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Summer Literature Evangelism Programs for Students Persevere Despite Mixed Attitudes

Canvassers at doors.

On a summer day in 2018, Zachariah Dulcich stepped from a car onto a residential street corner outside of Salt Lake City. Dulcich, then a 15-year-old high school student from Bakersfield, California, had been working that summer distributing Adventist literature by knocking on doors from early afternoon into the evening. For five days a week, he had been offering books on a “donation basis,” carrying a bag stuffed with print material including The Great Controversy and Christ’s Object Lessons by Ellen G. White as well as copies of a plant-based cookbook and Storytime, which features 96 pages of “character-building classics” for children. 

On this particular day, Dulcich had been assigned an accompanying trainee as he canvassed suburban neighborhoods. “I was just basically supposed to walk him through and explain what I'm going to do before I do it,” Dulcich said. The duo approached the first house of the day and noticed a “No Soliciting” sign. Their training told them to knock anyway since they were offering the books in exchange for “donations.” 

“If there’s a screen door, step back when they open it,” Dulcich explained to the new colporteur. “That’s their space.” Extending his arm, he demonstrated, “Put the book right in their stomach, so they automatically reach for it.” The preliminaries completed, they stood on the doorstep and waited.

The Rise of Seventh-day Adventist Youth Literature Ministries 

Like Dulcich, hundreds of Seventh-day Adventist students across North America spend their summers working as literature evangelists. Often marketed as “Youth Rush” experiences, these jobs operate out of conference and union offices. They update the traditional colporteur experience with a church youth group feel and the introduction of shorter magazine-size books called “magabooks.” Depending on how strict child labor laws are, they hire teenagers as young as 14. Programs advertise a peer-shared spiritual focus, divine doorstep appointment, and an earning potential boosted by academy and university scholarships—often an additional $1,000–3,000 off annual tuition.

Motivated by these reasons and hoping for an increased sense of independence, Dulcich had planned to spend his summer canvassing with friends, including his then-girlfriend, in the Central California Conference’s “Youth Rush” program. 

But Dulcich's age at the time ran against California’s child labor laws, so he joined the Nevada-Utah conference’s program instead. Though new to canvassing, he proved very successful. According to Dulcich, he sold at least 20 books a day. Once, he signed up an entire pizza restaurant for Bible studies. He even met someone who said they had a dream about his arrival at their house—a coveted literature evangelism testimony.

Now Dulcich was training someone. They waited at the door with the “No Soliciting” sign.

The door opened. A man in his mid-20s said nothing and pointed at the sign. Dulcich began his memorized pitch. 

“Hi, my name is Zachariah. I'm a student working on a scholarship, and I'm trying to do something good for the community.” He held out the book. “Why don't you take a look?” 

“Can you read that sign?” the man asked. 

“Yeah, it says no soliciting, but I’m just here doing something good for the community,” Dulcich said. 

Then, the man started yelling. “It seems you can’t read the sign. What are you doing on my property?” 

Dulcich replied that he would leave. But the angered man suddenly grabbed Dulcich’s collar, pulled him close, and hit him in the abdomen. 

The gut punch was hard enough to knock Dulcich to the ground. As he gasped for air, the man loomed over him, yelling and pointing and ordering him off his property. Having witnessed one of the worst scenarios to befall a 15-year-old literature evangelist, Dulcich’s trainee stood frozen in shock. 

“I thought [the man] was going to kick me. I was trying to talk but was short of breath,” Dulcich recalled. He eventually managed to stand. “I walked back to the sidewalk, and the dude was still standing there watching me, telling me to leave and get out of the neighborhood.” 

The two teenagers returned to the street corner and radioed their leaders for assistance. Dulcich recalls fearing the man would return and attack him again. “I was only 15 years old. I'd never experienced anything like this before in my life.” He added, “That wasn't something that we go over in training.” Once the leaders arrived a few minutes later, they didn’t know what to do. They went up the chain of command and eventually deduced Dulcich would need an ambulance to get checked out. 

While Dulcich initially dealt with swelling and trouble breathing, he ended up only having internal bruising. He alleges that investigation attempts by police led to denials by the man, and his parents withdrew charges after tiring of delays. Multiple attempts to contact Bill Krick, director of Literature Ministries for the Pacific Union, resulted in no comment. 

Dulcich reflected on his experiences—both the difficult times and the instances when he felt that God led him. “I don't believe I would've ever been able to have those experiences. . . if I hadn’t done canvassing, but a lot of times, the physical dangers are overlooked. You're not allowed to talk about them because it will push people away from wanting to join the experience.”

A Mandate from the Prophet and the Test of Time

The book peddler—or colporteur—holds a central role in Seventh-day Adventist institutional history and sense of mission. Outside of English-speaking Adventism, the French word “colporteur” appears to receive little modern usage. Rooted in Latin comportare, “to bring” or “have,” it connotes “carrying along” but finds shared meaning with English words like comportment. 

After the founding of The Present Truth paper in the 1840s, sharing the printed word became a mainstay of Adventist evangelism and a vehicle to communicate with the fledgling movement. However, it wasn’t until 1880 that door-to-door literature evangelism began to proliferate. That year, James White, a church co-founder and then-president of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, encountered a Canadian man who wanted to be a preacher: George King. Unconvinced that King was cut out for such a job, he arranged for the uneducated man with “stumbling speech” to work at a nearby farm, hoping he would eventually be ready to start working as an assistant at a tent evangelism company. 

It didn't take long for King to demonstrate his persistence. His host family often found him preaching to rows of empty chairs. However, when he was put in front of a crowd, “it was a disaster,” according to Light Bearers to the Remnant by R. W. Schwarz. 

King was told he would likely never become a preacher. Instead, he was encouraged to evangelize in people’s homes and distribute tracts and magazine subscriptions. He accepted this, and although he only sold 62 cents worth of tracts in the first week, he was quickly hooked. Eventually, King became such a successful salesman that the Review and Herald Publishing Association began printing books for door-to-door purposes. King was an excellent recruiter, too. Under his influence, a network of colporteurs quickly fanned out across the country.

Student participation was encouraged soon after the evangelism method became a demonstrated success. In the April 28, 1904, edition of the Review and Herald, Ellen G. White advocated for “young men and women to go forth as canvassers” in the company of other experienced literature evangelists. Elsewhere, she encouraged students to take up the trade “when school closes” and endorsed it as a source of financial assistance and “self-support.” 

The method pioneered by King and championed by White as “missionary work of the highest order” has persisted over numerous decades, though its original practices have evolved. Despite a decline in popularity due to the digital age, literature evangelism lives on in many areas around the world as a seasonal effort. Some students complete their time proudly, feeling they have left their mark on a community they hope to convert. Others depart with more questions—or regrets—than they started with.

The Canvasser’s Lifestyle 

While there is no cookie-cutter schedule that student canvassers follow, it’s a grueling lifestyle designed to maximize reach from Sunday through Thursday. Wake up around 9:00 a.m. Eat two meals a day. Hit the streets by noon. Take a break around 4:00 p.m., then return to the sidewalks until 9:00 p.m. Working after sundown occurs often.

Canvassers log many miles walking. The hot sun takes its toll. If it rains, they still canvass, even if they aren’t prepared for the weather. Bathroom use often isn't accommodated, meaning canvassers must find someone willing to let them use their facilities, wait, or brave the elements. 

“You're sweating, so you may have to change your outfit several times,” said Matthew Dormus, a sophomore theology student at Oakwood University who canvassed for the Georgia-Cumberland Conference as a high school student. “You experience a lot of rejections, people not wanting to listen to what you're saying, doors slammed in your face, guns pulled on you, dogs chasing you, even being bitten by a dog.” 

Some days, you make a lot of money, he said. Other days, you don’t. “Then, you're in a consistent comparison game with people who may be more successful than you.” The tension between money and evangelism becomes especially apparent for those who need to pay tuition at Adventist educational institutions. “They feel the pressure to make a certain amount of money, and if they're not making it, that can contribute to feeling like a failure. It can give them anxiety, like, ‘Okay, I may not be able to go back to school if I don't make this money,’” Dormus said.

For many literature evangelists, constant rejection takes a toll. Anali Guzman, a senior public health major at Andrews University, canvassed for the Central California Youth Rush for three years. “You'll have people that just close the door in your face,” she said. You just have to build that resistance to those things. You can't let it bring you down.”

Breaks, mandated by child labor law in most states, begin when the first person enters the transport vehicle and end when the last person leaves, meaning that in theory one could still be working when their break starts. Everyone sleeps and eats together, often in a church or school basement. Curfews are strictly enforced, and everyone shares chores. 

Weekly pay is meager—usually between $20 and $40, most of which students use for food or other basic necessities. Otherwise, they are paid 50 percent of their earnings at the end of the program, minus taxes and additional fees. Some regions, such as Michigan Youth Rush, pay the minimum hourly wage for minors ($8.59 in Michigan) every month and subtract that total from the 50 percent commission. The leftover amount is then paid to the student at the end of the program.

Trained to Sell and Upsell—Even in Walmart Parking Lots

Before the students knock on anybody’s door, they are trained in strategy. 

Confidence while you are walking demonstrates that you have “purpose.” Days are spent memorizing a script that canvassers practice on each other. The script, which explains they are “students raising money” and “offering books on a donation basis,” is most successful when the book ends up in the potential buyer’s hand. Students are trained to never say they are “selling” the books, even though some programs require minimum “donations” for each.

“We had to practice with people, sticking our arm out so we got muscle memory and could tell the distance between us and the other person based on our arm length, so the book would land directly in their stomach area—just so it's far enough so it's not touching them,” Dulcich said. “There’s an automatic reflex of the person there to grab at it because it feels like, ‘Oh, it's going to hit me.’ They grab the book; you let go of the book. Now it's in their hands.”

Once you place a book in someone's hand, they're more likely to start thinking of the product as their own, according to Dormus. “When you go to a store, and you're holding something in your hands, it's easier to buy it. We try to put the book in the people's hands, and then we also want to smile so they are disarmed.” 

The student canvassers are also taught how to lead a conversation related to the books they are peddling. “We're taught to ask certain questions so that we can engage with people. That way, it's not just me talking to you the whole time, but we can get into a meaningful conversation,” said Dillon Austin, a 17-year-old high school student who worked in the Michigan Youth Rush program. “We're also taught how to lead those meaningful conversations back to the books we're trying to sell.” 

At the same time, Dulcich said that he was taught to vary his sales pitch, often based on stereotypes. If the person who answered the door was a woman, he would start with the cookbook. If a man was there, he would begin with a health book. If children’s toys were on the floor, he’d offer up Storytime.

If the person at the door isn’t interested in a book, canvassers aren’t allowed to leave right away. They must offer other options until they were rejected three times, according to Michael Shurley, who canvassed in 2016 as a high school student. “You start with a higher-selling book, and then you drop down one, and then you drop down another time before ending,” he said. If the person don’t want a cookbook, perhaps they would like a health book or devotional. A small “pocket change” book might seal the deal if the recipient still isn’t interested. After that, canvassers can leave. 

However, if the person at the door is interested, the students can upsell their products depending on the proposed donation. For instance, a canvasser could be offered $60 for a cookbook in a more affluent area. Then, if they add in a couple of other books, the donation might increase. “You can start throwing stuff in,” said Dulcich. “Try to get them to get more stuff. Such as, ‘Oh, this book really pairs well with this DVD.’” 

There are occasions when the practice can seem predatory. Dulcich once had a woman offer him $40 for two books. He offered her two more books as a free gift since the donation covered four. She then offered him more money, allowing him to provide more books. Eventually, he had emptied his bag, and she had given him $100. “I felt bad. It was a lower-income neighborhood, and I got a hundred dollars from this lady,” he said.

The same practices carry over to another form of canvassing in business districts. Since most people aren’t home during the day, many programs canvass in stores, parking lots, and other businesses before visiting residential areas. “We just go where the people are,” Austin said. Students will work warehouses and factories if they’re in an industrial area. They’ll approach salespeople and customers alike if they're near car dealerships. Even Walmart parking lots get canvassed. 

“If they drop you in a parking lot, you just go from person to person, car to car, talking to people in the parking lot,” Austin said. “If you're on a small strip of businesses, you just go in and out of the businesses. You canvass employees, you canvass customers, you canvass the people in the parking lot. If it lived, breathed, or had a mother, you canvass it.” Sometimes, business owners throw them out, but others are welcoming. If anybody asks them to leave, they leave, no questions asked.

Faith Growth and Toxic Positivity?

While many join the programs for evangelistic purposes, others also participate to make money or attain independence, at least temporarily. Many Adventist academies and colleges offer matching scholarships to students who canvass during the summer. “They really try to bring in kids with the cash aspect of it,” Dulcich said, noting that he used part of the money he earned for his expenses at Andrews University, where he is an architecture major.

Multiple people stated that their faith grew in God throughout their program experiences, despite the detractions they faced. Dormus cites an ambitious goal he set for one summer: selling 300 copies of The Great Controversy. His hopes appeared doomed until he sold 174 copies on the last day of the program. “That whole experience taught me that when you pray crazy prayers, God can do great things,” he said. “Sometimes, as Christians, we are often too safe in our prayers. So, I’ve learned how to pray ridiculous prayers now.”

Guzman said the student canvassing experience grew her trust in prayer, too. “I could see God working through all of us,” she said. “When I prayed a tiny, itty-bitty prayer, it would still get answered. I was like, ‘Wow, God is real.’ It was just an awe moment for me as a teenager.” 

In addition to the practical life experience gained through canvassing, Austin also credits the program for significant spiritual growth. He said it changed his life and his relationship with God. “There's a lot of things that God taught me during the summers, including just sticking to the difficult things and having endurance, and also the deepening of my relationship with him,” he said. 

Others, including Dulcich and Shurley, said the programs embody “toxic positivity.” Shurley noted that whenever he brought up issues, he was ignored. Dulcich once recalled how he slept in the cold one night because a misunderstanding between leaders left him without a sleeping bag. The next morning, he was told that “it was a new day” and that the past should be forgotten. “There's no room for negativity,” he said. 

One former leader in Michigan Youth Rush, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation, emphasized that “everything in that program is so twisted to be positive all the time” and that “you are not supposed to say all bad stuff that's happened to you while you're going door to door.” Every day, no matter what happened, was a good day, they said. “In reality, I felt like I was going to die half the day because it was so hot. People were rude to me. I was embarrassed. You just look trashy.” 

The program, they said, doesn’t resemble reality. “Real life [has] so many struggles, and the program is all, ‘Everything's going to be okay, and everything is going to be fine, and you will get your prayer answered because you have the right motive.’ You're not supposed to talk about all the time[s] you left a door crying because someone started yelling at you for no reason. You're not supposed to say any of that stuff.” 

The former leader noted that while the unspoken policy generally ensures morale remains high, they believe it is unhealthy for young adults to keep negativity bottled up. “You don’t want them to be like, ‘Am I the problem? Did the Lord not trust me to have that experience?’”

However, not everyone sees the program in this way. Reflecting on the environment, Austin said he never felt that he couldn’t talk about challenges, because such a posture would deny “something that we all are experiencing again and again and again, and that would be kind of ridiculous.” He said that he could always discuss struggles with a leader if necessary. “I don't want to discourage everyone else, but I always know if I need to, I'm welcome to bring that up in the right environment,” he said.

Dormus also emphasized this trust, referring to the Georgia-Cumberland program as strong and “family-oriented.” “What we're doing is so hard, and we bond quickly,” he said. Singing, eating, playing games, and encouraging each other make it a “beautiful environment.” The entirety of the program is complex because “it challenges everything you know about God,” he adds. “It takes away the self-reliance. When you must depend on God all day, that's challenging because it's a new experience.”

Would They Do It Again? Most Say Yes.

Many participants said they would gladly participate in the programs again if they had to start over. “Absolutely. I’m already signed up for [next year],” Austin said. He admits that, sometimes, he regrets the decision while in the thick of it. Yet, all his qualms “fade away” by the summer's end. He said he savors “story after story of people that needed hope, and I showed up at their doorstep exactly when they were looking for it.” 

Dormus said he would do the program again if he could, but only for one summer. Guzman said she’d do it all again, too. Even Dulcich, who finds the programs more money-driven than mission-driven, said he would sign up again. “I still probably would've done it because of some of the experiences that I did have and the people that I did have a positive impact on, despite how I feel the program was run,” he said. Shurley agreed but said he would join the safety-conscious Georgia-Cumberland program rather than his former conference canvassing program. 

According to Samuel Francis, the youth publishing assistant at the Georgia-Cumberland Conference, the future of canvassing is bright. “Every time I go out there, we meet people who are searching for hope. We meet people who we would not otherwise have met. These people are not going to come to church. They're not going to an evangelistic series.” According to Francis, it’s a way of meeting individuals where they’re at. As long as people continue to be interested in the program, he said canvassers will always find people who want to be reached. Francis sees literature ministry as a prophecy being fulfilled—something that will not be complete until the end of time.

At the same time, Francis also said that the Georgia-Cumberland program emphasizes safety and minimizes potentially dangerous situations before they happen by scouting routes and ensuring that students don’t enter unsafe areas. “We don't risk that kind of scandal or accident,” he said. 

Francis also indicated that he believed allegations of “toxic positivity” were meritless, at least within the Georgia-Cumberland program. “Of course, you have ‘Debbie Downers’ who have the potential to bring the entire team down. We highly discourage that kind of sharing. That's going to detract from the experience of others,” he said. “But in the programs I've been a part of, we're very encouraging. Students can share with their leaders. Leaders are encouraging. The goal is to keep positive vibes, and eventually, ultimately, God does provide, and he does bless.”

Spectrum contacted both Pacific Union Literature Ministries Director Bill Krick and North American Division Literature Ministries Director Carl McRoy to gain additional perspective. Krick declined an interview request, and McRoy declined to respond to written questions. However, McRoy said in a lengthy email response that most who canvass for an entire summer “consider it gain, because they are free to cut their losses and leave the program if that's what they feel it is to them.” He also pointed out that “one size does not fit all” and “each conference functions somewhat differently.” 

The future of summer literature evangelism programs remains to be seen. The pool of participants willing to push through the demanding conditions has shrunk since the pandemic shutdown. Yet, some programs broke selling records during the uncertainty of 2020 and 2021. 

This summer, around 14 student canvassers in Hawaii earned over $170,000, allowing many of them to put a heavy dent into the cost of their tuition. Erik VanDenburgh, president of the Hawaii Conference, was himself a student literature evangelist and previously a colporteur leader in the Pacific Union. Known for his success in creating engaging, grace-based Adventist youth experiences, he sees the accomplishment in Hawaii as a result of a focus on contextual ministry. Shorts are allowed. Colporteurs wear shirts with logos that emphasize their status as students, immediately visually distinguishing them from Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses. 

“In Hawaii we love engaging our community in order to grow the kingdom of God,” states VanDenburgh. “Through the ups and downs, I’ve found that literature ministries provide Seventh-day Adventist youth with helpful life experience and gives them a chance to see God working through them to help others.” He adds, “As long as we focus on featuring Jesus, the benefits extend to all involved.”

Still, Dulcich, now 20, believes the programs are on a downward trajectory. He hopes they will grow again, but also acknowledges a need for change and improvements. His faith remains intact, but in the aftermath of his experiences, which he described as traumatic, he advocates against youth being misused by the church. “I still do believe that I'm in the correct faith. I still go to church. It just sort of made me think about how they treat the youth in the church or how they're using them. . .  If our main goal is to spread the gospel, I'm sure that we can find a way to do it without having to charge people $20 to $30 per book.”

Alexander Carpenter contributed to this report.

 


Samuel Girven is the Special Projects Correspondent for Spectrum. You can email him at samuel@spectrummagazine.org

Title image by Edinburgh Greens (CC-2.0). 

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