A Harvard psychiatrist is mystified by a six-year-old’s faith.

Child psychiatrist, author, and educator Robert Coles is currently professor of medical humanities and psychiatry at Harvard University. His several books include the multi-volume work, Children of Crisis, which was recognized with a Pulitzer Prize in 1973.

Much of Coles’s research and writing has centered on impoverished children and adults. He is, among many things, an acute and sympathetic observer of the spiritual in the lives of these people. The following article comes from Coles’s early experience in the South, where, during the racial turmoil of the early 1960s, he encountered a special and inexplicable manifestation of grace. The article is adapted from Coles’s Stone Lecture, delivered last year at Princeton Theological Seminary.

To set the scene for this story, remember that it was 1954 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public schools should be desegregated. Six years later, in the fall and winter of 1960, a federal judge pressured New Orleans’s all-white schools to admit black students. This was the first test of the federal will for desegregation in the “Deep” South.

On November 14, after various delays, three black first-graders entered McDonogh School No. 19. Another child started classes at William T. Frantz School. Her name was Ruby Bridges.

When a federal judge ordered four little black girls to go into two white New Orleans elementary schools, you would have thought that the Devil himself had arrived in that old cosmopolitan port city. Fear and anger erupted into street scenes and demonstrations.

I was drafted into the air force in 1958. A psychiatrist, I was put in charge of a psychiatric hospital in ...

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