The Common Good
September-October 2000

Daily Resurrections of Hope

by Sara Wenger Shenk | September-October 2000

The big hearts of small friends.

Jonathan Kozol, whose books have pricked the American conscience, has written a new book that retains a vital continuity with his earlier works but radically departs from them in tone and substance. Ordinary Resurrections: Children in the Years of Hope is a hopeful work filled with children’s revelatory conversations with Kozol. The hard-hitting polemical strains of Kozol’s earlier writings give way to melodies of joy and goodness that flow from many personal encounters between children, teachers, pastor, and parents in Mott Haven, South Bronx, one of the nation’s centers of poverty. It is also a very personal book in which Kozol, a 63-year-old Jewish man, interweaves his own religious reflections with the moral and religious explorations of the children, some of whom have been his friends for nearly seven years.

Kozol acknowledges that in the discipline of writing his earlier books—which focus on school inequalities and medical and social problems of inner city children—he had never had much opportunity to get to know the children in unhurried ways. "I felt a longing," he writes, "to carve out some years in which I could enjoy their company while I still had the health and strength to climb the stairs of their apartment buildings and to wander with them through their neighborhoods and through the hallways of their schools and be with them when they’re at church."

Kozol writes that Mott Haven stands as the "nation’s epicenter for the plague of pediatric and maternal AIDS and remains one of the centers of an epidemic of adult and pediatric asthma that has swept across the inner-city populations of our nation in these years." All of the stories Kozol tells are about children who are black or Latino. All are very poor. Some know hunger several times a month, he says. Many have respiratory problems. Most have lost relatives to AIDS. Some have lived in homeless shelters. A large number see their fathers only when they visit them in prison. And the community is one of the most deeply segregated concentrations of black and Latino people in the nation, with a racial isolation that is accompanied by systemic inequalities in education and high rates of joblessness.

The deeply discouraging conditions, which clearly militate against human flourishing, may quickly overwhelm a sensitive reader. But Kozol takes us with a gentle, loving hand into the hearts of children where hope and goodness are resurrected on a daily basis. The social depravity that threatens to overwhelm becomes the dark background against which the light of kindness and generosity shine more brightly.

Kozol writes, "This is a book about the children’s games and stories, and their silliness and sorrows, and the many intricate and sometimes elegant theologies they manage to create in order to invite into their lives the little mysteries that make them brave." He quotes a teacher who said, "There are some children who are like windows. When you look into those windows you see something more than the kids themselves—more than innocence....You see the deep, inextinguishable goodness at the core of creation."

Kozol takes us with him into his wanderings and conversations; into the classrooms of Mott Haven’s overcrowded and understaffed public schools, and into the sanctuary of St. Ann’s, the Episcopal church that runs an after-school program for children. We walk with him along the streets where multiple shootings have occurred and into the children’s homes.

Kozol describes the children’s staunch allies, the mothers, grandmothers, schoolteachers, principal, and Mother Martha, the parish pastor. He speaks with admiration about the preachers and teachers "who take on the hardest, messiest, and most exhausting work and still come out of it somehow with souls intact and particles of merriment still percolating in their personalities."

Kozol shows us the kindness of the children who have "been acquainted with unusual degrees of loss and sorrow by the time they’re 8 or 9 years old." He highlights the role of religious faith and prayer in fortifying the children to face their problems. He remarks, "I simply think the gifts of faith and fantasy they bring to us are often beautiful and wise in their simplicity. To me, these are the bread and wine; and I am always thankful to receive them."

In his concluding comments Kozol says he goes back to Mott Haven when he can to be renewed in spirit by the "generosity and understanding of the children and the love and courage of the grown-ups at [St. Ann’s]." Ordinary Resurrections is a heartening, down-to-earth, unadorned testimonial of ordinary people who rise every morning to embody the goodness that is at the core of creation.

SARA WENGER SHENK is interim dean of Eastern Mennonite Seminary and the author of And Then There Were Three, Coming Home, and Why Not Celebrate! She is the mother of three children and has a doctorate in Christian Education.

Ordinary Resurrections: Children in the Years of Hope. Kozol, Jonathan. Crown Publishing, 01/01/00.

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