I think that one of the easiest things to do on a college campus is ignore people — I know this because it’s something I do all the time. When I’m going to class, or to a friend’s house, or even just wandering around campus and enjoying the fall, I do it all with my AirPods in. I put my hood up, walk at a decent speed and, frankly, do everything I can to ignore those trying to get my attention.
And as a college student, there are quite literally hundreds of people on this campus who are trying to get your attention, from one end of the Diag to the other. Every single day, you and I walk past voter registration drivers, the Jehovah’s Witness missionaries, the student organization advocates, the blood drive people and, of course, and more rarely, the preachers with comically large signs telling us that we’re all going to hell. And like me, I’m sure you do your best to ignore them. You probably avoid eye contact, quicken your pace and pray that you don’t have to interact.
But there’s a part of me that really, really respects what these people are doing. Because every single day, these people are ignored, and even accosted by tens of thousands of students who unequivocally don’t want to deal with them. But every day, they keep coming back — and there’s a part of me that is deeply intrigued by that fortitude.
On an ideological level, I don’t agree with most of them, nor do I desire to adopt their practices. I am, however, interested in them as people. What brings them back? Why do they brave the cold and rain to sell, or preach, or offer something to students who have repeatedly said that they don’t care?
So, for a weekend, I decided I’d change up my routine. I took my AirPods out, kept my head up, made eye contact and immersed myself in conversation with everyone I found on the Diag who wanted my attention — everyone I was used to ignoring.
The more you talk with people soliciting just about anything on campus, the more you quickly come to realize that these people aren’t faint of heart — because they can’t be. I think the best example of this necessary resilience is the Jehovah’s Witnesses, at least two of whom can be found from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., seven days a week, standing somewhere on the Diag beside a small cart filled with flyers about finding eternal life. They never approach students on campus, or call out to them, or yell. They just stand there, smiling, waiting for us to talk to them.
But we very rarely do. I remember that the first time I approached the group earlier this year, they seemed almost surprised when I asked them for their elevator pitch and looked around for a moment to see who would take the lead before they responded.
Once they got started, though, their pitch rarely changed. They worked in shifts, and so in each of the four conversations I had with them, I talked to new people. But in every conversation, many things stayed the same. They were always well dressed — men in suits and ties, women in dresses — they always characterized their faith as an analytical, objective interpretation of the Bible and they were always incredibly kind to me (with the caveat being that my identity as a cisgender, straight male made that easy).
Yet what I was most interested in wasn’t their faith in Jehovah, but rather their faith in the process of evangelization. In one conversation I had, I asked if anyone had talked to them in their three-hour shift. They said no, chuckling, but remarked with a light smile that they had been talked at, likely meaning they were heckled.
When I talked to them one last time that weekend in 40-degree weather and rain, they smiled and said that they were used to being ignored. And the last man I talked to said that working in sales had hardened him and that he wasn’t affected by rejection. They all understand that quite literally, 99% of those passing by will act like they don’t exist, but they remain standing, in freezing temperatures and in stoic postures, for the one person who might.
Every Jehovah’s Witness I talked to that weekend mentioned that they found the religion through their family. But one of the women told me that her mother, a devout Catholic, had been converted because someone knocked on her door. This means that of the group of 10 who I talked to that weekend, only one had a personal experience of being converted, and it was tangential. But their faith in the process was unwavering.
That’s what fascinates me most about every canvasser on this campus who keeps showing up despite the constant rejection: it’s that they never lose faith in the numbers game. And that extends beyond religious outreach.
Rob Sweet, a canvasser who registers passersby to vote in Michigan, explained his personal experience to me simply.
“When it’s a busy day downtown, I can easily (approach) 200 people an hour,” Sweet said. “Roughly, I expect in crowded, busy areas, about a half percent to actually talk to me and try to sign up to vote in some capacity.”
Extrapolating from Sweet’s numbers, that’s 199 rejections an hour — and yet, he just shakes it off and moves on to the next person.
“I don’t really feel that I struggle that much with it if people just ignore me,” Sweet said. “Sometimes people just don’t have the energy to engage someone they weren’t planning to engage on the street. That’s fine. … And if they’re not interested, they’re not interested.”
But sometimes, passersby do more than just ignore. Sometimes they’re actively aggressive. I asked a man by the name of Jim Tennis — who sells $2 copies of the Groundcover street paper by Nickels Arcade to make enough to rent a room for the night — whether or not he’d been treated badly for trying to sell his paper.
“Oh yeah, a lot,” Tennis said. “I had one guy spit on me … I felt hurt, you know. You want to cry.”
Sweet had similar experiences.
“I’ve had people who’ve accused me of following them when I’m distinctly not,” Sweet said. “I’ve had people who treat me as if I’m selling them a product when all I’m trying to do is say, ‘Hello,’ (and) ask them if they’ve registered to vote.”
And yet, despite all of this, the two went right back to it. They were on the street immediately after our interviews, talking to everyone who walked by, waiting for that one person to bite.
I remember that feeling distinctly: the exhaustion of desperately trying to change the minds of people who clearly didn’t care, and the endless optimism that was required.
This past summer, I worked as an intern in a primary campaign for my town’s mayorship, and one of my biggest responsibilities was canvassing. I called people and pleaded for volunteers, I manned booths at farmers markets and waited desperately for interaction and I knocked on a whole hell of a lot of doors and talked to a whole lot of people who wanted me to get off their porch — quickly.
But after hundreds of rejections, I got used to it. I turned the canvassing into a game: I refined my pitch and stopped caring about doors being slammed in my face or getting ordered to leave and not return.
But the reason I kept going to work each hot summer day was because I truly believed in what I was doing.
And I think that faith, and that belief in the righteousness of your work, is what makes the rejection bearable.
The work is hard and thankless, and it has to be done with some sort of conviction.
Sweet’s conviction was in our democratic system as a whole and the necessity of democracy. The Jehovah’s Witnesses conviction lay with their creator, and Tennis’s conviction rested with his determination to find somewhere to sleep.
These people aren’t just on the Diag to annoy you. They’re there because they truly believe in something, and you may truly believe in the opposite. That’s completely fair, and in many cases I feel the same way.
But I think it’s really easy to forget that humanity, and real conviction, lies on the other side of the brochures being waved at you.
I’m not going to tell you that voting, or the religious groups, or the clubs, or salespeople will be worth your time — or merely agreeable.
But I am saying that there’s a reason why someone’s putting themself through brutal Michigan temperatures and potential rejection to reach out to you, and it can be incredibly interesting and enlightening to find out what that reason is.