Mar 25, 2016

Great controversy: What to do with religious books sent to Chicagoans

Leonor Vivan
Chicago Tribune
March 24, 2016

The Great Controversy
The Great Controversy
A little "controversy" is arriving in hundreds of thousands of mailboxes across Chicago – and it has nothing to do with local politics or the national election.

Although "The Great Controversy," a book authored in the 1800s by E.G. White, a founder of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, does touch on themes of lying, stealing and cheating.

More than 600,000 copies have been mailed out – unsolicited – across Chicago and residents started getting them in the past week, said Dwight Hall, chief executive officer of Michigan-based Remnant Publications Inc., a Christian publisher behind the mailing blitz in Chicago and several other cities. In the past few years, copies of the paperback were also mailed to New York, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Washington D.C. and Charlotte.

The 377-page books are arriving at homes unwrapped and without residents' names printed on them – only the address; stacks of them have been spotted in the vestibule, near the mailboxes, of apartment and condo buildings. The book provides a history lesson on Christianity and focuses on freedom of religion, Hall said. A postcard tucked inside the book includes a note from the publisher that reads, "With our world in such disarray, with so little time left, we don't have time to bash religions or people or ideas – we only have time to discover the truth before it's too late."

One of the reasons Chicago was selected to receive the "gift" is the city's problem with crime, an issue that faces other big cities as well. Through Sunday, the city recorded 125 homicides, an 84 percent increase over the same period last year when 68 people were slain, according to official Chicago police statistics. Shooting incidents have nearly doubled with 575 through Sunday compared to 290 during the year-earlier period.

Individual donors bankrolling the mass mailing, based on zipcodes not a mass mailing list, have a voice in where to send the book, which aims to help make America a better place and make a difference in the lives of others, Hall said.

"People believe if you go by biblical standards that the world would be a better place," he said, adding later: "The biggest thing is [the donors] can help somebody to have a better way of life. That's the whole reason for this," he said.

Remnant Publications partnered with Project Restore Inc., an educational ministry based in Virginia, to pull the funding together for the mass mailing in Chicago. Although Hall is a Seventh-day Adventist, he said his nonprofit organization, which has a mission of dissemination of religious literature, is a separate entity and not affiliated with the church. "They don't pay us. They don't tell us what to do," he said.

The church could not be reached for comment.

Formed in 1863 in Battle Creek, Michigan, the church has a spiritual focus on healthy living and an extensive network of hospitals and medical clinics. The term adventist refers to the belief that Christ's second coming is near. Seventh-day refers to the belief that the Bible requires observing the Sabbath on Saturday, the seventh day of the week.

The cost to print the books and mail them, he said, was just over a buck per book, more than the penny it costs to buy it on Amazon and less than the $11.95 price listed on the back of the book. The postcard inside the books directs people to donate through Remnant's website if they want to support distribution to other households.

There's no argument from Michael Murphy, director of Catholic studies at Loyola University Chicago, a Jesuit Catholic university, about the motivation to send the books. "I would hope that would happen – that anybody who is hurting and who wants to live a better life and came across anything they read and it helped them change for the better, that would be wonderful," he said.

His issue is with the means. "Making a 600,000 print job is not the best use of resources and energy," Murphy said, given the climate crisis. "Why not email it?"

Donors are aware the books may get tossed like junk mail, according to the publisher. Yet they still shell out money for the books in the hopes that will some people will flip through it, Hall said. "People care enough to work hard to give up their money knowing not everyone is going to read it, but at least [recipients will] have an opportunity to say, 'That's pretty awesome that somebody cared enough to send a book and they don't even know who I am,'" Hall said.

Some people who got the book have reached out to thank the publisher for the book, while others sent it back with a note they don't need it and won't read it, he said. "Everybody has a chance to read it, a chance to keep it or pass it along. But it's their book. They can throw it away," Hall said.

Chicagoans who received the book posted to social media their thoughts on the books ranging from using it as a charcoal chimney starter to saying it made great toilet paper.

Whether Chicagoans asked for the book or not, the great controversy might be what to do with the book: read it, shelve it, or toss it.

Chicago Tribune's Jeremy Gorner and The Associated Press contributed.
Twitter @lvivanco

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