Albom (Mitchel David "Mitch" Albom) writes in the introduction to this book that the idea for it began with the request by Albert L. Lewis, his childhood rabbi, to write and deliver the eulogy when the time came for the rabbi's funeral. Albom agreed, contingent on an agreement that he could begin a series of interviews and conversations, in order to get to know Lewis as a man, not just as a rabbi.
Albom writes that his conversations with Lewis -- whom he refers to as the Reb, an affectionate term drawn from the Yiddish word for rabbi -- eventually led to an increased interest on Albom's part in the power and meaning of faith in a larger sense. In his hometown of Detroit, he forged a link with Pastor Henry Covington, an African-American Protestant minister at the I Am My Brother's Keeper Church. Covington, a past drug-addict, dealer, and ex-convict, was ministering to the needs of his down-and-out parishioners, in an urban church serving a largely homeless congregation, in a church so poor that the roof leaked when it rained.
The book alternates between his conversations with Lewis, and excerpts from some of his sermons; and Life of Henry, the title of the sections describing his conversations with Covington, and stories about him.
From his relationships with these two very different men of faith, Albom writes about the difference faith can make in the world. As Albom writes:
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."
Albom has told interviewers that he believes that the reason Lewis originally asked him to deliver the eulogy may actually have been a way to draw him back to the roots of his own faith, and "back to God a little bit."
Sermon by the Reb
Albom included a number of Lewis's many stories, which were used as mini-sermons for his congregation, in the book. One example is this story, delivered in 1981:
A soldier's little girl, whose father was being moved to a distant post, was sitting at the airport among her family's meager belongings. The girl was sleepy. She leaned against the packs and duffel bags. A lady came by, stopped, and patted her on the head. "Poor child," she said. "You haven't got a home." The child looked up in surprise. "But we do have a home," she said. "We just don't have a house to put it in."
The book, both about individuals with faith and faith itself, concludes with the eulogy that Albom delivered at Lewis's funeral, on February 12, 2008. It included the words:
I didn't want to eulogize you. I was afraid. I felt a congregant could never eulogize his leader. But I realize now that thousands of congregants will eulogize you today, in their car rides home, over the dinner table. A eulogy is no more than a summation of memories, and we will never forget you, because we cannot forget you, because we will miss you every day. To imagine a world without you in it is to imagine a world with a little less God in it, and yet , because God is not a diminishing resource, I cannot believe that.
In addition to the eulogy, the book describes the fact that funeral attendees were surprised to hear a seven-minute taped message from Lewis, which he specifically prepared to be played at the funeral. In it, he delivers his final teaching to his congregation, touching on questions about God and immortality; expressing his gratitude to friends and family for the privilege of knowing them; and ending with the words, Shalom Haverim -- Goodbye, Friends.