(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?
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.
Q: What have you learned about grantmaking?
That you can kill something with money. Howard gave a big grant early on to a prison ministry and a year later he cut the grant and it went out of business because it counted on him. So he learned you just don't do that. Also, you can't make people do for money what they don't want to do anyway. If you see things you think need to be done in the world, you look around to find the people who share that vision and have the skills, ability, and drive to do those things, and come alongside them. Those have been our most successful grants, and our blessings.
Q: What's been the hardest thing for you?
My father said I had champagne tastes on a beer budget, which for a person who didn't drink was an interesting metaphor. The hardest thing has been learning to be frugal with a lot. Managing money has always been hard for me, but not for my husband-he lived very frugally before he met me. At first it was hard for me because I wasn't working or earning the money, and so I didn't know how I was supposed to spend it.
Q: What art projects have you been involved with that have pleased you the most?
We funded a Caravaggio show three years ago at the National Gallery of Art in London that was voted the best show of the year in Great Britain and one of the top shows in the world that year. About 240,000 people went to that show, which was 18 images and all but three of them were profound Christian images. They're the paintings of a man who's facing himself and facing God and painting out the terror that he felt. People stood in front of them for 20 or 30 minutes at a time.
Q: You now chair the board of the Museum of Biblical Art-MOBIA-in New York City.
Most of the art of the West has been inspired by religious sentiments of one kind or another and far and away the largest influence has been Christian. MOBIA's goal is to be able to put biblical images in their context and to interpret them in light of what they mean, not just how they look or their formal characteristics. I'm really excited about that.
Q: As a Christian, do you look at art differently than others do?
Art interpretation for the past 100 years or more has focused on the formal qualities of art-line, color, structure, technique. More recently, it has become theory-driven. Neither approach looks at the artwork from the point of view of its context or its purpose. And, as we become more and more religiously illiterate, more and more people don't already know the stories in the paintings or sculptures. We no longer know the visual language. MOBIA wants to do something about that.
Q: And you want to do something about religious illiteracy in journalism?
That's the point of Blind Spot. It's the fulfillment of a dream I've had since I was a reporter.