|Penn Baccalaureate 2010
May 25, 2010,
Volume 56, No. 34
Back to Baccalaureate/Commencement Index
Penn Baccalaureate Address given Sunday, May 16, 2010 by Mitch Albom, internationally renowned and best-selling author, journalist, screenwriter, playwright, radio and television broadcaster and musician.
Have a Little Faith
Thank you so much. I should point out that the thing about singing Elvis Presley songs on the Island of Crete is that they actually think they are originals, which is why I lasted as long as I did.
There was a country preacher who decided one Sunday that he was going to try to put the fear of God into his parish congregation, and so he came out and began his sermon by saying, “Remember, everyone in this parish is going to die.” And he noticed this one guy up front was kind of smiling. And he looked at him and said, “What are you so happy about?” and the guy said, “I’m not from this parish, I’m just visiting my sister.”
Well ten years ago, that would have been a pretty appropriate joke for me when it came to faith. I could have said, I’m not from this parish, I’m not from around here. I’m not too worried about the consequences. It wasn’t that I hadn’t been raised with faith. In fact just across the river I had been. As a kid, like many of you, I was involved with religious school, I grew up in the Jewish faith, I was involved with the synagogue, went to a religious academy through high school and studied it through college.
And right at the point where many of you are at, I graduated and walked away from all of it. It wasn’t a tragic loss of belief, it wasn’t a turn to atheism. It was, if I’m being honest, apathy. Lack of need. I was young, healthy, ambitious. I was doing okay. I was making money. Everyone I knew was alright. And so I just figured I would go my way, God would go his way and we’ll be just fine. I went on like that for quite some time. And then, about ten years ago, I came back here to give a talk in the small town in New Jersey where I grew up, and after I finished, the rabbi of the synagogue that I had grown up in, now 82 years old, using a cane, pulled me outside in the hall and asked me a question that would change my life forever.
This was the question. “Will you do my eulogy?”
To which I answered, “huh?”
Will you do my eulogy? Who was I to accept that? I just said I wasn’t very religious and besides, who does a eulogy for the guy who does eulogies? I figured rabbis, priests, pastors, they had this stuff all worked out with one another ahead of time, you know, like “if I go first, you do me, if you go first, I’ll do you.”
So how I got into this loop was beyond me. But not wanting to disappoint him I said, “Well if you want me to speak at your funeral, I need to get to know you as you lived. I mean, its true I’ve known you my whole life I guess, but always from the seats and the cheap seats at that. I need to get to know you if you want me to do your eulogy as a man.”
To which he said, “I accept.”
And that began a series of visits to this rabbi, Albert Lewis, Temple Beth Shalom. They were quite funny even from the very first because when I arrived, I drove to his house, I had never done that before; I parked in his driveway, I had never done that before; I walked up to his front door, I had never done that before and so the doorbell kind of threw me because I didn’t know that priests or pastors or rabbis had doorbells. I just thought they sensed you coming.
But we walked in and he welcomed me down to his office. We went inside and sat down in his office, a room I had never been in before. I’d never been to his home before. I’d never seen him in anything other than a robe or a suit before, and now he was wearing Bermuda shorts with socks and sandals ...which is never a good look.
And we sat in his office and I looked around and I saw all these books and papers and I saw files on all these shelves. On the top shelf, was this huge big fat file right in the center and across the front it read, “God.” He had a file on God.
I always wanted to ask him what was in that file, but I didn’t have the nerve, so I decided I would begin my little process here with a very appropriate question. I took out a yellow pad, trying to do this eulogy thing very straight with a yellow pad and a pencil. I sat down and the first question I asked this 82 year old man of faith was, “Do you believe in God?”
And he said, “Yes I do.”
“Do you talk to God?”
“I talk to God all the time,” he said.
“And what do you say to God?” I asked.
And he had a habit of singing his answer and he chose this time to sing his answer and he said, “These days I say ‘Dear Lord if you’re going to take me, take me already! And if you’re going to leave me here, leave me with enough strength that I can help my congregation.’”
“Do you ever get an answer?” I asked. He looked at me and smiled. “Still waiting,” he said.
Now as that was going on, let me tell you a story about another person, who grew up the same age as I did. When I was growing up in the little synagogue across the river. Two hours north, in Brooklyn, New York, he too was growing up. He too was being dragged to religious school. He too would one day grapple with his faith. But that was about where the similarities ended. His name was Henry Covington. An African-American child, one of seven, born to a man who worked as a hustler and a woman who worked as a maid. When he was five years old, his mother was taken away to prison after trying to shoot his father. His family was so poor that they lived in a two-room apartment and at night they would put huge pots of rice on the counter in the kitchen, so that the rats would jump into the pots of rice and not come into their bedrooms.
The young Henry grew up fearful of falling asleep, lest he be bitten by a rodent. He was thrown out of school when he was 12 years old for fighting. When he was 13 his father died, leaving him directionless. He became a petty thief at 14, a bigger one at 15. By the time he was 19 years old he had so many enemies that one of them fingered him in the killing of a cop. And even though he was nowhere near the scene, he was advised to plead guilty to manslaughter, lest he be found guilty for murder. And he was sent away for seven years to a federal penitentiary for a crime he did not commit. He swore that the world would owe him when he got out.
He didn’t think of all the crimes he hadn’t been punished for. And when he got out, he made good on that promise and he got into the drug trade, and he did very well for a period of time. He sold drugs and at one point, he earned a half a million dollars a year, selling dope and crack and heroin. And then Henry Covington made a fatal error, he tried some of his own product. Pretty soon he was as desperate and strung out as all the junkies he’d been selling to. And a few years later, he had just passed his 30th birthday, alone, without any money, desperate, he robbed the only people he could think of that had any money or drugs. His own drug dealers, which is never a good idea.
And he banged on the door and waved the gun in their faces and said, “You know what this is.” And they almost laughed at him. They gave him some drugs and he took off. He went home, he got high and in the middle of all that he realized, “uh oh, they know where I live.” And he ran out front of his apartment and he lay on the ground and he held a shotgun and he put a bunch of trash cans in front of him, and there on the ground, holding a shotgun, after midnight, waiting for a car to come around the corner to murder him. Sure that the next set of headlights would contain his killer, would spray him with bullets and that would be the end, he did what many people do in moments like that. “Jesus? Get me out of this. If you save me tonight, you can have me in the morning. Help me, Lord. Spare me Lord. Save me, Lord.”
Twenty years later, I’m living in Detroit. I have a charity that I work with that helps the homeless, and I heard of a homeless shelter that was being run out of church. A very unusual place, because the people slept on the floor of this church. The church had once been the largest Presbyterian Church in the entire Midwest, but that was in the 1880s when it was built. Today it has been left to rot in one of the worst sections of Detroit. Windows broken, bricks falling off of it and a massive hole in its roof and ceiling through which rain and snow literally poured in on top of the congregants when they tried to pray. And it got so cold inside this church that at one point they had to build a plastic tent, made of two-by-fours and plasticine, just to be able to huddle together on Sundays, to have a place that was semi-dry and warm, to pray. A plastic tent, in a church, in the 21st century in the United States of America.
When I saw this I said, “ok, this is worthwhile helping, you have homeless people sleeping on the floor here. Can I meet the pastor?”
And a couple minutes later, around the corner came a very large man. Big belly over his stomach, thick arms, a white T-shirt, he was patting his head with a handkerchief—I thought he worked there. And he held out his hand and he said something that would ultimately change my life forever.
He said, “Hello, my name is Henry Covington.” And this was where Henry had ended up, 20 years after that night that he asked Jesus to save him. No cars came down the street. No bullets were fired. When he woke up the next morning, it was Easter morning and he got down on his knees and he prayed for forgiveness and then he drank a bottle of NyQuil and knocked himself out for a day. And when he woke up he did the same thing again. And when he woke up he did the same thing again, a self-imposed detox. And then he slowly, gradually, worked his way back to goodness. Went to church, got involved, became a deacon, became an elder, was sent to Detroit to try open a branch and eventually took up this crumbling church, where he now worked for no salary. This man who had once made a half a million dollars a year selling drugs, was now getting no salary, taking care of the homeless and the poor in a church with a hole in its roof.
Now I have to admit that when I first met Henry, I’m not sure I trusted him. For one thing, within 5 minutes he was telling me he’d been incarcerated, he’d been a drug dealer, he’d been a thief, he’d been a junkie. And while I thought it was very nice he was being honest, I kept asking myself, “Isn’t there some point you get disqualified from the pulpit? Isn’t there some minimum test score you have to achieve?”
Besides, he was different. He was different. I had grown up in a white synagogue in the suburbs. This was a black church in inner city Detroit. He was different, and let’s be honest, if you haven’t realized this yet, I’m sure you will. When it comes to faith, we don’t trust different. We might say we do, we might pay it lip service, but in our minds there is always ours/theirs, familiar/weird, the right one/too bad for all of you. Different. And I probably wouldn’t have trusted him the rest of the way except that I had been meeting with this rabbi, and seeing what a man was like away from the pulpit, the robes, not judging someone based on what I saw, and so I did the same with Henry.
And what I found was remarkable, because I discovered a man who drove around the poorest sections of Detroit with food on the hood of his car. Turkeys, cheeses, juices that he got from food banks, and he would honk his horn and in the poor sections and the people who were homeless who were squatting would come running out and just take the food.
He didn’t ask for anything in return. You didn’t have to join his church, no quid pro quo, he just fed the hungry. What is more Christian than that? He took in homeless people, 50, 60, 80, 100 people sleeping on the floor of his church every night, and after he gave them a blanket and a mat, and a warm place to sleep, the lights went off and he sat there. Ten o’clock, eleven o’clock, twelve o’clock, one a.m., watching over them.
And when I asked him, “Why don’t you just get a night watchman?” He said, “This is my church. I need to make sure these people are safe.”
And he befriended one particular homeless guy, a crack addict who was in an apartment named Cass, and he said to him, “You know, I can help you out if you need to, I can give you a job, you can help me unload the food trucks.”
And Cass said, “Sure, I can do that.”
Unfortunately, Cass had a unique distribution system. It was one for the church, two for Cass. And he would take these things and sell them off and buy drugs. Henry could have said, “Be gone with you.” But he didn’t trap a man in his past, because he had been there himself. And so he waited, and waited. And one night someone broke into Cass’s apartment where he’d been squatting, stole the pipes for the copper, burst the water main and Cass woke up face down in water floating out of the apartment. He came to Henry the next morning and said, “Pastor, I can’t work for you today, because these are the only clothes I own and they are all soaked.”
Henry gave him new clothes. The first time in three years the man had clean underwear. Then he said, “Cass, where will you live?” Cass said, “I ain’t got no place to live.”
Henry thought for a moment and he said, “Why don’t you live with me?” and that night he moved this virtual stranger into his home, his tiny home, and the one available couch that they had, while Henry, his wife and his three children lived upstairs. Not for a night, not for a week, but for a year. An entire year. Until Cass was able to straighten his life out. And today, many years later, Cass is not only clean and sober, but he is an elder of the church, he married a woman from the church and they have an eight-year-old daughter named Miracle, who runs around the church as if she owns it. All because of the kindness of one man, who refused to trap a man in his past. And showed he had faith in mankind.
So now, to the end—my visits with the rabbi. Normally, when someone asks you for a eulogy, you kind of figure, time is short. But after eight years of visiting, I was beginning to wonder if this whole thing wasn’t a clever ruse to draw me back into an adult education class. What turned out to be the final Sunday that we had a chance to visit, we were talking about Heaven.
I must have been asking him so many questions ... what do you think is going to happen? But finally he looked up to the heavens in exasperation and he said, “Dear Lord, this one has so many questions, please give him many more years on Earth, and when we see each other again, we will have lots to talk about!”
And I said, “Do you really think we’re going to see each other again?”
And he said, “Don’t you?” and I said, “Well, lets face it … I don’t think I’m going where you’re going.”
“What do you mean?” he said.
“Well, come on,” I said, “They have to have a special wing for people like you, you’re a man of God.”
And he looked at me very sweetly and said, “But you’re a man of God too, everyone is.”
And you could have knocked me over with a feather, because for this 90-year-old pious, righteous man, to put himself on the same level as me, was not only an act of humility, but was, to me, what faith is supposed to be about. Not wagging a finger at the other guy and saying, “I’m more pious than you are” which he certainly could have done. Not wagging a finger at someone and saying, “My faith is better than your faith” which he certainly could have tried. It is about turning to the person next to you and saying, “You’re a child of God too, everyone is.” And if we really believe that, we would have to be nicer to one another, because we would all see ourselves as more the same than different, and you wouldn’t hurt yourself or those you love.
Two days later, the rabbi was taken to the hospital for tests, and while he was in the hallway, in a wheelchair, an orderly realized he was some kind of clergyman and came up to him and said, “Excuse me, I don’t mean to bother you, but I’m kind of having a rough patch in my life right now and I was wondering if you could give me a blessing.”
And so, one last time in the hallway of that hospital, my old rabbi put his hands on the head of a stranger and asked God to bless him.
The next day at six a.m., the sun came up, the nurse came in to give him a bath and he was doing what he did best, making her laugh and singing, when his head slumped over and his music stopped forever.
Well, in case you’re wondering, I did do the eulogy. I spoke about the eight years that we had together. I spoke about having my faith rekindled by witnessing a man who practiced it quietly and purely every day of his life.
And then I sat down. I never did find out, why the Rab, as I called him, asked me to do his eulogy. Especially because I always knew he could do it better than I could. When I sat down, his grandson walked up to the pulpit holding a cassette tape, and put it in the player and pressed the button.
And one last time a familiar voice rang out over the loudspeakers, and it said, “Hello my friends, this is the voice of your past rabbi speaking!” He made a tape and hadn’t told anyone. It was very short, maybe a minute, but in it he answered the two questions he said he had been asked the most in his life as a man of faith. One was, “Do you believe in God?” He said he did. The other was, “What happens when we die?” To this he said, “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. You’re going to have to figure it out for yourselves.”
I think what he was saying and what I’m trying to say to you, was simple. You have to have a little faith. It is what will get you through the darkness, the sad times, the craziness, the maddening turn of events. Have a little faith and one day we may indeed figure it out for ourselves.
By the way, I did open that file on God. I went back a few months after the Rab had passed, stood on a chair, took it down in my arms and held it. I admit I paused for a moment because I was flashing on that Indiana Jones movie where they open the arc and I didn’t want my face to melt off. I really wished that the rabbi was there with me. But when I opened that file, he was. He was, because in it, were hundreds of pages of quotations and stories and articles, and questions written in the Rab’s handwriting, all about God. And I realized that I was holding what he’d always been trying to teach me. That it is not about having the answer, as many of you want to have right now. It’s about the search for the answer. You cannot fit God in a file. If you could, there would be no reason to believe in Him. You could take Him off the shelf any time you needed Him, like coffee.
It’s the choosing to believe in that which you cannot fit in a file. It’s the choosing to believe in that which you cannot see or touch. It’s the choosing to believe that we are here for something other than just taking what we want and turning into worm food. It’s the choosing to believe that there is a divine spark in every single person in this room, that can be touched and used to bring people together. It’s the choosing to believe that makes the whole thing, the maddening, crazy, wonderful, but always ultimately satisfying journey of faith. Don’t walk away from it, like I did. Embrace it.
In the beginning, there was a question for me. Will you do my eulogy? In the end, that question and all the others will get answered. I believe, like the Rabbi, God sings and we all hum along. And there are many, many melodies, and we are all witness to it, but its all one song. All one song, one same, wonderful, human song.
Thank you very much for listening to me. God bless you.