Host Scott Simon talks to author Mitch Albom about his latest book, "Have a Little Faith." It's the story of the relationship Albom develops with two very different clergymen, one his family rabbi, the other the pastor of an inner-city church for the homeless and indigent.
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SCOTT SIMON, host:
Mitch Albom doesn't think of himself as religious. But then he got to know two men, from almost wildly different backgrounds and different faiths. Or were they? Those two clergymen made Mr. Albom take a fresh look at faith, in God and goodness, and in giving meaning to the life. Mitch Albom, the sports columnist who of course is the author of huge international bestsellers, including "Tuesdays with Morrie," and "The Five People You Meet In Heaven," has written a new book, "Have a Little Faith: A True Story."
Mitch Albom joins from the studios of WDET in Detroit. Thanks so much for being with us.
Mr. MITCH ALBOM (Author): Oh, it's my pleasure, thanks.
SIMON: First, let's begin with your old boyhood rabbi. I want you to get this to set up each of these men for us. But Albert Lewis.
Mr. ALBOM: He was born in the Depression. That synagogue that he helped found in 1948 was the only one that he ever served, for 60 some-odd years. He was charismatic, funny, whimsical, loved to sing. And I don't mean songs but he loved to sing sentences, so that if you ask how he was doing in his later years, he would never say fine or okay. He would say (singing:) The old grey Rabbi ain't what he used to be, ain't - (speaking:) like that, and you'd have to sit through the whole stanza. It wasn't just a line. It was the whole verse.
SIMON: So he came to one of your appearances once and he made a request of you that kind of started this whole process.
Mr. ALBOM: Yes. I had given a little talk and out in the hallway afterwards he pulled me aside. He was 82 years old. He was using the cane. He said, I'd like you to do the eulogy at my funeral. And I was just stunned. I didn't know what to say, and so I basically got back to him a day or so later and said, well, if you really want me to do this, I need to get to know you as a human being. I mean, I've known you really all my life, but always from the seats. And that began what I thought would be, you know, maybe a few weeks, a couple of months, but it went on for eight years. He lived till he was 90.
SIMON: And tell us a pastor, a man in your hometown of Detroit now, Pastor...
Mr. ALBOM: Henry Covington is the second sort of key character in "Have a Little Faith," and I came upon him much later in my life. Actually, several years into visiting with the rabbi I got involved with the homeless here in Detroit. Then I heard about this one homeless shelter inside of a church where people literally slept on the floor of this church except that there was a giant hole in its roof, 20 some-odd feet long and wide, and snow and rain literally would come in and land on the pews.
And so I went to go see this place to see if it needed some funding and I asked to meet the pastor, and out came this very large man, six foot three, African-American, about 450 pounds. And within five minutes we had sat down and he was telling me that when he was a younger man he'd been in jail, a drug dealer, a thief, a drug addict, and yet that began sort of a journey with him to get to know him away from the pulpit, away from the robes. And I found in him a changed man who had dedicated himself to helping the poor and the homeless and the weak in a city that really has far too many of all of them.
SIMON: There are many differences being noted. Did you find some shared quality of faith in Henry Covington and Albert Lewis?
Mr. ALBOM: Absolutely no doubt. And I think that this is one of the key principles of what "Have a Little Faith" is about, that at their cores most true faiths are pretty similar. Be good to one another, take care of those who are less fortunate, be cognizant of a force greater than you, pray. And I think the notion of taking care of your community was the thing that I found to be most similar between these two men, one raised during the Depression and ultimately doing a congregation out in the New Jersey suburbs, you know, fairly well-to-do; and one raised in Brooklyn and, you know, gone the bad route, who then turned it around and worked with the poor in Detroit. You couldn't find more disparate pictures - black, white, Jewish, Christian, inner city, suburban, older, younger - but their idea of serving their communities was amazingly similar.
SIMON: They changed you?
Mr. ALBOM: Oh, no doubt. I mean to be honest with you, 10 years ago I highly doubt I'd be having a conversation like this with you about faith. I was very cynical about it. But what I saw being around these two men was faith practiced on a daily basis, you know, not for show, not for headlines. I saw Pastor Covington driving around Detroit in an old car putting food on the hood of his car and driving around like one, two miles an hour so it wouldn't fall off, breads and cheese. And the poor people of the Detroit area, you know, would see him. People were squatting in apartments and come running out, and he would literary just feed them, just feed the hungry. I don't know anything more Christian than that. And he didn't ask for anything, you didn't have to join his church, there was no quid pro quo. He just felt that he was doing good, and this is what he needed to do.
And you see enough of this happen on a daily basis, over and over, hundreds of examples of these two men, and to be honest, you lose your cynicism. I don't know how you can maintain cynicism in the light of that. It's beautiful work.
SIMON: I want to get you to tell me Reb Lewis's last grade opening line, the message he left behind after his death.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ALBOM: Well, I did do the eulogy for the Reb, as I called him, and after I did the eulogy and sat back down, his grandson walked up to the pulpit holding a cassette tape. And one last time the lyrical voice of my old Reb rang out over the speakers and he began by saying (singing:) hello, my friends this is the voice of your past rabbi speaking. (Speaking) And he had recorded a tape, very short - just maybe a minute long. But in it he answered the two questions that he said he'd been asked the most in his life of faith.
One was: Do you believe in God? And he said yes, that he did. And the other one was: What happens when we die? And to that one he said: My friends, you know, singing as he did, my friends, the good news is by the time you hear this I'll know. The bad news is, now that I know, I can't even tell you.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ALBOM: You're going to have to figure it out for yourselves.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. ALBOM: And I just thought that was so classic. And you know, and in essence I think what he was saying is you have to have a little faith. Everybody wants the definite answer. But there is no definite answer. If it was that easy, then, you know, it wouldn't take a lot to be faithful. The Reb had a file in his office called God, and it just said God on the front. And for years I kept wondering what's in the file on God. But after he died I went to the house and I took it off the shelve and I opened it up.
And inside were hundreds of pages of notes and stories and questions written in the Reb's handwriting, all about God. And I realize holding that file that that sort of was the whole thing, that you - it's the search, it's not the answer. It's the journey, as they say, not the destination. If you really could fit God in a file, you wouldn't need to believe in God, you know, you'd just go get the file like a box of corn flakes off the shelf. It's the choosing to believe in something that you can't prove, you have to take on faith, that makes faith that magical sort of sometimes crazy journey that it is.
And I think that's what he was saying with his final words: you're going to have to figure it out for yourselves. And you're going to have to have the same kind of faith that I had and hope that it's going to work out.
SIMON: Mitch Albom, his new book, "Have a Little Faith." Happy holidays. Thanks, Mitch.
Mr. ALBOM: Oh, thank you so much, Scott. I appreciate it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.