Habitat for Humanity: Interracial Organization Builds Houses and Dreams

By Starling, Kelly | Ebony, November 1997 | Go to article overview

Habitat for Humanity: Interracial Organization Builds Houses and Dreams


Starling, Kelly, Ebony


A Black Southerner needed help. White Southerner needed to give. In 1996, in the middle of America's biggest racial crisis, they became the keepers of each other's dreams.

The Black Georgian, Joseph (Bo) Johnson, had scraped together money to buy some land, but had nothing left to build a home. White Alabama native Millard Fuller, a successful entrepreneur who had given away his million-dollar fortune, considered Johnson's situation and saw a chance to give his life new meaning.

So Fuller and a friend, Clarence Jordan, founder of an interracial Christian community, helped the Johnson family get a no-interest loan to finance a mortgage. They solicited gifts of materials and volunteer labor to build the house. When the Johnsons moved from a beaten up shack into their new home, a vision shaped in Fuller's mind how he could help others. In 1976, he founded Habitat for Humanity International, a nonprofit Christian organization that he pledged would help eliminate dilapidated housing in the world.

Since then, the dream of Bo Johnson and Millard Fuller has become an international vision shared by homeowners and volunteers across the globe. Habitat's mission has been endorsed by U.S. presidents--including Jimmy Carter, who sponsors a work project each year, and Bill Clinton, corporate executives like Maxwell House CEO Ann Fudge, who has pledged her company will build 100 houses in 100 weeks, and celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, Louis Gossett Jr. and LeVar Burton. Indeed, its vision helps people of all races cross America's divide. Fuller says Habitat for Humanity's work is successful because it embraces God's gospel.

"True religion must be more than singing and dancing. It has to be action," Fuller says. "That's what we in Habitat call the theology of the hammer. While we may differ politically or theologically, we can all agree on a hammer."

From its beginnings, the group blossomed--even though some say its success flies in the face of logic. Habitat follows what Founder/President Fuller calls the "economics of Jesus." That means Habitat believes as it says in the Bible that no interest should be charged to the poor. The organization offers no-interest mortgages and accepts small down payments. Profits go back into building more homes. Since its founding, the organization has helped build more than 60,000 houses in 54 countries.

Fuller says the organization has endured because of its God-centered principles and its power to help people realize their dreams. Along with volunteers, prospective homeowners devote hundreds of hours of labor to help construct their houses. For many, it's their first time picking up a hammer. Habitat workers become their friends-counseling them in money management, home maintenance and the simple business of living.

"We build people," Fuller says. "We build relationships. Love makes anything grow. We show that love by being more concerned about the people who live in the houses than the houses themselves."

Like the Johnsons, many of Habitat's new U.S. homeowners are African-Americans. But Blacks have been working in the organization since its start.

"African-Americans play a very integral role, not only in the United States but also in Africa," Fuller says. "People of African descent have been involved from the lowest levels to the highest positions."

The chairman of the board of directors, Attorney Wayne R. Walker, is Black. So is Midwest Regional Director Bill Ward, who directs operations in nine states. Fuller estimates about 40 percent of his Americus, Gal-based staff is African-American. The history of Blacks in Habitat for Humanity is rich. But Fuller and Walker hope the participation by Blacks of all levels will increase as the organization enters the millennium.

"We have an increasing number of African-Americans getting involved with Habitat, but we are nowhere near where we ought to be," Walker says.

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