Have a Little Faith: A True Story

Hyperion  2009

 
Most readers of Mitch Albom’s previous books know that he has a way with words. His stories can rise from the pages and into your imagination, placing you in the moment with his characters. Albom has done it again in this latest work about two clergymen, each of whom left a significant mark on their communities.

Meet Albert Lewis, “The Reb.” The Reb was hired to be the rabbi in Albom’s hometown synagogue straight from seminary and stayed for the rest of his career. He created a Jewish community based in a small, renovated house, befriended the locals, convinced the neighborhood that Jews belonged there too, and made sure that he was approachable to every person in his community. Albom moves away to Detroit, becomes a big hit in the writing community, and all but forgets his old rabbi. That is, until the Reb approaches Albom with an unusual request: “Will you do my eulogy?” Albom’s initial reaction is to run away and hide, but he eventually agrees to take on this request and starts to visit the Reb and talk to him to get an idea of who this man he once revered and feared really is.

Meanwhile, in Detroit, Albom meets Henry Covington, a reformed drug addict and criminal who is now the pastor at I Am My Brother’s Keeper church. Albom and Henry (coincidentally, also called the Reb by his followers) form a relationship, one that begins with skepticism on Albom’s part, but grows to be one of mutual respect and adoration. Both the Reb and Henry teach Albom about God and faith. They show that life isn’t always easy, proven by the many hardships they have endured over the years, but that in the end there is always “someone” watching over us.

Writing with intense emotion and honesty, Albom includes old sermons written by the Reb and the eulogy that, after eight years of meeting, he sadly had to write. At one point, Albom asks the Reb if he thinks that they will meet again one day, seeing as how they will probably go to different levels of heaven. “Why do you say that?” the Reb asks. “Because you’re a man of God” Albom replies. The Reb’s eyes tear up: “You’re a man of God, too. Everyone is.” 

Interview

Libi Adler: Why do you think the Reb picked you to write his eulogy?
Mitch Albom:
I don’t really know. I wondered it from the start, I wonder it still. He once said to me that he thought it would be appropriate for a member of a congregation to speak when a clergyman dies because that was one way to measure their effectiveness [in the community]. If he really devoted his life’s work to a congregation, then having a member of his own family or another cleric talk about him wouldn’t necessarily reflect the work he had done and the lives he touched. So I think a part of him wanted a member of the cheap seats [to deliver his eulogy]. I also have my own suspicions that he sort of knew that by asking me to do it he would draw me back and lure me in, expose me to Judaism and Jewish education, more of what I grew up with, and he did. It ended up being like an eight year adult education class.

LA: Do you think that if someone else would have approached you with the same question that you would have done it?
MA: Probably not. No one has ever asked this of me before or since. It was all I could do. It was only because I couldn’t say no to him, because I was so afraid of him, that I said yes in the first place. I can’t think of anyone else that I would have felt worthy of doing it.

LA: Do you think that this did bring you closer to Judaism? Do you think he achieved his goal of connecting you?
MA: Oh yes, I think it did, no doubt. As I say in the book, he would talk about our beautiful faith. He would always say that over and over again: this is us, this is our beautiful faith. I think in the beginning I felt like it was just a recruiting pitch, but I think over time I came to not only agree with him but also to lose some of the embarrassment. Embarrassment, or shame, about talking about my religion, not wanting too many people to know about it. But watching him and how proud he was, I realized he was more right than I was, I shouldn’t have been that way. I don’t feel that way as much anymore.

LA: Is there something that was your best or biggest lesson you learned from the Reb from this experience?
MA: There were probably two. One was when we were talking about happiness and he told me the story about babies having their fist clenched when they come into the world because they think they can take everything, but when we die our hands are wide open. I remember that he showed me his hand while he was in this hospital bed and he said it’s because when we die you can take nothing with you. That really resonates with me, because we do spend a lot of time trying to achieve and buy things and accumulate things, and I certainly have done that. When I saw him all by himself in that bed with his hand open, I realized he’s right, there isn’t anything you can take from this life except maybe faith, which doesn’t fit in your hand. The second time was towards the end, when he said that he hoped that I would live many more years, so that when I got to heaven we would have a lot to talk about, and I asked if he really thought we were going to see each again. He said, “Oh yeah, don’t you?” and I said “I don’t think I’m going to the same place as you’re going...you’re on a different level, you’re a man of God.” And he replied, “Well you’re a man of God too, everybody is.”

That really stuck with me, because I felt that that was a very important part of the book both for me, and also for the people reading it. Everyone really is a man of God or a child of God, and there isn’t that much of a distance between a clergyman and you or me, in terms of the eyes of God.

LA: It’s funny that you mentioned that, because it really did resonate with me and when I reviewed the book, it was one of the lines that I put in the review. I thought that that was an overarching theme that I got from the book, personally. I found that there are a lot of similarities between this book and your previous books: mentors, heaven, life lessons. Is there something unique that you’ve pulled from each one that doesn’t connect between the others?
MA: I’d like to think that they are all unique. Five People You Meet in Heaven is a totally different reading experience than Tuesdays With Morrie. One is true, the other is fiction. One is very small story about a guy and old man talking, the other is a huge fairy tale about five different heavens and an amusement park.

But what they do have in common is questions. Questions about what we are here for, the purpose of things, the purpose of relationships with other people. Where do we fit into the grand scheme of having some kind of significance, some meaning to our lives?

LA: Do you see yourself writing another work of this sort, fiction or nonfiction?
MA: I guess eventually, but I have no plans, and I’m not one of these writers on a schedule. I have no clock by which I have to operate, that’s why there are years in between. I just wait until something moves me enough that I’m thinking about it all the time and then I think that it has some resonance for other people. When I’m onto something that I think other people are also asking themselves about, then I get motivated. But where that’s going to come from, I don’t know.

LA: Finally, Is there one question you wish people would ask you about the book, something no one asked?
MA: Maybe, about the little girl at the end of the book. It’s one of my favorite moments in the book. Her father was a homeless guy who Pastor Henry gave a chance; he let him sleep in his house. The girl’s mother was a battered woman who came to the church, seeking help, and the two ended up meeting and getting married and had this beautiful kid, even though the doctors told her she wouldn’t survive. And now she’s a doll of a kid, and she’s there all the time, and she owns the church, runs all around as if it’s her own. I like talking about her because she is the future. She hugs me whenever she sees me. She doesn’t think about me being Jewish and her being Christian, whether I’m white and she’s black, nothing. That pure kind of love that can come when you are raised with a sense of family and a sense of faith. I wish I could take her on the road with me.


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