Koinonia Farms, in Americus, Georgia, is today better known for the organization it spawned, Habitat for Humanity. But long before Millard Fuller and his wife stepped onto the farm, Koinonia had been practicing racial reconciliation on a community farm. Clarence Jordan founded the farm in 1942, after graduating from Southern Theological Seminary, as a place where blacks and whites would work together, live together, and eat at the same table. In the Deep South, where many churches were strong supporters of segregation, it was considered a radical attempt to live out the Christian life.
Still, the farm was simply an oddity until the civil-rights movement began. When Southerners committed to segregation saw that the Southern way of life was about to end, they attempted to stop anything that challenged the status quo. In the '50s, Koinonia became the target of bombings, drive-by shootings, and, most damaging, an economic boycott.
In February, almost 50 years after the attacks began, PBS stations across the country airedBriars in the Cottonpatch: The Story of Koinonia Farms, a documentary about the community. CT online assistant editor Rob Moll talked to Jim Jordan, Clarence Jordan's son, about growing up at Koinonia.
Koinonia was trying to tear down racial barriers long before it was an issue most people thought about.
Clarence Jordan didn't look at it from the standpoint of trying to break down barriers. He made a point of saying "I'm not trying to change the laws, or change anything other than to live the way I believe Christians should live. If that causes conflict, then so be it."
It came down to the same thing [as what civil-rights workers were doing], but it's the perspective that one is coming from that is important. My dad would not go to the Woolworth's counter in Americus with a black person for the purpose of testing segregation. But if he and a black friend were in Americus at lunchtime and he wanted to eat, the two of them might go there. That was the message of Koinonia, to live the life regardless of consequences.
Living in the South, I guess we knew about segregation, but it was never an issue, except when that came in to a collision course with the activity that was taking place in the South.
So, although it might have been the only integrated community in the South, Koinonia was about living out a Christian life, not a statement about segregation?
We were not trying to prove a point. Well, anyone trying to live a Christian life is trying to prove a point. But it was not to score points.
Long before the Klu Klux Klan and the Citizens Council came into being, the first conflict that Koinonia had was with the churches. The first incident was when a young man from India, who had converted to Christianity, visited Koinonia. And on Sunday, when everyone was going to church, my parents took him. The whole thing blew up unexpectedly. He was a person of another color. My parents were only attempting to share their Christian experience with a friend who happened to be of another color.
When it became clear in the South that the old ways were not going to last forever, and the strong resistance started, Koinonia became a symbol for the change and the lightning rod for the opposition. That's the environment in which we grew up.
What was that like growing up when Koinonia was the object of so much hatred?
For the first 10 to 12 years, the surrounding community may have thought we were weird, but there was no open antagonism. Until about 1954, from '42 to '54, there was no real opposition. We were on good terms with our neighbors.
Then you had two things arise: the organized opposition to desegregation and the effect on our friends and neighbors who suddenly felt themselves isolated and afraid. We had a number of families on the farm, but neighbors and friends, black and white, became afraid to continue a relationship because of their fears about safety and being ostracized. It isolated people who were more open-minded but personally afraid to do anything about it.
It must have been especially difficult for you growing up.
The problem was the suddenness that everything changed. Literally overnight the environment changed. It was impossible to continue to attend the local schools, which were still segregated. Three of my four high school years were spent out of state. You go through things, and you look back on them and think, "How could you do that?" But you do what you have to do, and you don't think about it that much.
Did you feel that it was a stand you were taking, or was it something forced on you by the stand your parents took?
It's hard to figure that out. I got angry at the people who were causing it, but I don't think I ever resented my parents for putting me in that position. We never questioned that it was right. Defending your home and your way of life is different than trying to change things, to look for trouble. We were never looking for trouble.
During those times, the community must have banded together spiritually.
In any adversity, it is only natural to look to where support can come from. That was very definitely a factor. I think that there was also a little bit of the reaction of Job, "Why me, Lord? Why me?" If you're doing what you see to be God's will, then whatever happens, that is his will.
How did that experience positively affect your life?
Growing up on a farm is an incredibly positive experience for anyone. You learn independence, you learn how to cope with unusual situations, and you gain a variety of skills that you absorb, rather than learn.
But that was intensified during the period of the greatest opposition. We learned to be our own mechanics. We learned to fix a tractor that we would have otherwise taken to a repairman. We learned to do all those things that in modern society you hire people for. Because of the economic boycott, I learned to fix a tractor from beginning to end. I can take one apart down to the last bolt and put it back together again. Everyone learned to be self-reliant in an almost pioneering way.
How did that affect your faith today?
I'm not so sure that has carried on to my later life. The very deep faith that my parents had is not genetic.
Copyright © 2005 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Briars in the Cottonpatch: The Story of Koinonia Farms is available from Christianbook.com and other video retailers.
More about Koinonia Farms, including their Wednesday devotions and how to visit, is available from their website.
In The Beloved Community, professor Charles Marsh says that Koinonia has not received proper attention for its role in the civil-rights movement.
CT's cover story on Habitat for Humanity discusses the organization's beginning at Koinonia.
More CT articles on civil rights and reconciliation includes:
Hope Deferred | Christians are uniquely positioned to further racial equality. (June 29, 2004)
One Lord, One Faith, Many Ethnicities | How to become a diverse organization and keep your sanity. (Dec. 30, 2003)
Graham Calls Bigotry a Sin | Evangelist calls for racial healing (July 16, 2002)
Sunday Colors | Dallas churches continue to challenge the racial divide (May 15, 2002)
The Forgotten Founder | The man who altered the course of black Baptist history finally has his say. (March 28, 2002)
Lost Common Cause | Christian focus on racial reconciliation is set back after Cincinnati's riots (June 14, 2001)
To the End, a Baptist Preacher | If you want to know Martin Luther King Jr., consult his sermons. (Jan. 21, 2002)
Separate and Equal | Martin Luther King dreamed of an integrated society. Boston minister Eugene Rivers thinks it was the wrong dream. (August 7, 2001)
Different Worlds | Interviewing blacks and whites in the same cities makes an author realize that these followers of Christ were speaking separate languages. (Oct. 2, 2000)
We Can Overcome | A CT forum examines the subtle nature of the church's racial divisionand offers hope (Sept. 29, 2000)
Shoulder to Shoulder in the Sanctuary | A profile in racial unity. (Sept. 28, 2000)
Common Ground in the Supermarket Line | A profile in racial unity. (Sept. 27, 2000)
The Lord in Black Skin | As a white pastor of a black church, I found the main reason prejudice and racism hurt so much: because we are so much alike (Sept. 25, 2000)
Divided by Faith? | A recent study argues that American evangelicals cannot foster genuine racial reconciliation. Is our theology to blame? (Sept. 22, 2000)
Color-Blinded | Why 11 o'clock Sunday morning is still a mostly segregated hour. (Sept. 22, 2000)
Confessions of a Racist | It wasn't until after Martin Luther King, Jr.'s death that I was struck by the truth of what he lived and preached. By Philip Yancey (posted January 17, 2000)
The March to Montgomery | Christianity Today's coverage of King's historic voting rights march, from our April 9, 1965 issue (posted January 17, 2000)
Catching Up with a Dream | Evangelicals and Race 30 Years After the Death of Martin Luther King, Jr. (March 2, 1998)
Martin Luther King, Jr.: A History | No Christian played a more prominent role in the century's most significant social justice movement than Martin Luther King, Jr. (Jan. 17, 2000)
Breaking the Black/White Stalemate | Jesse Miranda and William Pannell discuss the next step in racial reconciliation. (March 2, 1998)
She Has a Dream, Too | Bernice King talks about her father's death, her call to ministry, and what the church still needs to do about racism. (June 16, 1997)
Will the Walls Fall Down? | Promise Keepers draws a bead on the 'giants' of racism, family breakdown, and church disunity. (Nov. 17, 1997)
Racism | Youth Are Key in Moving Past 'Feel Good' Reconciliation. (Nov. 11, 1996)
(Please note that some of these articles are available exclusively in the CT Library.)