A Helping Hand

Local journalist and author Mitch Albom grapples with faith, spirituality and hope in his newest novel.

If you cried out for help, would you recognize it if it came your way? Or would your inner skeptic brush it aside? 

That is the question at the core of Mitch Albom’s newest best-selling novel, Stranger in the Lifeboat (Harper), which hit shelves in November. The Detroit Free Press columnist and sportswriter who rose to national acclaim with his 2002 memoir Tuesdays with Morrie said he is “stunned” at the brisk pace of sales for his latest novel — which has sold at a faster pace than any of his previous four books combined. The reason, he believes, is that as we enter the second year of a global pandemic, we all could use some help. 

The novel tosses the reader back and forth from land and sea. Ten strangers, survivors of a mysterious explosion aboard the luxury yacht of a billionaire, pool their meager provisions and survival skills as they await their rescue somewhere off the coast of Africa. But when help arrives, in the form of a man who calls himself The Lord, skepticism among the survivors blazes as hot as the sun that beats on them from above.

On land, we meet Jarty LeFleur, a cynical policeman on Montserrat in the Caribbean. Sometime later after the explosion, he discovers a washed-up lifeboat. It is void of any survivors but contains a waterlogged journal written by the book’s protagonist, Benji, who was part of the yacht’s crew. 

“I’ve set up a scenario where people from diverse social and racial and economic backgrounds end up in this lifeboat together,” Albom says. “After three days, they are getting desperate and are all crying out, praying to God in their own way for help. And suddenly they find someone, someone ordinary looking, floating alive in the water. And when they ask him his name and he replies that he is the Lord, instead of giving thanks, they immediately doubt his story. Even after he says, ‘You’ve been calling for me, so I came,’ they still don’t believe it. So, I pose this question to my readers, if help is right in front of you, what do you do with it? If God would suddenly appear before you and you had a minute to ask God something, what would you ask?” 

In some ways, Albom says we have spent the last two years riding out the pandemic on individual lifeboats, asking for help and trying to believe that there's got to be more to life than masks, mandates and hiding from one another. He wrote in a November 2021 Free Press column that Americans are trading in organized religion and spirituality for the church of digital and social media. We have traded in our virtue for learning how to be patient and putting things into long-term perspective for immediate gratification. If things do not go our way immediately, it feels as though God has forsaken us, he said. 

“It seems to me that we often ask for help, or pray, the way we order a sandwich at a diner,” Albom says. “We want it exactly the way we want it. And when there is no immediate answer, we feel forsaken or ignored by God.

“Our prayers get answered but it may not be the answer we were expecting,” he says. “Or the answer may take years. It’s just that we don’t have that kind of patience. We lack the foresight.” 

After reading many of Albom’s novels, one would get the notion that he is obsessed with death and mortality. He would like to put that misconception to rest. 

“Yes, the characters in the lifeboat, and other characters in my novels, have been faced with death, but it is facing that reality that makes them examine what's really important in life. We need to be fascinated by the bigness of life. If I’m obsessed with anything, it is about trying to find meaning and hopefulness in the lives as we live.”

Albom’s search has led to the creation of multiple local charities including SAY Detroit, an umbrella organization providing health, educational vocational, recreational, and other services to Detroit’s most underserved residents. 

During the pandemic, Albom raised $1 million for SAY with Human Touch, a novel he wrote in eight installments that people could read online in exchange for suggested donations.  With this money, SAY opened the city’s first walk-up COVID testing center on Eight Mile and eventually a vaccination center at the SAY medical clinic in Highland Park. 

In the racially charged summer of 2020, SAY Detroit launched the Better Together program. It was created and organized by Darryl Woods, a former wrongfully charged convict, now minister and founder of Fightin’ the Good Fight, a youth mentoring program. Better Together welcomes at-risk youth, people with a prior record and off-duty police officers to grill and eat together in neighborhoods across the city. The catch: No one knows who’s who until the end of the meal when they start to share their back stories. 

“You’ve got gang members grilling burgers and hot dogs with off-duty police officers and they don’t know it. And by the end of the meal, you’ve got people hugging and exchanging contact information. For many, it’s the first time they’ve had a conversation with a law enforcement officer. And the officers are telling the youth that if [they see police brutality] they want to know, because not all police are bad. And we have done dozens of these barbecues all over the city.” 

Though conditions in Haiti continue to deteriorate, Albom still makes monthly visits there to the Have Faith Haiti Mission and Orphanage he has run since 2010. Albom said travel in the island country has become increasingly difficult, and the security situation plus the pandemic has prevented the orphans from venturing outside the mission compound, which is about one-third of an acre, in two years. 

The plot of Stranger in the Lifeboat includes two little girls who were both lost one way or another to the sea. In his own real life, Albom, together with his wife, Janine, have been working through their own grief at the loss of their daughter, Chika Jeune. Adopted from her native Haiti, Albom said Chika made a family for him and Janine before she died at age seven in 2017 after battling a rare brain tumor. 

If he wrote Finding Chika (2019), in memory of his daughter, in pain, Albom said he wrote The Stranger in the Lifeboat “in healing.” He said he and Janine are ever grateful that they had the opportunity to be a family with Chika in midlife, and it is proof that life takes you on unexpected and unexplained paths that go beyond human creation or intervention.

“I still think there's room for miracles in the world, that there are some things that happen that are unexplainable,” Albom says. “That give us a sense of hope and awe. I wanted to celebrate that notion, that way of thinking, with this book.” 

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