DETROIT — Mitch Albom is many things.
He's an award-winning newspaper columnist, a popular radio show host, an author of best-selling novels and nonfiction books, a screenwriter, a frequent TV guest, and even an accomplished musician and songwriter who has played gigs across the United States and in Europe.
There's also a title on his lengthy resume that sometimes gets overlooked: humanitarian.
Albom's charitable side comes through in his latest book, "Have a Little Faith."
It marks his first foray into long-form nonfiction since the phenomenal success of "Tuesdays With Morrie" more than a decade ago. In the years since, Albom has had a pair of fiction hits – 2003's "The Five People You Meet in Heaven" and "For One More Day," released in 2006. All three were turned into television movies.
Those books focus on the weighty issue of mortality, and "Have a Little Faith" is no different.
"People say, 'How come you always write about life and death?' I say, 'Well, John Grisham always writes about lawyers. Stephen (King) always writes about monsters.' I don't know. It seems like I picked a subject that (will) never run out of importance," Albom says.
As with "Morrie," Albom inserts himself into "Have a Little Faith," but this time he shares the pages with two characters.
One is Albert Lewis, the longtime (since 1948) rabbi of Albom's childhood synagogue in Cherry Hill, N.J. The book opens with the Reb, as Lewis affectionately is known, asking Albom whether he'd be willing to deliver the eulogy when the rabbi dies. The other is the Rev. Henry Covington, who set aside years of drug abuse and lawbreaking to serve God and the homeless at a decaying church in Albom's adopted hometown of Detroit.
That's where Albom the Humanitarian comes into play.
Covington is doing good work through his I Am My Brother's Keeper ministry, using the church to provide food, clothing and shelter to the city's homeless – more than 100 on some nights. But at the same time, Covington isn't able to heat the expansive old building or repair the hole in the roof that allows wind, rain and snow to enter the 1,200-seat sanctuary.
Albom learns of Covington's plight and writes about it in his column in the Detroit Free Press. He donates time and money to get the heat turned back on in time for Christmas Eve services last year.
"That was just disgusting," Albom says one recent night while visiting the church. "It's unforgivable. I know this is a poor city, but nobody needs to be that poor if they're trying to be faithful."
Albom, 51, uses the stories of both men to explore issues of faith, hope, community and the human spirit.
He visits with Lewis over a period of eight years – at first as a kind of interview to get to know the man he'd be eulogizing – and eventually as a close family friend and mentor. Lewis read all Albom's books, the last two of which were written over the time span of their visits.
Lewis ultimately passes on, and Albom's eulogy is included in its entirety in "Have a Little Faith."
As for Covington, the pastor admits to not really knowing much about Albom ahead of their first meeting a year and a half ago. And Albom says he had initial reservations about a man with such a checkered past leading a church – Covington acknowledges having broken all Ten Commandments.
In the book, Albom recounts asking Covington during their first meeting if he had ever been in a synagogue.
"Yeah. When I was a teenager. We were robbing it," says Covington, a New Yorker who moved to Detroit in 1992 to work at the church.
In the months since, the two have developed a close bond – "I've come to love him," Albom says.
And Covington has gained a respect and admiration for Albom.
He calls Albom the "first official Jewish member of the congregation" and marvels at his friend's continued devotion to the church – Albom came around only a few weeks ago to serve dinner to the homeless.
"He's a real person who has genuine care for other people," Covington says.
The pastor has read the book twice and learned a thing or two along the way but not about himself.
"I already knew my life," Covington says. "I didn't know about the rabbi."
And now that the church – which is one block from a liquor store and two from the MotorCity Casino – has its heat back on, the roof is the next big thing that needs fixing.
Seated in a front pew, Albom twirls around, juts his finger upward and points at the massive hole in the sanctuary's ceiling.
"I swear that's going to get fixed by Christmas," he says. "That is my promise to this church and to Henry. If I have to get up there with mud myself, they're not going to go through another winter with that hole."
On the Net:
A Hole in the Roof Foundation: http://www.aholeintheroof.com
I Am My Brother's Keeper ministry: http://www.iammybrotherskeeper-pc.org
Mitch Albom: http://mitchalbom.com
Temple Beth Sholom in Cherry Hill, N.J.: http://www.tbsonline.org