I drove to Hamilton, N.Y., last December to take part in the funeral service for the Rev. Coleman Brown. Coleman, who had taught at Colgate University, had the most profound impact of all my teachers on my education. I took seven courses as an undergraduate in religion. He taught six of them. But his teaching extended far beyond the classroom. The classroom was where he lit the spark.
He was brilliant and slightly eccentric. Concerned one winter day that the heating system in Lawrence Hall was making us students too comfortable and complacent, he opened the windows, sending blasts of snow into the room as we sat huddled in our jackets. He had a habit of repeatedly circling words on the blackboard with chalk, leaving behind series of massive white rings and faint white streaks on his face (he repeatedly ran his index and middle fingers down his cheek as he spoke). His worn tweed coats seemed to always have a soft coating of chalk dust.
He was loved, often adored, by most of his students, whom he looked upon as an extended family. His office hours were packed. He regularly brought groups of students home for meals and evenings with him and his wife, Irene, and their four children. Three decades later, some of the most vivid memories I have of Colgate are of doggedly following him out of the classroom to continue the conversation he had begun in class, of meeting him weekly in his office, of listening to his sermons on Sunday mornings in the chapel, of dinners at his house and, finally, after my graduation, of bursting into tears in front of my parents as I said goodbye to him.
Education is not only about knowledge. It is about inspiration. It is about passion. It is about the belief that what we do in life matters. It is about moral choice. It is about taking nothing for granted. It is about challenging assumptions and suppositions. It is about truth and justice. It is about learning how to think. It is about, as James Baldwin wrote, the ability to drive “to the heart of every matter and expose the question the answer hides.” And, as Baldwin further noted, it is about making the world “a more human dwelling place.”
I wanted to learn. Coleman wanted to teach. And my education—my real education—is not discernable from my college transcript. Coleman and I met late Friday afternoons each week in his book-lined office. There and in class he introduced me to the theologians Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, William Stringfellow and Daniel Berrigan. I devoured the books he gave me, especially Niebuhr’s “Moral Man and Immoral Society,” which I read and reread. He gave me poems by John Donne, W.H. Auden and T.S. Eliot. He taught me the importance of C.S. Lewis and Fyodor Dostoevsky. I read “The Brothers Karamazov” twice in college because of Coleman, although the novel was never taught in any of my classes.
Coleman would read poems and cherished prose passages out loud as I met with him in his office. It was about the musicality of language. His sonorous voice rose and dipped with intonations and emphasis. To this day I still hear his recitation in pieces of writing and poems. He understood, as Philip Pullman writes, that “the sound is part of the meaning, and that part only comes alive when you speak it,” that even if you do not at first understand the poem “you’re far closer to the poem than someone who sits in silence looking up meanings and references and making assiduous notes.” Coleman had open disdain for New Criticism, the evisceration of texts into sterile pieces of pedantry that fled from the mysterious, sacred forces that great writers struggle to articulate. You had to love great writing before you attempted to analyze it. You had to be moved and inspired by it. You had to be captured by the human imagination. He once told me he had just reread “King Lear.” I recited a litany of freshly minted undergraduate criticism, talking about subplots, themes of blindness and the nature of power. He listened impassively. “Well,” he said when I had finished. “I don’t know anything about that. I only know it made me a better person and a better father.” I would spend the week memorizing poems he had read to me—Auden’s “September 1, 1939” and “Epitaph on a Tyrant,” Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi,” passages of Shakespeare—and return the following Friday to recite them to him.
Poetry, he taught me, is alive. It must be felt. It has a hypnotic power that, as Shakespeare understood, is a kind of witchcraft. And poetry, along with all other writing, is just a spent, dead force if you do not surrender to its spell.
“If you graduate knowing how to read and write, you will be educated,” Coleman said.
I was a writer, but the two people who most influenced my life—my father and Coleman—were Presbyterian preachers and social activists. Coleman, before he went to teach at Colgate, had been a minister in an inner-city church in Chicago. As a seminarian at Union Theological Seminary he had worked in East Harlem. He was involved in the Chicago Freedom Movement, which was a tenant action collaboration with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and, like my father, he was a member of Clergy and Concerned Laymen, a group of religious leaders who opposed the Vietnam War. Martin Luther King Jr. preached at Coleman’s church in Chicago (an event for which Coleman could not be present).
A descendant of the abolitionist John Brown, he placed at the center of his critique of American society the poison of white supremacy and the nightmare of racism that had been and remains part of our body politic. Being educated meant understanding how racism and white supremacy were ingrained in the beliefs, institutions, laws and systems of power—especially capitalism—that ruled America. And I felt, largely because of the example of Coleman’s life, that I should become an inner-city minister. I applied to Harvard Divinity School during my senior year at Colgate, an application for which my Shakespeare professor, Margaret Maurer, as she later told me, ruefully wrote a recommendation that informed the admissions committee that I had probably read more books than any other student she had taught but that “unfortunately most of them were never assigned.” This was true in a formal sense. But of course Coleman had informally assigned many of them.
When I was accepted at Harvard, Coleman announced he would teach me how to preach. He was one of the finest preachers I have ever heard. There was and is no course at Colgate University in preaching. But that spring, in the basement of the chapel, there became one, although it would never be noted in the registrar’s office. I wrote a weekly sermon. Coleman sat in a chair in front of me and took notes in felt pen on a yellow legal pad. For all his compassion and gentleness, he was possessed of an intellect that was uncompromising and intimidating. My sermons were torn to shreds under his critique. I would be sent back to do them again. And again. And again. At the end of the semester he seemed satisfied.
“Now you know how to preach,” he told me. “Don’t let anyone change you.”
This truth did not escape my homiletics professor at Harvard, Krister Stendahl, who pulled me aside after my first sermon to the class and asked, “Where did you learn to preach?” I won the divinity school’s preaching prize.
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.Wait, before you go…
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