In the past, typically my readers were schoolteachers. An African-American fifth- or sixth-grade teacher was probably my most common reader. But in the past few years, I've noticed that about half of the people who come up to me at readings are religious people. Not all of them are Unitarians, either. There are many traditionally conservative people who open up to my work on children in the South Bronx, including some fundamentalist Christians who have never before read a book by an unregenerate liberal.
When reporters write about religion, they speak of charitable interventions at Christmas, not about issues of fundamental justice. Thank God for charity, but it's not a substitute for justice. It's too whimsical, too seasonal, far too selective. It can be withdrawn at any time. Kids in the South Bronx need something more reliable than charity to level the playing field on which they have to struggle for survival. The Gospels and the Old Testament did not simply ask us to write a tax-exempt check once a year at Christmas. We can all do that, and we all should. But it 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 is
your own experience with faith?
I was very religious as a child. My grandmother was a very spiritual person. She had grown up in Russia, and came over on a cattle boat. When I talked to her, I always felt like I was talking to one of the great women in the Bible, Hagar in the wilderness, Sarah, or Rachel.
But at Harvard, people were very skeptical about religion. If you talked about God, they looked at you cynically. It wasn't until I started talking to children in the South Bronx that I was drawn back to something I had been away from for 50 years. The children speak with none of that phony sophistication you get from upper-class people in Manhattan, none of that irony you get in the upscale press. The children I talk with have a direct relationship with God. They are some of the most deeply moral children I have ever met. The kids I wrote about are not poster children for the poor. They are not rare exceptions. They have a tremendous innocence. They aren't premature criminals, as the press leads you to believe. They ask me to pray with them. At first, I didn't know if I had the right to pray with them--they are devoutly Christian, and I am Jewish. 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 the differences between my own religion and theirs. They understand some distinctions, but mostly from observing me in church. The children show a good deal of reverence and respect. I have never heard a word of anti-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 and
How would society have to change to embody these principles?
First of all, we have to abolish the present undemocratic methods of school funding, which depend on property taxes and guarantee inequality. Second, we need a new civil-rights movement to address the virtually total racial segregation of the Northern cities and suburbs. That means a direct confrontation with the banking and real-estate interests which establish these racial patterns. Churches and synagogues need to be in the front lines of that struggle.