Fuller Center General

Day 3: New Iberia, Louisiana- Sweet and Hot and Hope in the Hood

By Kirk Lyman-Barner
Director of US Field Operations

Today’s visit was with Eleanor and Jimmy Shaw, founders of The Fuller Center of New Iberia, Louisiana which is famous for its sugar cane fields and the home of the Tabasco brand hot sauce.

While we were visiting over lunch I learned that Jimmy is an independent contractor who has many years of experience as a supervisor for the local weatherization program for Community Action.  We had plenty of stories to swap and I learned about the compassion he had for the families whose homes he worked on.  He moved here from Kentucky and started his business from scratch.   He proudly told me his son went to a junior college in Mississippi and then went on to play football for Tulsa.  I asked Jimmy what his son was doing now and he looked down at his watch.   He smiled and said, “Our son is Tyrunn Walker and he is defensive end wearing number 75 for the New Orleans Saints.”  I told Eleanor and Jimmy how honored I was that they were spending time with me on game day.

Then they gave me a tour of “the hood” which is the east side of New Iberia.  They live nearby and both are leaders in a Church of Christ which is in the middle of the neighborhood of rundown shotgun shacks and deteriorating HUD projects.  Being there reminded me of the first time David Snell, Millard and I visited the Allendale neighborhood of Shreveport.  But in this case all of the shacks were occupied.  About 100 of them are owned by a single slumlord.

Eleanor decided she wanted to make a difference in the eastside.  Though there was high crime and addiction driven activities in the area, she knew  there were good people living there, too.  So she started a facelift painting ministry and spruced up dozens of the shacks over the past few years.  She discovered The Fuller Center for Housing on a journey to find a way to do more than just to make cosmetic improvements for the people she cared so much about.

Days One and Two of the October Listening Tour

By Kirk Lyman-Barner
Director of U.S. Field Operations

On Friday, October 5th, I set out on a 13-day “Listening Tour” to visit 13 of our Fuller Center covenant partners.  With the successful completion of the Clarence Jordan Symposium, it is time to get back in the field and visit and learn from our teams who do the real ministry of The Fuller Center for Housing.

I headed out in a cool morning, the kind of morning where you can drive with the windows down.  I passed by Plains where they are all decked out for Halloween and the fall activities.  I saw cotton being baled, peanuts being turned and a beautiful red fox.  Eufaula is simply gorgeous with its live oaks and Spanish moss.

My first stop was in Lumpkin, Georgia, where I met up with board members Jean Armour and Sarah Singer.  They are in the process of completing their first Fuller Center house.  Visiting them was a reminder of the saying “angels who have come before us” because the beautiful house had scriptures written on the framing walls.   You can read more about this project here and here.  Lumpkin has a population of about 1,400 people.  It is also home of the Stewart Detention Center which houses about 1,500 undocumented immigrants.  I encouraged Jean and Sarah to connect with our good friend Anton Flores who heads up a ministry to help families of those in the detention center with visitation and referrals to legal assistance when possible.  Jean and Sarah shared with me that they want to grow their board and they were in need of skilled volunteers to help them complete the home.

Churches' support greatly appreciated

By Chris Johnson
Director of communications

It's no secret around here, or pretty much anywhere on planet Earth, that I'm a huge Jimmy Buffett fan. I like his music. I like the tropical imagery. I like the nonconformity … if you can consider 20,000 fairly normal folks who dress exactly alike in flowery shirts and strange hats to be nonconformists.

But I like almost all types of music, so long as it's good music. I can get my jazz groove on with some Ronny Jordan on guitar, chill with some Norah Jones, rock out with Drivin' 'n' Cryin', go country with Waylon Jennings, get the blues with Precious Bryant (who hails from Talbotton, Ga., just like Koinonia Farm founder and Millard Fuller mentor Clarence Jordan ... click here to listen) or go old school with the Beatles. And if it's gospel, make it Virgina Kimble.

What? You don't know Virginia. Well, I admit that I didn't either until a little more than a week ago.

During the kickoff dinner for the Millard Fuller Legacy Build in McDonough, Ga., on Sunday, Sept. 9, she casually and quietly came to the piano and microphone at the far end of the room at Wesley Chapel United Methodist Church and apologized in advance for what she expected to be an unacceptable rendition of “Higher Ground.”

And despite having a case of laryngitis, she proceeded to blow the room away. I quickly grabbed my camera and captured as much of it as possible. And if you check out the overview video below, her version of “Higher Ground” is what you hear about the 1:55 mark. It's worth a listen. If that's laryngitis, I guess I have no excuse for my singing voice, which sounds kinda like a ferret being run over by a garbage truck. And I don't have laryngitis.

Of course, Ms. Kimble is the music director at Wesley Chapel, which was a tremendous supporter during the Build. They not only provided space for every dinner, including the opening and closing dinners, but they allowed us to use their facilities and technology to help relay news and photos from the event.

And, oh yeah, they were very, very nice.

We made some other great church friends in Henry County, including:

Bob Abel: A fitting tribute to my parents

Fuller Center for Housing board member Bob Abel lost both of his parents last year, 68 days apart. But Kathryn, 90, and Fred Abel, 93, lived long lives of Christian service and passed on their values to Bob.

Sweet reasons to donate!!

By Chris Johnson
Director of communications

The Fuller Center for Housing's mission is simple: We are doing God's work by partnering with people to help them obtain simple, decent, affordable housing, empowering them to gain a better life with the hand up that home ownership provides.

It's a simple concept and a simple operation. We are not bogged down by top-down directives. We don't hold covenant partners' hands. We don't have lavish headquarters. Our operational costs are kept to a minimum. We just want to put people in decent houses. We get things done. Period.

Today was an excellent example of just how frugal some of us at The Fuller Center's headquarters -- me -- can be. I've been called frugal, indeed, although more often I've been called cheap. (Just last night, my wife and I argued over whether to spend $2 or $8 on a deck post cap. I won, believe it or not! We spent $2, and even that was a pain for me to part with.) And, today, it was up to me to throw the birthday celebration for our graphics designer Richard Aguirre.

So, I got Richard a cake. Actually, two cakes. Little Debbie cupcakes, that is. I forked out 99 cents of my own hard-earned money for those two cakes. (Actually, I only put a candle in one of the cupcakes for Richard, and the other is in my desk drawer. Don't tell Richard!) This was a well-thought-out celebration on my part as planning for this event began about 10:47 a.m. Richard and I have an 11 a.m. meeting every Thursday to discuss visual projects, so thankfully that left me 13 minutes of party planning … more than enough time for an experienced party planner like myself.

Clarence Jordan at 100

By Chris Johnson
Director of Communications

To say that Clarence Jordan was a Christian is at the same time an understatement and the truth.

The Georgia native who was considered a blasphemer by some and an agitator by many more was indeed a Christian -- just as Frank Sinatra was a singer and Babe Ruth a baseball player. They're true statements that nevertheless don't even begin to paint a complete picture. Jordan was the Christian's Christian.

Jordan felt that having faith and sharing faith wasn't enough. To be a true Christian, he believed that faith had to be put into action. He took the verses of James 2:14-26 seriously. He impressed the importance of faith in action over faith inaction upon all those around him, including protege Millard Fuller, who would go on to found Habitat for Humanity and then The Fuller Center for Housing. Fuller was oft quoted echoing Jordan's sentiments in saying, “Faith without works is as dead as a doornail.”

The Koinonia Farm community he founded in 1942 as an interracial Christian farming commune in Sumter County, Ga., will celebrate Jordan's 100th birthday on Sunday, July 29. And Sept. 28-29, the Clarence Jordan Symposium will bring a host of speakers to Sumter County from around the nation to talk about Jordan's life, true Christianity and how Jordan's teachings apply today.

Another way to understand Jordan's views on putting faith into action is to simply go to Koinonia or any farm or backyard and dig your fingers into the soil, drop a seed into the hole and walk away with dirty hands. For Jordan, who had a degree in agriculture from the University of Georgia and a Ph.D. from Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, real Christianity was dirty. He was willing to get his hands dirty in Jesus' name.

Century-old photo tells story

By Chris Johnson
Director of communications

As writer, it pains me to admit that, indeed, sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words. A picture can be snapped, edited and posted for the world to see in less than a minute these days. But even with all this newfangled technology, we writers still can't come up with a decent thousand words in less than a half hour.

I ran into this a lot in the newspaper business. As a sportswriter, I'd cover a football game for three hours, get postgame interviews, write a story, take call-in reports, edit other stories and sometimes design pages in hopes of getting out of the office by 1 a.m. Meanwhile, a TV cameraman would show up at the game for a few minutes in the second quarter, air 20 seconds of footage from the game on the news (after calling the paper to find out how the game ended) and get showered with appreciation for their coverage. All we'd get was a call to point out there's a comma splice in the 17th paragraph and a complaint that we shouldn't have mentioned Jim Bob's three fumbles that cost the game.

But sometimes a visual works best. We've been able to explain our Save a House/Make a Home initiative in plenty of words and a few simple photographs. But even our best photos tell only part of the story. We can easily show a house in a terrible state of disrepair and easily show how we've restored it into a simple, decent house for a good family.

What we haven't really thought about showing, though, is what the house was like long before it got into its terrible state. We haven't thought about it because that's almost impossible to show. Many of these homes are abandoned, sometimes many owners down the line from its glory days.

But we recently got a photo estimated to be 100 years old that took the life of one of our restored homes full circle. It's of a home on St. Paul Street in Indianapolis, home of the 2010 Millard Fuller Legacy Build. One of The Fuller Center's followers on Facebook, Scott Simpson submitted the photo estimated to have been taken in 1910 and showing his grandmother as a little girl sitting on the front porch of a beautiful two-story home that was a duplex in the first half of the 20th century.

Somewhere along the line, the house fell into such disrepair that it was in danger of being torn down. We had those photos. And The Fuller Center restored it to its long-lost glory, something Scott realized only a couple of months ago after stumbling across our photos of its completed restoration.

Our Save a House/Make a Home initiative is a practical way to address America's foreclosure crisis and the problem of people needing affordable housing. We bring these two issues together in a way that benefits families in need, banks, neighborhoods and the housing market in general. Banks are able to shed properties they consider “toxic”, we fix them up, families move in and take care of the home, and neighborhoods are resurrected and rid of the problems a glut of vacant and unappreciated homes can bring.

Adventurers brave Tropical Storm Debby

By Chris Johnson
Director of communications

I love a good storm. It always takes me back to that old front porch back home, when summer thunderstorms seemed to as regularly scheduled as the 5:15 freight train. If I close my eyes, I can go back in time and smell the rain as it turns to steam upon hitting sun-baked Church Street in my tiny hometown of Oglethorpe, Ga.

But not every storm brings such a sense of peace and tranquility. Indecisive Tropical Storm Debby is pounding most of Florida with torrential rain, high winds, tornadoes and lightning right now. And our Bicycle Adventure has been in the thick of some intense weather. The Sunshine State hasn't lived up to its name here in the final week of the Adventure's East Coast ride.

It's not the most pleasant or safest of biking conditions, but you can bet that our Adventurers will make the most of it and have a great time. Yet, it's a good time to remember what these good-hearted folks are doing out there on the road to Key West (and later from Seattle to San Diego).

Not only are they out there pushing their bodies to the limit in whatever conditions may be, but they're spending their own money to join us on these trips. And they're working even harder to raise funds individually and as a team. They've raised more than $125,000 this year alone for our housing ministry.

Jack Wolters says giving is his blessing

By Chris Johnson
Director of communications

I love colorful characters. Even more so, I love colorful characters who make a difference. I've met plenty since I've joined The Fuller Center for Housing last year, and I've met plenty in a couple of decades in the newspaper business.

Jack Wolters of Tucson, Ariz., fits that definition of a colorful character who makes a real difference. He does so now, he did so in the past and, now 88, he'll do it for decades to come.

While talking with Fuller Center Director of Development and Planned Giving Dianne Fuller and Director of International Field Operations Ryan Iafigliola about featuring people who've made financial commitments to make sure The Fuller Center's fight against poverty housing continues, they both said I needed to talk to Jack. Problem is, I didn't know much about the man. So he got Googled! Interesting guy.

Jack not only goes back to Fuller Center founder Millard Fuller's early days in the affordable housing movement, but he and wife Lois were the driving forces, no pun intended, behind Habitat for Humanity's Care-A-Vanners, once called Habitat Gypsies, who rolled place to place building houses after Jack retired from building skyscrapers in places like New York City.

So I called Jack this week and chatted about why he decided to include The Fuller Center for Housing in his planned giving. Though he said his heart is not doing well, he still has fire and humor. When he thought I might need a photo from him for a publication, he retorted: “You wanna put my picture in there? You'll ruin the dang camera!”

Fortunately, we already had a few pictures of Jack, including the one accompanying this column from the very first Fuller Center Bicycle Adventure in 2008. As Ryan, who founded the Adventure, will tell you, there weren't a lot of places for the cyclists to stay during their run through Arizona that year, so Jack's stepping to the plate to put them up was crucial. Jack was also a veteran of the old fundraising and awareness walks the Fullers and supporters made decades ago, walks inspired Ryan to start the Adventure.

“Millard Fuller was a blessing to Jack Wolters, that's for sure,” he told me. “He was a very, very dear friend, a wonderful person, no doubt about that. I feel very, very strongly about Millard Fuller, doing what he did with his life. I've been involved with him since a year after it started. Through all these years, I support him, I support Linda and the program that's been a blessing in my life to be able to give back to folks who've never, ever dreamed of having a home. I've been so blessed to be able to do this.”

Thoughts on a Fuller year

By Chris Johnson
Director of Communications

Today marks my one-year anniversary as communications director here at The Fuller Center for Housing, a position that a little over a year ago I'd have never imagined having. Having been in the newspaper business continually since 1989, I was ready for a change but felt that journalism was all I'd ever be able to do.

But wanting to get out of the struggling newspaper business, as well as wanting to be closer to my family and my then-girlfriend, and closer to an area of the great state of Georgia that most feels like home, I took a total leap of faith and applied for this job. I was 40 years old, and if I didn't take the leap then, I probably never would.

I came into my interviews with a facade of confidence that I could succeed in growing awareness and building support, but it was a facade indeed. I was terrified that I'd fail miserably and take the entire affordable housing movement down in some kind of communications global apocalypse.

Fortunately for me, President David Snell and the others at The Fuller Center didn't see through my facade. And, fortunately for The Fuller Center, the communications apocalypse I feared never happened. In fact, I'd like to think that word about the great work we do is spreading and that support is building. The numbers do seem to indicate I'm OK in thinking that.

I'm thankful that I've been able to keep my weekly newspaper column, and I believe a good many readers of the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer are fairly thankful, too. There ain't many nonprofit Christian organizations that would hire a Southern humor columnist who preaches the gospel of Jimmy Buffett and Sheriff Andy Taylor, and allow him to keep his toe in those rare waters. It's just a few minutes of my week, after this job is done, and I believe it helps our dealing with the media to have a communications director who actually in a small way is still a member of the media.

My mission here was fairly simple as put to me by David. Sure, it'd be great if I were some master of the gazillion marketing and fundraising tools out there, but I had one primary job, and they thought I could do it despite my quirky Southern humor and always-against-the-grain notions:

“We want you to tell our story.”