Before Bono, Buffet and Gates, Millard Fuller was the world’s celebrity philanthropist.
Recognized not for the riches he gave away but for building that great vessel of pragmatic spirituality and sweat equity, Habitat for Humanity.
Millard embodied the genius of simplicity. No idea was too trivial, too big or too implausible. He made his first fortune, after all, selling mistletoe and tractor-seat cushions with his friend Morris Dees while still in law school at the University of Alabama.
His idea in response to the affordable housing challenge was a proposition of such bare-boned beauty that it’s been likened to the joy of frontier barn-raisings. He simply asked folks to go beyond writing the check and come build the house — dig the trench, drive the nail, raise high the roof beam.
Global human capitalism: It happens, now, every week around the world — Atlanta, L.A., New York City, Zambia, Ireland, South Korea, the Philippines, Kyrgyzstan … What next idea will emerge with the equivalent satisfying simplicity of giving the dollar and swinging the hammer?
Habitat’s success has obscured its origins. The idea sprang from the unlikely collision of two forceful personalities whose steep trajectories flamed out in the 1960s.
One was the rich man in Montgomery, Alabama, Millard Fuller. In a cathartic moment at the height of a run of greed, Millard suddenly gave away his money and possessions, not to follow Jesus but to save his marriage to Linda (without whom he no doubt would have achieved less, and some would say, less would have been forgiven. Whatever, anyone who knows Linda knows Millard did the right thing).
The other was Clarence Jordan, co-founder in 1942 of Koinonia Farm, an agricultural missionary enterprise and “demonstration plot” for Christian communal living along the Dawson Road between Americus and Plains, Georgia. Clarence, too, was at a painful inflection point. For more than two decades, he and the Koinonia community had withstood bombings, gunfire, the Ku Klux Klan, an economic boycott and the ostracism of local churches, all for opening its work, worship, meal times and housing to local black tenant farmers and visitors of other races and cultures.
By 1966, Koinonia had dwindled to a handful. As Clarence said at the time, “An integrated Christian community was a practical vehicle through which to bear witness to a segregated society … Now it is too slow, too weak, not aggressive enough.” But what next? He questioned whether the farm had a further role to play. Perhaps he should give to some other charitable group, move to Atlanta, just travel and teach.
If fate is hindsight, then what came next was foreordained. Down the Dawson Road one day in 1966 came Millard and Linda. Back to basics, back in love and praying for purpose, they turned into Koinonia Farm, thinking to visit an old friend who had moved there, Al Henry, former pastor of the Pilgrim Congregational Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
As they sat down to lunch in the farm’s communal dining room, Clarence Jordan walked in from the fields. A reporter was with him, asking about big things — war and peace, racial tensions, religion. Millard was stunned by what he overheard. “I knew this wasn’t any ordinary farmer,” Millard said. “I knew I wanted to talk to that man.”
Indeed, Clarence Jordan was an authentic sun-baked farmer, in old jeans and red mud, but also urbane, prone to read, study and write, with a doctorate in New Testament Greek and family roots branching from Talbotten, Georgia, into business, law and politics (one nephew was the late Hamilton Jordan).
Millard grew up near Lanett, Alabama, raising pigs, hunting and playing baseball. He pitched in a semi-pro league and threw out his arm, which added a curiously bent swing to his gait as he pursued every notion with preternatural enthusiasm and maddening certainty. As Linda Fuller says, “Millard only had two speeds: fast-forward and stop. Mostly fast-forward.”
Millard stayed on at Koinonia for weeks, walking and talking with Clarence every day. It was a conversion experience. The fire returned to his belly as he imagined mobilizing his entrepreneurial instincts for some greater good. For Clarence, the encounter was tantamount to resurrection. The stone of uncertainty rolled away. Once again he felt that “something big is brewing,” as Tom Key captured in the “Cotton Patch Gospel.”
Over the next two years, Millard stayed in close communication with Clarence while in New York serving as a fund-raiser for Mississippi-based Tougaloo University. Long story short, their brainstorming — together and with a growing band of interested supporters — led to a theme around partnership. A Trinitarian movement emerged under the banner of Koinonia Partners: Build homes. Create jobs. Teach the Word.
In 1968, Millard and family moved full time to Koinonia Farm and Millard necessarily became the ramrod, the builder. Clarence — for all his courage, brilliance and sturdy physicality — could inspire and articulate the vision but had few clues how to execute.
Millard had no need of clues and no doubts to entertain if a thing simply needed doing. He was a natural born doer-in-chief. He could see so clearly how to shepherd actions and consequences in desired directions that he literally just started.
“War on wealth”
So began a new era at Koinonia Farm with Millard taking the lead, striding the grounds, swinging his pitched-out left arm, grinning, hugging and encouraging everybody.
At the heart of the matter was a play on the politically conceived War on Poverty — a “War on Wealth.” That is, a way of sharing that would make the rich man a partner of the poor, the educated a partner of the uneducated, the skilled a partner of the unskilled.
Clarence was enlivened. Long accused of managing a communist collective, he enjoyed reminding everyone, “We’ve got a body of ideas here that the Marxists can’t hold a candle to.”
Starting with the mailing list for Koinonia’s long-standing direct mail candy and pecan business, they launched the Fund for Humanity and solicited donations. The intent was to purchase land that could be farmed in partnership, used for small business partnerships, and parceled into home sites for houses to be built by volunteers and sold to needy families using no-interest financing.
While Clarence continued traveling, teaching and working on his Cotton Patch Gospel interpretations of the New Testament, Millard carved two dirt streets into an uncultivated section of the farm and launched the first attempts at developing sustainable, repeatable home building plans.
He recruited experienced volunteers to start a sewing factory and a brick-making business, hoping to produce bricks for the houses. He “partnered” volunteers educated in agriculture — or willing to work and learn — with former tenant farmers who had spent lifetimes fighting with few resources to get yields from the red clay soil.
The new rule: no more commune. The inward-looking demonstration plot was now destined to be a base for outward-bound initiatives. You were welcome to come, but only if you brought useful know-how, a marketable skill, the wit and experience to pull your own weight and finance your own life.
Age of Aquarius
Well, exactly the opposite occurred, beginning in 1969 and accelerating after Clarence’s sudden death in the fall of that year. The 1960s were flaming into the 1970s, with a war still raging, rebellion still flowering and a lot of bright, energetic (though mostly unskilled) young people dropping out and hitting the road, looking for some collaborative, meaningful dream to invest themselves in. Down the Dawson road they came — hitchhiking, on motorcycles, in old cars, in church buses.
It was a joyous era filled with music and physical energy. Millard, coping with the loss of his spiritual mentor Clarence, felt a keen responsibility, like a camp counselor accountable to parents. It was comical, at times, how he strove with puritanical fire to keep a modicum of restraint on the inevitable. But the farm had simply become campus-like.
The benefits were three-fold. First, local young people (plus Jimmy Carter’s mother Lillian, fresh back from the Peace Corps) came calling, crumbling the wall of prejudice.
And second, all the young seekers — skilled and otherwise — wanted to work, to get their hands dirty.
And third, a profound question got quickly answered: Can just anyone, without the skills but with skilled supervision, build a house? Absolutely.
In the next few years, Koinonia Partners’ job-creating initiatives failed to take root, but the little seed of housing bloomed and spread. Millard marshaled the resources into that channel, began preaching and teaching himself, and raised millions of dollars.
As leadership matured around him at Koinonia Farm, Millard took leave. He and Linda and their four children moved to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) and over the next three years they demonstrated that the housing model could work anywhere. When he returned in 1976, Millard formally established an independent, nonprofit organization in Americus, Georgia, and named it Habitat for Humanity.
Millard died suddenly on February 3, 2009 and was buried the next morning at Koinonia Farm, just as Clarence Jordan was 40 years earlier. The two men had been true partners, gifted men who brought out the distinctively different best in each other.
Clarence Jordan’s way of attracting followers was to stand and bear witness against hate and violence. Surely he had hoped that the influential Carter family down the road in Plains would voluntarily engage.
Millard, on the other hand, was physically and psychically designed for moving against the wind. When former President Jimmy Carter, home in Plains after losing the 1980 election, failed to respond to a letter of invitation to attend a local Habitat project dedication, Millard said in front of news reporters, “President Carter is inattentive to the needs of the poor.”
At Millard’s memorial service at Ebenezer church on March 14, Jimmy Carter told that story. The invitation, he said, had gone undetected among the 30,000 pieces of mail he’d gotten. He and Rosalynn agreed to meet with Millard, but he said they decided in advance only to politely hear him out but then turn him down, citing their own demanding and meaningful schedule.
But, as he told it, Millard walked into the meeting with a legal pad listing 32 actions he wanted the Carters to take on. “Eventually,” Carter said to the delight of the crowd, “we decided to do all of them.”
That is a quintessential glimpse of the kinetic Mr. Fuller: fearless, certain and on the move.
By the time he met Millard in 1966, Clarence Jordan had come to know and define faith as “a life lived in scorn of the consequences.” In 2009, it is a fitting epitaph for both men.