EXCERPT: 'Have a Little Faith'

photo The cover for the book "Have a Little Faith: A True Story" by Mitch Albom is shown.amazon.com
The cover for the book "Have a Little Faith: A True Story" by Mitch Albom is shown.

Mitch Albom followed the lives of two men for eight years for his new book, "Have a Little Faith." This story details the life of a young Detroit pastor who preaches to the poor in a decaying church house, and an old Jewish suburban rabbi who has embraced his own death.

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VIDEO: Mitch Albom: Have a Little FaithPlay

In the Beginning ...

In the beginning, there was a question.

"Will you do my eulogy?"

I don't understand, I said.

"My eulogy?" the old man asked again. "When I'm gone." His eyes blinked from behind his glasses. His neatly trimmed beard was gray, and he stood slightly stooped. Are you dying? I asked.

"Not yet," he said, grinning.

Then why-

"Because I think you would be a good choice. And I think, when the time comes, you will know what to say."

Youthful PreachersPlay

Picture the most pious man you know. Your priest. Your pastor. Your rabbi. Your imam. Now picture him tapping you on the shoulder and asking you to say good-bye to the world on his behalf.

Picture the man who sends people off to heaven, asking you for his send-off to heaven.

"So?" he said. "Would you be comfortable with that?"

In the beginning, there was another question.

"Will you save me, Jesus?"

This man was holding a shotgun. He hid behind trash cans in front of a Brooklyn row house. It was late at night. His wife and baby daughter were crying. He watched for cars coming down his block, certain the next set of headlights would be his killers.

"Will you save me, Jesus?" he asked, trembling. "If I promise to give myself to you, will you save me tonight?"

Picture the most pious man you know. Your priest. Your pastor. Your rabbi. Your imam. Now picture him in dirty clothes, a shotgun in his hand, begging for salvation from behind a set of trash cans.

Picture the man who sends people off to heaven, begging not to be sent to hell.

"Please, Lord," he whispered. "If I promise???"

This is a story about believing in something and the two very different men who taught me how. It took a long time to write. It took me to churches and synagogues, to the suburbs and the city, to the "us" versus "them" that divides faith around the world.

And finally, it took me home, to a sanctuary filled with people, to a casket made of pine, to a pulpit that was empty.

In the beginning, there was a question.

It became a last request.

"Will you do my eulogy?"

And, as is often the case with faith, I thought I was being asked a favor, when in fact I was being given one.

A few weeks earlier, Albert Lewis, then eighty-two years old, had made that strange request of me, in a hallway after a speech I had given.

"Will you do my eulogy?"

It stopped me in my tracks. I had never been asked this before. Not by anyone—let alone a religious leader. There were people mingling all around, but he kept smiling as if it were the most normal question in the world, until I blurted out something about needing time to think about it.

After a few days, I called him up.

Okay, I said, I would honor his request. I would speak at his funeral—but only if he let me get to know him as a man, so I could speak of him as such. I figured this would require a few in-person meetings.

"Agreed," he said.

I turned down his street.

Meet the Reb

To that point, all I really knew of Albert Lewis was what an audience member knows of a performer: his delivery, his stage presence, the way he held the congregation rapt with his commanding voice and flailing arms. Sure, we had once been closer. He had taught me as a child, and he'd officiated at family functions—my sister's wedding, my grandmother's funeral. But I hadn't really been around him in twenty-five years. Besides, how much do you know about your religious minister? You listen to him. You respect him. But as a man?

Mine was as distant as a king. I had never eaten at his home. I had never gone out with him socially. If he had human flaws, I didn't see them. Personal habits? I knew of none.

Well, that's not true. I knew of one. I knew he liked to sing. Everyone in our congregation knew this. During sermons, any sentence could become an aria. During conversation, he might belt out the nouns or the verbs. He was like his own little Broadway show.

In his later years, if you asked how he was doing, his eyes would crinkle and he'd raise a conductor's finger and croon:

"The old gray rabbi, ain't what he used to be, ain't what he used to be..."

I pushed on the brakes. What was I doing? I was the wrong man for this job. I was no longer religious. I didn't live in this state. He was the one who spoke at funerals, not me. Who does a eulogy for the man who does eulogies? I wanted to spin the wheel around, make up some excuse.

Man likes to run from God.

But I was headed in the other direction.

Life of Henry

About the time that, religiously, I was becoming "a man," Henry was becoming a criminal.

He began with stolen cars. He played lookout while his older brother jimmied the locks. He moved on to purse snatching, then shoplifting, particularly grocery stores; stealing pork chop trays and sausages, hiding them in his oversized pants and shirts.

School was a lost cause. When others his age were going to football games and proms, Henry was committing armed robbery. Young, old, white, black, didn't matter. He waved a gun and demanded their cash, their wallets, their jewels.

The years passed. Over time, he made enemies on the streets. In the fall of 1976, a neighborhood rival tried to set him up in a murder investigation. The guy told the cops Henry was the killer. Later, he said it was someone else.

Still, when those cops came to question him, Henry, now nineteen years old with a sixth-grade education, figured he could turn the tables on his rival and collect a five-thousand-dollar reward in the process.

So instead of saying "I have no idea" or "I was nowhere near there," he made up lies about who was where, who did what. He made up one lie after another. He put himself at the scene, but not as a participant. He thought he was being smart.

He couldn't have been dumber. He wound up lying his way into an arrest—along with another guy—on a manslaughter charge. The other guy went to trial, was convicted, and got sent away for twenty-five years. Henry's lawyer quickly recommended a plea deal. Seven years. Take it.

Henry was devastated. Seven years? For a crime he didn't commit?

"What should I do?" he asked his mother.

"Seven is less than twenty-five," she said.

He fought back tears. He took the deal in a courtroom. He was led away in handcuffs.

On the bus ride to prison, Henry cursed the fact that he was being punished unfairly. He didn't do the math on the times he could have been jailed and wasn't. He was angry and bitter. And he swore that life would owe him once he got out.

Excerpted from HAVE A LITTLE FAITH by MITCH ALBOM. Copyright (c) 2009 MITCH ALBOM. All rights reserved. Published by Hyperion. Available wherever books are sold.