I lived across the street from the Mission Main and Mission Extension housing project in Roxbury, the inner city in Boston, and ran a small church as a seminarian. It was one of the poorest and most dangerous projects in the city. I commuted to Cambridge for classes and went home to the ghetto. The vast disconnect between Harvard, where students went on about the suffering of people they had never met, and the poor filled me with despair. I went back to Colgate to sit again in Coleman's office. The slants of pale, yellow light fell with a comforting familiarity on the shelves of books and the tweed jacket of my old teacher.
There was a long silence.
"Are we created to suffer?" I finally asked.
"Is there any love that isn't?" he answered.
I would leave Harvard, without being ordained, to go off to war as a reporter. I would cover conflicts for 20 years in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. I would see the worst of human evil. I would come back once or twice a year to the United States. And I would almost always find my way to Hamilton to see Coleman Brown.
I have always thought of myself as a preacher. This is not a vocation one proclaims openly if he or she works for The New York Times, as I did. Preachers, like artists, care more about the truth than they do about news. News and truth are not the same thing. The truth can get you into trouble. During the calls to invade Iraq I denounced the looming war, drawing on my seven years in the Middle East and my former position as the Middle East bureau chief for the Times. My outspokenness led to me being issued a formal reprimand and leaving the paper. It was then I began to write books. I sent my drafts to Coleman. He sent chapters back with notes and comments. In one proposed chapter of the manuscript that would become "American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America," he drew large X's across four full pages and wrote at the bottom of the fourth page, "Frankly, you are over your head." In a book I was writing on the New Atheists, he sent back the opening page, which I had spent some time putting together. Every sentence with the exception of the first had been meticulously crossed out with his thick black felt pen. "Keep the first sentence and cut the rest," he wrote. He lifted to his level many passages in my books, especially in "War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning," which I dedicated to Coleman and my father. My books bear the imprint of his wisdom.
His decline was long and painful. He suffered dementia and neurological damage that left him in a wheelchair. He would, on my periodic visits, rouse himself with herculean effort to connect, to summon from deep inside him the great spirit and intellect that somehow never left him. On my last visit with him before he died at 80, I came with my friend and onetime classmate from Colgate and Harvard, the Rev. Michael Granzen. We sat at the dinner table with Coleman and Irene Brown. "Now which preacher here will say the grace?" I asked of Coleman and Michael. "You will," Coleman said.
I was ordained last October. The first time I wore a clerical collar was at Coleman's funeral. My hand, and the hands of some of Coleman's other students who had gone on to be preachers, rested, at the end of his service, on his coffin. I too am a teacher. I teach in a prison. My students do not, as I did not, learn in order to further a career or to advance their positions in society. Many of them will never leave prison. They learn because they yearn to be educated, because the life of the mind is the only freedom most will ever know. I love my students. I love them the way Coleman loved his students. I visit their families. I have met at the prison gate the very few who have been released. I have had them to my home. I have pushed books into their hands.
Last semester one of my most dedicated students stayed behind after the final class. This is a man who when I mention a book even in passing will find it, take it to his cell and consume it. He was imprisoned at the age of 14 and tried as an adult. He will not be eligible to go before a parole board until he is 70.
"I will die in prison," he said. "But I work as hard as I do so that one day I can be a teacher like you."
In the Christian faith this is called resurrection.