Before he published “Tuesdays with Morrie” in 1997, Mitch Albom was just one sports journalist and columnist among others. But with the publication of this reflection on his weekly visits with his former college professor, Morrie Schwartz, who was dying from Lou Gehrig’s disease, Albom was transformed into a popular author whose books sold in the millions.
“Tuesdays with Morrie” was not written with fame in mind but rather to help his old mentor pay his medical bills and maybe to work through Albom’s own feelings about life’s end. “It was supposed to be a small book,” says Albom in a phone interview, “but it became very popular and changed the course of my life — having an opportunity to see somebody who is dying in front of you and teaching you lessons about what is important in life.”
The warm reception of this book led to more books by Albom addressing spiritual questions. In 2003 he published “5 People You Meet in Heaven,” a novel about a man who awakens in heaven where his earthly life is explained to him by five people who had changed the course of his life. In 2006 he followed with “For One More Day,” a novel about a mother and a son that explores the question: What would you do if you could spend one more day with a lost loved one? These books all became successful television movies, with “Tuesdays with Morrie” and “For One More Day” produced by Oprah Winfrey.
His latest book, “Have a Little Faith,” moves back to the personal realm, exploring the relationships he developed with two very different religious leaders, his childhood rabbi, Albert Lewis, and the pastor of a struggling African American church, Henry Covington. He interweaves the two men’s tales, the questions he poses for them, and the different roles that faith plays in each of their lives. He reads from his work and has a signing on Wednesday, December 2, at the Glazier Center in Newtown, Pennsylvania.
Despite being actively involved in the Jewish world through his college years, Albom had never really developed an adult understanding of the role religion can play in a person’s life. He writes, for example, “I saw religious customs as sweet but outdated, like typing with carbon paper.” His one remaining religious practice was a leftover from childhood — a once-a-year visit to his parents on the High Holidays to attend services at his old synagogue.
When he began his conversations with Lewis, Albom’s preconceived notions about what a spiritual leader must be like were also leftovers from his youth. For example, he put his rabbi way up on a “holy man” pedestal and was a little startled when he turned out to be, well, a human being. Albom also did not realize that clergy could truly value religions other than their own, and expresses surprise at the wise advice Lewis offered him: “You should be convinced of the authenticity of what you have, but you must also be humble enough to say we don’t know everything.”
The friendship between Lewis and Albom grew out of an unusual request. After Albom spoke at his childhood synagogue, Lewis invited Albom to give the eulogy at his funeral. Albom agreed, but only on the condition that he would be able to get to know Rabbi Lewis as a man. That he did, and Albom came to love Lewis as a wise and gentle person whose strength was his ability to connect with other people. Albom’s book is, more than anything, a tribute to Lewis’s humanity.
The two men met often over the ensuing eight years, chatting about all manner of theological conundrums: whether God exists, why bad things happen to good people, why God allows wars, what is the source of true happiness, and what positive role religious ritual can play in a person’s life.
In fact, it was one of Lewis’s teachings that pushed Albom to reach beyond himself to try to understand a different culture and religion — through a Christian man of faith. In chapters interspersed with those about Lewis, Albom traces the life of Henry Covington from the early death of his father into a life of crime and drugs that ironically landed him with a seven-year prison sentence for a murder he did not commit. After he was released, Covington got a job and married his long-time girlfriend, but soon the tragedy of losing his first child, born prematurely, pushed him into drug dealing again, and eventually he started taking drugs himself.
According to Albom, Covington found his way back to Jesus after he miraculously escaped being killed after a desperate hold-up at gun point of two drug dealers. He eventually became a pastor to the homeless, the addicted, and the poor through the I Am My Brother’s Keeper Ministry, a formerly fancy Detroit church that was now close to ruin. Covington, through his own faith, was able to give his parishioners what they needed to survive and, with the help of articles Albom wrote, to begin fixing the huge hole in the church’s ceiling as well.
Albom was born in 1958 in Passaic, New Jersey, but after a short sojourn in Buffalo, New York, his family settled in Oaklyn, New Jersey, near Philadelphia.
Albom says he has always been creative. He yearned to be a cartoonist as a child and after teaching himself to play the piano, focused on establishing himself in a musical career. After getting a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Brandeis University in 1979, Albom moved to New York, performed for several years in Europe and America, and wrote and recorded several songs. “I was a piano player and a song writer, doing the starving artist thing in New York,” he says. But he was not really succeeding and decided to try something else that was creative, but less dependent on luck and more on hard work. So he volunteered to work for a local weekly, the “Queens Tribune.”
Realizing that he had some aptitude for journalism, he went for a master’s degree at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and later a master of business administration at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Business. He paid his tuitions in part through gigs as a piano player.
When Albom finished journalism school, he landed in sports journalism. “It was where the work was,” he says. “It was not that I was particularly interested in sports. People have always been my interest — profiles of people and individual stories of people, as opposed to games.” After freelancing for Sport magazine and other publications, Albom was offered his first full-time job — as a feature writer and eventual sports columnist for the Fort Lauderdale News and Sun Sentinel in Florida.
In 1985 Albom moved to Detroit to become a sports journalist for the Detroit Free Press, where he still writes a column. He has published several anthologies of his sports columns. Albom also hosts a daily talk show on WJR radio and appears regularly on ESPN Sports Reporters and SportsCenter.
Through the friendships he captures in “Have a Little Faith,” Albom came to understand that his charitable activities were really the outlet that gave expression to his spiritual yearnings. Over the last decade or so, he has founded four charities, whose missions range from helping disadvantaged children get involved with the arts and encouraging volunteerism to funding shelters for the homeless and helping faith groups who care for the homeless to repair the spaces in which they carry out their work.
For Albom, then, his latest book opened the door to an adult understanding of the role religion or “faith” was actually playing in his own life. “It has taken away a lot of my cynicism towards faith and reintroduced me to the way one can lead a faithful life,” he says. “It’s not just about attending services and saying prayers; it’s about caring for your fellow human beings, taking care of them when they need help — that is being faithful.”
Author Event, Jewish Learning Academy, Glazier Center, Newtown, PA. Wednesday, December 2, 7:30 p.m. Mitch Albom, the author of the internationally acclaimed “Tuesdays with Morrie,” talks about faith and introduces his new book, “Have a Little Faith.” $36 and $54 with a book. 215-497-9925.