In the past, typically my readers were schoolteachers. AnAfrican-American fifth- or sixth-grade teacher was probably my most commonreader. But in the past few years, I've noticed that about half of thepeople who come up to me at readings are religious people. Not all of themare Unitarians, either. There are many traditionally conservative peoplewho open up to my work on children in the South Bronx, including somefundamentalist Christians who have never before read a book by anunregenerate liberal.
When reporters write about religion, they speak of charitableinterventions at Christmas, not about issues of fundamental justice. ThankGod for charity, but it's not a substitute for justice. It's toowhimsical, too seasonal, far too selective. It can be withdrawn at anytime. Kids in the South Bronx need something more reliable than charity tolevel the playing field on which they have to struggle for survival. TheGospels and the Old Testament did not simply ask us to write a tax-exemptcheck once a year at Christmas. We can all do that, and we all should. Butit is still too easy. It doesn't change our own lives at all.
How did you come to write this more personal, reflective book? What isyour own experience with faith?
I was very religious as a child. My grandmother was a very spiritualperson. She had grown up in Russia, and came over on a cattle boat. When Italked to her, I always felt like I was talking to one of the great women inthe Bible, Hagar in the wilderness, Sarah, or Rachel.
But at Harvard, people were very skeptical about religion. If you talkedabout God, they looked at you cynically. It wasn't until I startedtalking to children in the South Bronx that I was drawn back to somethingI had been away from for 50 years. The children speak with none of thatphony sophistication you get from upper-class people in Manhattan, none ofthat irony you get in the upscale press. The children I talk with have adirect relationship with God. They are some of the most deeply moralchildren I have ever met. The kids I wrote about are not poster childrenfor the poor. They are not rare exceptions. They have a tremendousinnocence. They aren't premature criminals, as the press leads you tobelieve. They ask me to pray with them. At first, I didn't know if I hadthe right to pray with them--they are devoutly Christian, and I amJewish. Too much Harvard education can stand in the way of the heart.
How did your own faith affect how you talked to the children?
The children were too young for me to explain to them in detail thedifferences between my own religion and theirs. They understand somedistinctions, but mostly from observing me in church. The children show agood deal of reverence and respect. I have never heard a word ofanti-Semitism in 35 years of working in inner-city churches.
What is the relationship between faith and social activism?
"Cheap grace" can easily enable people to hide in religion andspirituality and never go out and engage the injustices of the world.Mother Martha--the priest in "Ordinary Resurrections"--sees the face of Jesus in every underfed child in the South Bronx. She doesn't simply speak of rich people downtown, she speaks of powers and principalities on Wall Street. She doesn't use a cloudy form of spirituality to blunt real political encounters, which is a common risk among all of us. True spirituality, deep Judeo-Christian values, don't simply lead to political action. They require it.
How would society have to change to embody these principles?
First of all, we have to abolish the present undemocratic methods ofschool funding, which depend on property taxes and guarantee inequality.Second, we need a new civil-rights movement to address the virtually totalracial segregation of the Northern cities and suburbs. That means a directconfrontation with the banking and real-estate interests which establishthese racial patterns. Churches and synagogues need to be in the frontlines of that struggle.