting them to sign up for a subscription to a Christian magazine (or several). You can understand why that properly freaked me out.
Now, the ladies seemed nice enough. They were going to split us up every day and head to two different parts of the city where we would canvas people all day long, while carrying around satchel full of magazines that they could purchase for $2 or $5 dollars apiece, and subscriptions that cost considerably more in the short term but “paid for themselves” in the long term (i.e. eternal salvation). They were magazines with one name monikers like Insight, Messenger, Listen, and Outlook. I personally didn’t think people were allowed to solicit in some of the places we did, but the ladies apparently either didn’t care or thought God would take care of it.
We went places like 8th and Market Streets outside of the subway stop, to catch all the people who were going into the Gallery to shop, or outdoors in the marketplace two blocks from our church in North Philly. But the prime two places were the 30th Street Train Station and the outside doors of Strawbridge & Clothier downtown. On occasion several of the employees of Strawbridge’s would tell us we couldn’t be there, but no one in a uniform came to force us out. So we kept going.
The split was pretty apparent nearly from the start. Several of the kids who sold the most were put together with several of the kids who weren’t so good at it. My sister was in the “great seller” category, while I was in the bottom tier. The best seller, though, was a kid who was really short and who had a smile that could cut glass. I mean, the kid was good. He could go behind me and sell to people who blew me off, and not just for one or two magazines but for a couple of subscriptions. I swear he was able to pay off his whole tuition by doing that in the summers.
For me, not so much. Our goal was to get at least $10 in magazine sales (and donations) every day. The kid I mentioned, he routinely did close to $40, and my sister was easily over $20 every day, while I was hovering around $5, and I think it’s because people felt sorry for me in the end. I was obviously not very good at it. It didn’t help that if we were in North Philly I would sometime blow a portion of my donations on Popeye’s french fries or biscuits. They were just sooooo good, but they didn’t endear me to the ladies who were starting to stress about me after just a couple of weeks.
To say I was abysmal would be the understatement of the century. On one particularly tough day I didn’t make a single cent. No one would even donate a quarter to me. That’s when the ladies called my mom, the night after the devastation. They didn’t know what else they could do with me. They weren’t a babysitting service, and I was obviously not motivated enough to make any money at the enterprise. My mother would have to find something else for me to do for the rest of the summer. Now, I wasn’t supposed to hear any of this, but I was 10. I listened in on everything, and even though I did indeed suck at the job, it still hurt me bone deep.
My mother told it to me straight after the conversation, and I was always grateful that she didn’t try to sugarcoat it. She asked me why it seemed I wasn’t motivated, and I laid it out there. I told her it was difficult for me to approach complete strangers, that some people were made for it, and others were content to be in the shadows, not to be noticed. I think she was sad at that since a huge part of the Adventist message is outreach and missionary work.
I ended up going to camp for the rest of the summer, but looking back on it I think that was the dividing line. I wanted to make my mother proud, to do what she expected of me, so I started working on my personality right then, fighting hard one step at a time to be outgoing like that kid who made nearly $40 a week. And it eventually worked. That’s one thing I can be thankful for. Right?