Ordinary Resurrections: Children in the Years of Hope
by Jonathan Kozol
Crown Publishers, 373 pp.

Mott Haven, up in the South Bronx, isn't somewhere most lifetime New Yorkers have ever paid a visit to, though once every couple of years photographs of its bombed-out blocks may appear in the Metro section of The New York Times. It's a neighborhood with one of the highest rates of pediatric and maternal AIDS in the country and one of the highest asthma rates for adults and children. One of the poorest sections of New York, Mott Haven has an unemployment rate that hovers between 45% and 75% even in the midst of the city's longest economic boom since the 1960s.

It's the great merit of Jonathan Kozol's new book, "Ordinary Resurrections: Children in the Years of Hope," that it goes beyond these bleak, familiar images of urban decay, and it does so simply by describing, in sympathetic detail, the lives and beliefs of a few children growing up in Mott Haven. "I hope," he writes, "that this book is neither bitter nor despairing, because bitterness and despair are not the words that ordinarily come to your mind when you spend time with children here."

Kozol has written about the South Bronx before--in his classics about public education and funding inequities between city and suburban schools, "Amazing Grace" and "Savage Inequalities"--but never in such personal, moving terms. And never before has he addressed so directly the problems of faith and spiritual life among some of the poorest people in America.

Much of "Ordinary Resurrections" takes place in and around St. Ann's, an Episcopal church that runs an after-school program in the neighborhood. All of the children it serves are African-American and Hispanic (and presumably many of them don't come from Episcopalian families). The priest at St. Ann's, Mother Martha, was once a trial lawyer; she entered seminary after her brother died of AIDS in the 1980s but still retains the combative habits of the courtroom. Kozol describes her fighting building managers who try to avoid delivering needed maintenance and services to their tenants, challenging drug dealers, organizing to shut down an incinerator that was built in the neighborhood despite the incredibly high asthma rates. As she puts it, "Do the children of doctors, financiers, and publishers have to look outside their windows at trash-burners every morning?"

But the real embodiment of faith in "Ordinary Resurrections" isn't Mother Martha--it's the children themselves. Kozol, who is Jewish, describes the ease and grace with which the kids express their spiritual lives: There's the 8-year-old girl who loves to draw hearts and talks about God's heart "pushing" into the world; the little boy who says he can hear God crying; the child who speaks of Joseph as Jesus' "foster father"; how often and naturally the children ask to pray. By showing the children of the South Bronx as deeply religious beings, Kozol suggests that they have important lessons to teach all of us.

For if the faith of the children is taken seriously, the cheeseparing, bloodless way that policy wonks and downtown businesspeople approach their young lives suddenly starts to seem terribly inadequate. Kozol describes attending a conference on "inner-city youth," at which the main argument for building schools in the ghetto has to do with cost efficiency. The children are seen as "future entry-level workers," and investing in them will raise productivity. Failing to do so will be expensive--it will mean building prisons instead of new factories.

As Kozol observes, this line of argument is not as fail-safe as it may seem to the well-meaning liberals who make it: "What if a future generation of geneticists, economists, or both should come to the conclusion that the children of St. Ann's don't offer a sufficient payoff to a corporation's bottom line to warrant serious investment?"

One might imagine that "Ordinary Resurrections" would lapse into shallow sentimentality about "the children." At times--like in the endless passages about Fred Rogers, the children's television icon who accompanies Kozol to the South Bronx--it does seem a little saccharine. But rosy platitudes about innocence and youth are often reserved for well-off children. Poor black and Hispanic kids are seen as future criminals and delinquents, as juvenile offenders who should be tried as adults. So few people write about these children with any decency at all that Kozol is easily able to steer clear of cloying sanctimony.

The contrast between the rich faith and the impoverished lives of the children described in "Ordinary Resurrections" offers a powerful indictment of American society and, as Kozol intends, one that makes it clear that living a spiritually right life must mean being active in politics. As Kozol notes, it's a basic Christian teaching that "every child, of whatever race or economic situation, is of equal value in the eyes of God. In the eyes of God I'm sure we'd all like to believe that this is so; but, in the eyes of those who exercise real power in New York, it seemingly is not." To make a society worthy of the children in Kozol's book would be the most extraordinary resurrection of all.

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