I was supposed to be in Americus, Georgia, to build houses. But Millard Fuller, the cofounder of Habitat for Humanity, is a moving target.
"Alabama is having a hearing tomorrow in Montgomery on the death penalty," Fuller told me. "The legislature wants to change from the electric chair to lethal injection. There's another amendment to declare a moratorium. I'm going over there to speak against the death penalty. I'm not going as a representative of Habitat for Humanity but as an individual. Do you want to come along?"
Fuller lives in Americus, in Sumter County, where Habitat for Humanity is headquartered, and where he wants to achieve the new goal for Habitat: the elimination of poverty housing. Six hundred homes have been built in this place next door to Jimmy Carter's Plains. Over the last several years, the local Habitat affiliates have used Holy Week for blitz builds (erecting multiple homes in a short time). In 1999 they built 25 houses for Holy Week. But next year, Y2K will bring 100 new homes and the elimination of substandard housing in Sumter County.
"You've got to understand," one Southern friend tells me, "in the South, substandard means black. Whites do not live in substandard housing."
Imagine that Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Birmingham march was sponsored by AT&T. Picture Dorothy Day feeding striking workers with staff and food donated by the McDonald's corporation. This is the nature of Millard Fuller's accomplishment. He has taken a radical Christian vision (building homes for poor people), inspired in the midst of a radical Christian community (Clarence Jordan's Koinonia Farm), and sold it to corporate and mainstream America. And they bought it.
So far, Habitat has built 26,000 homes in the U.S. and over 45,000 homes internationally. Oprah has sponsored homes. Congress has sponsored homes. Housewives have sponsored and built homes. Banks and Fortune 500 companies have sponsored homes.
And why does Habitat build homes? "Because of Jesus," says Fuller. "We are putting God's love into action."
* * *
Fuller is six-five, thin as a rail, always on the move, with eyes that seem focused on three moves ahead of where you are—which is not very comforting when you are riding in the passenger's seat (for six hours).
"When you do word associations and you say Jesus, what words come to mind?" he asks me, warming up for the hearings and press conference. "Does the word revenge come to mind? You know that book, In His Steps? If you think about what Jesus would do, there's no way you're going to come up with the answer 'Jesus would want us to kill this so-and-so because he killed my daughter.'
"It's interesting. I've tried several murder cases as a lawyer, and when you question jurors prior to the trial, you hardly will ever find a black person in the South that supports the death penalty. When you ask, 'Why do you oppose the death sentence?' they will typically give you one of two answers: 'Because I'm a Baptist and the Bible teaches "Thou shalt not kill"' or 'Two wrongs don't make a right.' "
Fuller was not born a radical; he was born an entrepreneur. When his father gave him a pig, he fed it and sold it at a profit. At Auburn University, he was the youngest program director of Junior Achievement in the nation. At the University of Alabama law school, he met his future business partner, Morris Dees. "Our goal was not to solve some great problem of society. We had a burning desire to be fabulously rich. "We made bookends, lamps, got into selling holly wreaths, doormats; we bought land; we renovated apartments. We were making $50,000 a year by the time we graduated from law school. Then we went down to Montgomery, Alabama, and opened up a law office. Again, the point of practicing law was to make money: get the cases that would produce the most money. No interest in how we could right some wrong.
"So we started selling tractors and gave away tractors as prizes. Then we sold cookbooks, and it became a huge success: Favorite Recipes of American Home Economics Teachers and Favorite Recipes of New England, … of the Deep South, … of Lions Clubs: A Lion in the Kitchen. We sold them by the millions. But all of that was for one purpose: making a lot of money."
I had to interrupt the sermon I saw coming. "But what if you do that and give away half of it? Is it wrong in itself to try to get rich?"
"My point is," he says looking at me and not at the road, "when you decide to do one thing, you preclude doing something else. It's like anything in life. You can drink alcohol in moderation, and it has no negative influence. But if it be comes an obsession, it can wreck your life. I was obsessed with making money."
* * *
The Alabama countryside streaming by the windshield made Fuller nostalgic. "I married Linda when I was a senior in law school. I virtually abandoned her when we went to Montgomery. I got her a big house and a Lincoln Continental, with a driver and a maid and everything. But she had no husband, because first thing in the morning I would go to work. I might or might not come home for supper. If I did, I went back to the job, and I was there till midnight.
"I never abandoned the church. In fact, Linda and I started a church in our living room. But it was not first in my life.
"You know, the Bible teaches you to seek the kingdom first. Church and the kingdom were not even close to the top of my list." Linda begged and pleaded with Millard to spend time at home with her and the growing family. Nothing got through to him until the day she left for New York City to get counseling and decide if the marriage should continue. "When I almost lost Linda, it was a very traumatic event, because I had lost my mother when I was three. My wife and my family were very important to me. I realized that I had gone into this headlong rush for material wealth, and I paid a heavy price for it."
Millard followed Linda to New York to try to convince her to come back. She was not easily convinced he could change. "We were in a taxi right after Linda and I had a very tearful session. We'd gone to Radio City Music Hall and they showed the movie Never Too Late. It was about a woman getting pregnant after she thought it was too late. The message was that it's never too late to change anything. I had a sensation of light in that taxi. It was not anything spooky. All I can say is it just came in my head: give your money away, make yourself poor again, and throw yourself on God's mercy. I turned to Linda and said, 'I believe that God just gave me the idea to give all our money away; give everything away.'
"She said, 'I agree. Let's do it.' "
Friends, family, even pastors tried to talk them out of it. "I told them no, if I think about it I won't do it, because it's not logical. But I believe that God is calling us to do this."
The only person who thought it was a wonderful idea was Clarence Jordan. "Somebody once said, When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. When we went back to south Georgia, I met Clarence Jordan."
Jordan had won some fame from his writing of the Cotton Patch Version of the New Testament and some local infamy for starting an interracial Christian community in Sumter County. The Fuller family eventually moved in.
"Clarence Jordan thought more like Jesus than anybody I ever met. When Jesus was confronted with a difficult situation, he would turn the heat back on the questioner. Clarence was like that. One time, he was making a speech. At the end, this guy stood up and said, 'Folks, this man is a good talker, but you need to understand, he's a Communist.' So Clarence says, 'Sir, why do you say I'm a Communist?' 'Well,' he says, 'you fraternize with Miles Horton'—a famous white union organizer and civil-rights supporter. The man says, 'I got it on good report that Miles Horton's been down to Koinonia, and you all have had meetings together, and everybody knows Miles Horton's a Communist, and birds of a feather flock together. So I know you're a Communist.'
"Clarence says, 'Well, I'll readily admit that Miles Horton's been to Koinonia. I think he's a fine man, and we've given him hospitality at Koinonia. Sir, if you showed up at Koinonia, we'd give you hospitality. But you know, I really have trouble with your logic, sir. I don't think my talking to Miles Horton makes me a Communist any more than my talking to you right now makes me a jackass.'
"Clarence had this incredible sense of humor. Koinonia was selling pecans to the tourists out there on Highway 19, and some locals didn't like that and so they burned the stand down one night. Clarence went out there and built it back, and then someone put dynamite in it and blew it up. So Koinonia got the message they weren't going to be selling any more stuff on the highway. So Clarence started selling pecans through the mail with the advertising slogan, 'Help Us Ship the Nuts Out of Georgia.' "
Living on a radical Christian commune didn't mean that the entrepreneur in Fuller had died. "I don't think a person's character ever basically changes in life. Your goals change. I've never worked harder in my life than with Habitat, but my goals have changed." In the late sixties, Fuller had the idea of cooperating with the poor in building houses for them. Soon the foundations for Habitat were laid: Build no-profit homes with no-interest mortgages in partnership with the poor who need to invest "sweat equity" by helping to build the house.
It worked in Sumter County. And after Jordan died, Fuller tried out his housing philosophy in Zaire as a missionary for the United Church of Christ. It worked there, too. When he returned, Millard and Linda Fuller had a vision for a new type of ministry, which in 1976 became Habitat for Humanity.
* * *
"This is Holy Week. We're coming up to the death penalty of Jesus. The only legitimate rationale for the death penalty is revenge, because all the studies have shown it doesn't deter crime.
"If you're looking for revenge, you don't need injections; you need to have crucifixions, because that's where you get more suffering. Don't change it from the electric chair to injection. Let's go from the electric chair to crucifixion. Let's do it the way they did it to Jesus."
That is what he told a subcommittee of the Alabama legislature. The scary part was one member thought it was a good idea. Still, the subcommittee tabled the measure. The electric chair is still how the state kills in Alabama.
Fuller refused to relinquish the steering wheel for the trip back. The day before, he and I worked on a house that would soon belong to Diane and her four kids. "She hugged me and said, 'God bless you for what you're doing.' Well, providing a home place for Diane makes me a rich man.
"My father came out of abject poverty in Chambers County, Alabama. My father's father came down with rheumatism when my dad was about 17 years old. My dad then had to support the family. They were sharecroppers.
"Some friends of my dad once asked me, after he had been dead many years, 'Where was your father's home place?' Well, when they asked me that question, I just dissolved in tears because my daddy never had a home place. They never owned anything. I realized at that moment sometimes you never know where something comes from deep inside of you."
* * *
"I really believe that God brought me and Clarence Jordan together because Clarence was a purist, and I'm attracted to idealism. But I'm also a practical man, and I've been able to wed the ideal with the practical and make it possible for Bell South to be out here and Oprah and Maxwell House Coffee and others.
"I realize that you get a lot of these people with a mixed motivation. Maxwell House Coffee isn't in Habitat for Humanity because they just have this pure idealism of helping the poor. They know it's good for selling Maxwell House Coffee.
"Somebody once said, 'Most people act themselves into a new way of thinking instead of thinking themselves into a new way of acting.' So you get them out there, and they come to devotions and revival services. You've got Bell South and Residential Funding Corporation, and GMAC all listening. You're telling people, 'You know what you've been doing here this week? You've been doing God's work.'
"Time and time again, I've had women come to me and say, 'Thank God for Habitat for Humanity. It brought my husband back to church. He hadn't been to church in 20 years. He started volunteering for Habitat for Humanity, and three months ago, he woke up on Sun day morning and said, 'I want to go to church with you.' "
* * *
"Habitat is for a time the darling of the Left and the Right. We've got Jerry Falwell's Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg building a house every year, and they take up the Christmas offering for Habitat for Humanity. Then you've got the Unitarian Universalists building houses.
"We have formed a Shalom Fund so Jewish people will feel appreciated and welcomed, without Habitat compromising being a Christian organization.
"We had Newt Gingrich and Jimmy Carter working on the same Habitat house in Kentucky. You've got the young and the old and the prisoners. Jack Kemp heads our Rebuilding Our Communities campaign.
"So I think it is up to us to take the maximum advantage of this opportunity to deliver a message: that our faith makes it incumbent on us to be leaven and light and salt in society. I often make an analogy of Habitat with leaven, be cause it only takes a small amount of leaven to make a whole loaf rise.
"Habitat is a small organization with a big idea, and the idea is that everybody who gets sleepy now will have a place to sleep. There's a profound theological basis for that, because God, clearly revealed in the Bible, is the God of the whole crowd. Ninety-nine sheep safe in the fold. Most people would say, 'That's wonderful. What's one little sheep? Just close the gate.' But God is the God of the whole crowd. He wants everybody fed, everybody watered, everybody clothed, everybody housed. So if you live in a community where some of your citizens are living in substandard housing, you've got work to do.
"I think the church has got to understand that if we're going to be relevant in the modern age, you've got to be creative in presenting the message. You can't just go to church, open up the hymnbooks and sing 'Just As I Am' for the 9,876th time. Our example is Jesus. Some of his most powerful teaching was by a pond, standing in a boat, talking about fish, talking about what was going on at that time. Habitat takes the Christian message and puts it out in a subdivision and says, 'Here's what Christianity is about. Let us get together and build houses for these people who are living in squalor so they'll have a good place to live, and you'll see the kingdom.'
"I'm very sincere about this: we need the evangelical influence in Habitat for Humanity. You can read all the literature about Habitat, and it is very plain that the Christian witness is very important. It is front and center in everything. But what has happened is that Habitat has become popularized. When I'm on the video of 33 flights a day of United Airlines going over to Europe, it's not just a bunch of evangelical Christians that are seeing the video. You've got people of every belief on earth watching the video; but that's a wonderful opportunity. It seems to me that evangelicals ought to see Habitat for Humanity as a vehicle for communicating the Christian faith.
"Habitat for Humanity invites the world to join us, and more and more of them are coming. When Oprah Winfrey gets on the tube and says, 'Let's build some Habitat houses,' thousands of people respond.
"Well, that's a glorious opportunity if we've got an organization in place thoroughly infiltrated with dedicated Christians. Then these people will hear the Christian message. But if all the evangelicals have retreated to the sanctuary and have locked up the doors and they're back there meditating on Jesus behind stained-glass windows, where is the witness?"
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