Success hasn’t gone to Mitch Albom’s head. It’s gone to his heart. Fifteen years ago, Albom was already the best-known sportswriter in Detroit, having worked his way into the majors by writing for Sports Illustrated and the Philadelphia Inquirer. He would go on to conquer other media as a radio talk show host, ESPN analyst, screenwriter and playwright.
Successful? Sure. But fulfilled? Not so much.
“I was sort of living neutrally; you’re not in reverse and you’re not in drive,” he says, choosing an apt Motor City metaphor. “If you would have asked my position on faith, I wouldn’t have said I was an atheist or agnostic; of course I believe in God and I was raised with the faith and that’s it. But if you drilled down a little further and asked how often do you go to service? Uh, once a year. How often do you get involved in anything having to do with your faith? Never. How often do you pick up a Bible and read through it? Never.”
In 1995, in quick succession, he married Janine Sabino and reconnected with Morrie Schwartz, his former college professor who was dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease. The life lessons learned from his dying mentor would form the basis for Tuesdays with Morrie, which spent an astounding four years on the New York Times bestseller list.
Morrie did more than catapult Mitch to fame and fortune (part of which he used to pay off Morrie’s medical bills). It also threw open deserted locker rooms in his heart.
“Tuesdays with Morrie kind of pushed me in the direction to begin examining a bigger picture of life than just making money and accomplishing things,” Albom admits in a telephone interview.
Following a couple of inspirational novels (The Five People You Meet in Heaven; For One More Day), Albom hits one out of the park once again with Have a Little Faith: A True Story, which grew from the author’s close encounters with two remarkable men of very different faiths.
Have a Little Faith opens with an unusual request. An aging Albert Lewis, who had been Albom’s rabbi growing up in suburban New Jersey, asks his successful congregant to write his eulogy. To do so properly, Albom must get to know the man behind the vestments, little knowing it would take eight years to prepare for the inevitable.
As Albom makes pilgrimages to “the Reb’s” suburban home for Morrie-like visits, he slowly grows to love and understand the man he had feared as a kid—a loving husband and father who suffered the loss of a daughter yet remained unshakable in his faith.
“When I knocked on his door the first time, he opened it and he was wearing Bermuda shorts and sandals. He just looked like a goofball! I didn’t think that was allowed! I thought he slept in a robe. Here he was, saying, come into my world, it’s not that strange.”
The rabbi helps reconnect the author with his faith through exchanges like this:
“But so many people wage wars in God’s name.
‘God,’ the Reb scolded, ‘does not want such killings to go on.’
Then why hasn’t it stopped?
He lifted his eyebrows.
‘Because man does.’ ”
Between Saturdays with Albert, Albom skillfully weaves in a second narrative about Henry Covington, whose journey through a hellish youth of poverty and drug addiction ultimate led him to establish the I Am My Brother’s Keeper ministry and homeless shelter in Detroit’s inner city.
When Albom drops by the church to write a feature story, he finds a ministry held together by faith and charity but little else. A gaping hole in the church roof ultimately forced the congregation to construct a makeshift tent of plastic sheeting in one corner to enable services to be held.
Covington’s courage and his congregation’s dedication nudged Albom to an ecumenical awakening.
“Before I started going through all this, I did not like it when other people started talking about their religion, especially if it wasn’t mine. I felt almost offended; don’t push what you believe on me, you know? And when people of my own faith talked about it, I was kind of embarrassed, too: don’t overdo this, don’t call attention to yourself. I felt uncomfortable in both directions,” he says.
“But I don’t anymore. I realized that you can be around people of faith and you don’t have to turn into a zombie. You don’t have to eat communion wafers or put on a yarmulke. It’s just one element of people’s lives and you can talk to them about it and celebrate it.”
Though Have a Little Faith was eight years in the making, Albom admits its message could not be more timely.
“I do think it’s fortuitous. When times get tough and money disappears and people get fired and the things you assumed were going to be there forever are not there, you start to drift back to something you once had and you wonder why you let it go in the first place,” he says.
Albom uses his success to power three charities: A Time to Heal, which focuses on community projects; The Dream Fund, which provides scholarships for underserved children; and S.A.Y. (Super All Year) Detroit, which serves the needs of the homeless.
But Albom refuses to take the credit, or to use his success to promote himself.
“My attitude, for better or worse since these books started to become what they’ve become, is I’m happy for them, I embrace them, but I don’t need to change who I am. I like who I am here. I don’t need to leave Detroit and go and try to elevate myself. I live in the same house, we have the same phone number and I have the same job as I did before Tuesdays with Morrie.”
Would he wish a little faith upon his hapless Detroit Lions?
“Yeah,” he chuckles, “along with a little defense.”
Jay MacDonald writes faithfully from Austin, Texas.