Wednesday, September 1, 2010

HAVE A LITTLE FAITH; What If Faith Didn't Separate Us But Brought Us Together?

I've been a little remiss in my summer reading. There have been summers when I would read as many as ten books between Memorial Day and Labor Day- but this wasn't a typical summer.

The last book I sat down and read was Bob Lechie's Helmet For My Pillow, and that was way back in May. So last week I checked out some books from the library, and started making up for lost time.

Mitch Albom has had a long and distinguished career as a sports journalist, and has become a best selling author of the novels The Five People You Meet In Heaven and For One More Day. His nonfiction book Tuesdays With Morrie chronicled the weekly meetings and talks Albom had with Morrie Schwartz, his old college instructor who was slowly dying of ALS. Morrie's wisdom and upbeat personality in the face of his suffering was an exercise in what it means to be human under the most trying of circumstances.

Albom is on a similar path in 2009's Have A Little Faith, a bestseller that debuted at #1 on the New York Times Bestseller list and was chosen by as the Best Nonfiction Book of 2009. I was not able to put the book down and finished the 249 pages in less than three days . It's the story of Albom reconnecting with the rabbi from his hometown in New Jersey, who was his instructor as a kid. Rabbi Albert Lewis made a request of Albom; that Albom deliver his eulogy when the then 82 year old rabbi passes on. Since Albom hadn't seen the rabbi in years, he started a series of visits and interviews with Rabbi Lewis, hoping to gain an insight into what kind of man he is.

Also coming into Albom's life was Henry Covington, an African American pastor....and reformed drug dealer, thief, and ex con.... who started a ministry to the poor and homeless of Detroit. Both men offer life lessons to Albom, who admittedly ran from the faith of his youth, and in the end learns more of life's purpose.

I highly and enthusiastically recommend this book. We've been turning on the television daily, and listening to more and more stories of nativist sentiment, and of paranoia and the politics of division; in particular the controversy of the "Ground Zero Mosque" has resonated long and hard.

But before "Islmaphobia" overtook our nation, we had the stain of slavery, of Jim Crow, of the genocide of the our Native People, of the anti-Catholic nativist "No Nothings" of the 19th century, and of the antisemitism that was generally accepted by our society until fairly recently. A little more than half a century ago Rabbi Albert Lewis began a synagogue in Haddon Heights, NJ. In the chapter "A Little More History" (pages 67-71) Albom talks about "The Reb" and his early days in Haddon Heights, in 1948.

The three dozen Jewish families in the area wanted to start a congregation....Albert Lewis was sent to minister to them. A group of residents signed a petition to prevent a synagogue from being established in Haddon Heights; some were threatened by the possibility of a Jewish community in the town. In Albom's words, the thought of a Jewish congregation was "alien" to the townies. Rabbi Lewis worked hard to win them over, and he reached out to his Christian neighbors, and even gave talks in Christian churches and halls. At one meeting a young boy asked to see the Rabbi's horns. He was under the assumption that all Jews had horns. "The Reb" removed his skull cap, and let the kid feel his head....not a horn to be found.

Rabbi Lewis had an Episcopal priest he became friendly with give a talk in the synagogue. The priest went the pulpit, and told the Jewish congregation to help him get the Rabbi to accept Jesus as his savior, because the alternative means he's going to hell.

And there was an incident of antisemitism involving parked cars, a Catholic priest, the High Holy Days, and an utterance of wishing someone had finished the job in the early 1940's. Members of the Jewish congregation parked near a Catholic church on a Sunday, and the Jewish attendees were told to move their cars by the priest.....some words were exchanged between a Jewish man and the priest- and the priest told the man "They didn't exterminate enough of you".

We look at that sort of behavior as a relic of another century; it is unacceptable now, and should have been unacceptable then. Only the targets have changed.

In recent days we've seen "Islamaphobia" ratcheted up with the burning of a mosque under construction in Tennessee, and of Glenn Beck blending That Old Time Religion into his message, which changes depending on whatever audience he is addressing. We see maters of faith become matters of the political news cycle, and to me, that's an unhealthy place for our society to be. Because our nation has always been a contradiction of sorts; a secular state for the most part governed by men of faith, including our current President and Vice President, though there are many who would have you erroneously believe otherwise.

What Have A Little Faith does  make the reader do is take a deep breath and contemplate; just what constitutes a man of faith? And the answer is there is no template. Some like Rabbi Lewis seem to be born into "the God business". Others, like Pastor Henry Covington have to experience a "Road to Damascus" Covington's case, there were several conversions until one finally stuck.

Rabbi Lewis made many comments that leads you to challenge what you may or may not believe in regard to religion, or of God and his/her nature. When he was old and near death, the Rabbi told Mitch Albom that he hopes God prays for him.

But since he is God....who would God pray to?

It is true that there are religious hucksters to be found, and we could name names....but what's the point? What Mitch Albom has done in this book is put a spotlight on two men who serve men (and women) and in doing so serve God. It was never about them, it's about their service.....and their faith.

In a perfect world, both sides of the "Ground Zero Mosque" would be given a copy of Have A Little Faith with instructions to read it and come back for a group discussion in two weeks. Because if you can't find some common ground with the other guy after reading this book, then sadly, it will probably not happen.

Rabbi Lewis was a man who loved to sing; a non-singer who always had a song on the tip of his tongue. Ask him how he felt and he would sing, "The old gray rabbi ain't what he used to be."

So it was entirely fitting for Mitch Albom to close his book with these words.

"In the beginning, there was a question. In the end, the question gets answered. God sings, we hum along, there are many melodies, but it's all one song- one same, wonderful human song.

I am in love with hope."


tnlib said...

Finally decided to drop by and I'm delighted I did. I sincerely like this blog of yours (and the other one that doesn't seem "to be" any longer). This sounds like a hell of a book, so will add it to my "to read" list - along with your blog to my roll, if that's okay.

Hugh Jee From Jersey said...

Leslie- welcome to my little corner of cyberspace, and thanks for the kind words.

Mitch Albom did a better job than any politician, educator, or theologian of breaking things down to the commonality that all people share.

Here's one story I didn't put in the piece that puts it into perspective. Mitch remembered a story Rabbi Lewis told when Mitch was a kid.

Moses and the Israelites go across the Red Sea after it is parted. The Egyptians are in pursuit....when they're halfway across in their chariots, God allows the waters to crash down on them, killing hundreds of the Egyptians.

The angels began to celebrate...The Chosen People were spared. Then God rebuked the angels and said, "Don't celebrate the deaths of the Egyptians. They were my children, too".

That could sum it up, even to non-believers. When you get down to it, we're all one.

BTW....I added your blog to my list as well!


Sue said...

Aaaaah, Haddon Heights... a stones throw from Gloucester City where I spent part of my childhood.

This sounds like a great book Hugh. I believe religion should be a personal journey and if people would keep their faith to themselves and stop the bigotry we would be a happier country. Too simple?? ;-)

Hugh Jee From Jersey said...

Sue- it's so crazy....countries like Britain, France, and Germany, for example, where they waged decades and centuries of religious warfare and persecution with hundreds of thousands dead.

But today they are more tolerant societies than we are.....and we are a nation that was built by many fleeing the persecution and wars in Europe, only to come to America and have their descendants practice bigotry on these shores.

The so called "Ground Zero mosque" and this epidemic of Islamaphobia in America is the latest example of where we made a wrong turn, and of those who will try and score political points out of it.

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