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Wealth effects

Q&A | Roberta Green Ahmanson on poverty, affluence, faith, art, and journalism

Issue: "Ready or not, here we go," March 28, 2009

(Second in a series focused on people who have already had dynamic careers and are still passionate about their work.)

Roberta Green Ahmanson, 59, is a graduate of Calvin College and an editor of the new book Blind Spot: When Journalists Don't Get Religion (see WORLD, Feb. 14). A quarter century ago, when we met, she was one of the rare American journalists with a Reformed evangelical worldview. She became a philanthropist when she married Howard Ahmanson in 1986 and joined him in supporting a variety of Christian and secular charities and causes. They have one son.

Q: Did you grow up in affluence?

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I grew up working class, to use Marxist terms. My father had dirt under his fingernails. He was a railroad engineer, his father was a railroad brakeman, and most of the other men in my family worked for the railroad. Perry, Iowa, is a town that was one of the original magic towns-they grew up overnight, like magic-when the railroad went across America. Now, the railroad is gone and the main employer is a meat packer. As my husband likes to say, it had a population of 7,000 in 1900 and a population of 7,000 in 2000.

Q: So you got out of Perry.

I couldn't get out of there fast enough. The first summer after graduation I got an internship with the Federal Power Commission which later became the Department of Energy. I got paid because my uncle worked there, but I had three- and four-hour lunches which was my first introduction to how Washington works. During those lunches I used to sneak off and go to the National Gallery of Art.

Q: Then you went to college.

I went to Grand Rapids Baptist College, now Cornerstone College in Grand Rapids, Mich. I went there for two years and then had a professor who saved my life by telling me I had to go to Calvin College before I lost what was left of my faith and my sanity.

Q: Why were you losing your faith?

I grew up in a self-described fundamentalist Baptist church in a time when the rules about behavior were very strict. You don't drink, you don't dance, you don't smoke, you don't go to movies, you don't play face cards. You basically couldn't do anything. The worldview was really us versus them. At Grand Rapids the rules were even stricter than when I was at home. Plus, I had a lot of questions and it just wasn't an environment that wanted you to ask questions.

Q: You went to Calvin College, but had a crisis of faith there.

I quit going to church and couldn't decide if I wanted to be a Christian or not. I kept calling one of my old professors, telling him I wanted to die. One day I called him and he said, "Listen, you've got to decide if you want to live or die and when you make the decision call me back and I can help you, but until then there's nothing I can do"-and he hung up the phone. I cried for about three hours and spent that Easter Sunday in a park in Grand Rapids, Mich., reading the Bible. I thought, "There's no two ways about it; I think Christianity is true."

Q: You eventually made it to Southern California as a religion reporter.

I was a copy editor at the San Bernardino Sun. One night they took the religion reporter out in a straitjacket because he holed himself up in the men's restroom and refused to come out. The next morning the news editor said to me, "Would you like to be the religion reporter?" It was the most wonderful job; I loved every minute of it. One of my goals in life is to first of all get people to take religion seriously.

Q: After you married Howard Ahmanson, how did you get used to being rich?

As my Marxist friend would say, I "jumped class." Suddenly I'm marrying someone whose family name is on half the buildings in downtown Los Angeles. It was a shock.

Q: In what ways has wealth been both blessing and curse?

It's been a curse in the toll it has taken on my husband's family. That part was a curse. It's a blessing in that I've seen great good that's come from some of the work that's been done because my husband was able to give the money to either get it started or keep it going or enable people to do something.

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