Q&A: Fuller Center President David Snell reflects on four trips to North Korea

Q&A: Fuller Center President David Snell reflects on four trips to North Korea

Fuller Center for Housing President David Snell knew it was a monumental challenge to try to foster a little peace between North Korea and the United States through the construction of simple, decent homes. In the end, it proved too monumental a challenge.

The peacebuilding idea was first brought to then Fuller Center President Millard Fuller in 2008 by Don Mosley, who helped Fuller start Habitat for Humanity and went on to found Jubilee Partners, a Christian community in North Georgia that extends hospitality to newly arrived refugees from around the world. Fuller tasked Snell with leading the effort.

Snell, who was named president of The Fuller Center after Fuller’s sudden death in February of 2009, would go on to make four trips to North Korea. He brokered a memorandum of understanding in which The Fuller Center would build 50 homes for families in a farm collective known as Osan-Ri just outside of Pyongyang and was there for the project’s groundbreaking in November of 2009, as was Mosley.

Working with North Korean leadership, though, grew more cumbersome over the next couple of years and the project was put on indefinite hold when leader Kim Jong Il died in December of 2011, just a few days after the final Fuller Center team visited the project.

The Fuller Center today is coming off of its most productive building year ever and is piling up success stories, but Snell took a moment this morning to reflect on this non-success story. He has visited 25 countries, but he has seen North Korea in ways that few Americans ever have or ever will.

How did this Fuller Center project in North Korea begin?

This all started when our friend Don Mosley from Jubilee Partners, who’d been involved with Millard since Mbandaka (where the Fullers worked in then-Zaire 1973-76) came to us. He’d made friends with Dr. Han Park at the University of Georgia. Dr. Park was well-connected with both North Korea and U.S. leaders and was able to navigate between the two. They came up with the idea of The Fuller Center building some houses in North Korea. The idea was that we would fund them, but we’d work with the North Koreans to design them.

The key to it was we’d send U.S. volunteers over to work with the Koreans in getting the houses built. The idea was — as we stated in the memorandum of understanding we signed in Pyongyang — that it might “foster friendship and trust between all persons involved.”

So Dr. Park arranged for a small group of us to travel over to North Korea, and we met with officials at the Paektusan Academy of Architecture, who were going to carry the ball on the Korean side. We started talking about it, and it sounded like a pretty good idea.

Did you get any pushback against this idea of working with North Koreans?

Actually, very little. We had one donor who wrote and said he’d never give us another dime because we were “cavorting with the enemy,” but that was the only real visible objection. I’m sure there were people who were concerned, but that was the only actual resistance we got.

David Snell (center) at the Osan-Ri groundbreaking on Nov. 11, 2009.

What was the actual housing plan for Osan-Ri?

They initially wanted us to build in Pyongyang, but everything in Pyongyang is huge, very expensive condominium-style apartments and housing blocks. We said no, that we would build in the country where we’re comfortable and we’ll build single-family homes. So we ended up in Osan-Ri and were going to build 50 houses there. It was a farm, apple farm as I recall. Some of the housing was derelict and needed to be replaced. Then they were going to continue the project and build another 150 houses.

You knew how tough this would be. Why even try?

If you don’t try, you know your result will be failure. And in the early days it was actually very encouraging. The folks in Korea were embracing of the notion by all appearances. Met some wonderful people there. The idea of doing something collaboratively like this would demonstrate both to Koreans and to Americans that we’re not all that different and that our governments don’t agree on things, but we can get along. So there was real momentum in the early days — on both sides — to do this.

What got in the way of that early momentum?

Well, we had some disagreement over the house plan itself. I visited a number of rural communities in North Korea and visited the homes there. They were really quite lovely homes — small but lovely two- and three-room homes. But they seemed well-built and were comfortable. So we were trying to design something that would accommodate that. There was some back and forth on what the actual house design would be.

There also was the building system itself. We were prepared to introduce a new system there. It’s cold in North Korea and they used asbestos panels for insulation. We were suggesting a sort of Styrofoam block kind of system that we could bring in from China. They were actually kind of excited about that. We ended up bringing some of those blocks into the country.

It got worse and worse. I think what really happened was that in the early days they expressed excitement about the volunteers coming in. But as this thing progressed and it looked like something might actually happen, they weren’t so sure they wanted that feature. It finally ended when they said, “We can do this. Just send us the money and we’ll build the houses.” That flew in the face of everything we were trying to do. The volunteer piece was fundamental to it. When that started to go away, then it appeared that we might not be able to do this.

In December of 2011, we sent a team of six Fuller Center volunteers to check on the project. A few days later, leader Kim Jong Il died. What were your hopes for the project and the country itself at that point of transition to the current leader, Kim Jong Un?

We worked pretty well when Kim Jong Il was in power there. He actually visited this site and had eyes on the project which made it more difficult for the Koreans because they were under the gun. When he died and the son took over, we were hopeful. (Kim Jong Un) was Western-educated, and maybe he’d bring new eyes and a new approach. It hasn’t turned out to be that way. I’m actually thankful every day that we aren’t sending volunteers to North Korea because things certainly changed, but not for the better.

School children in Pyongyang.

What were your impressions of the country and the people from your four trips there?

I came to believe that what we know about them and what they know about us is mutually flawed. Pyongyang is not a bad-looking town. It’s full of skyscrapers, and that’s where everyone lives. That’s the place to be in North Korea. I did get into the countryside, and I did visit with the folks. I know that they’re carefully selected and things are orchestrated, but we had a groundbreaking at Osan-Ri with officials there with a long table and banners and got to speak and then we got to mingle with some of the farmers afterward. You know, they’re folks just like us.\

They have a whole different life. They’re totally isolated. There’s no information coming in. There are three TV stations and they all play the same thing — it’s all propaganda. And they’re taught from an early age that we are the enemy, America is the enemy, and that our goal is the destruction of North Korea. Regime stability is probably the most important thing for the government there. They watched their neighbors and what happened in the Soviet Union when Western influences started to show up and Western TV and movies came and they couldn’t support that socialist system any longer. So they’re keeping it out, and they’re very effective at it.

I found that the food was delicious. I did not see starvation on a mass scale. Like I say, I can only report on what I saw, but I saw a fair amount.

Is it true that you went to church in North Korea?

I went to church. Again, people say it’s staged but it seemed like there was a lot of sincerity in there. It was sort of a Presbyterian-style service. The choir was magnificent. They seated the guests up front, and we had headphones so we could pay attention to the sermon. There were a couple of times that the headphones went blank, so I figured the pastor must have been saying something they didn’t want us to hear. At the end of the service, they walked us down the aisle, and the choir sang “God Be With You ‘Til We Meet Again.” It was very powerful.

Then the members left by the side door, and a very interesting thing happened that told me that maybe there really was some sincerity in all of this. Everybody in North Korea has a pin that they wear over their heart. It used to be a picture of Kim Il-Sung, but then it became both Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong Il. Everybody has one. I tried to get one, but they told me no. When they left the church, I saw people putting their pins back on. So, they took their pins off to go to church. I might be reading too much into it but that seemed to indicate to me that there might have been some sincerity. There are only two or three churches in Pyongyang, and they’ve done a very effective job of promoting atheism there. But, nonetheless, there is a spark of belief.

We like to tout The Fuller Center’s success stories, like our record building year we just had. How does this non-success story of North Korea fit into the annuls of The Fuller Center?

It fits just where it ought to. It was certainly not a success in many ways — in any way, actually. But it was an education. We tried something. We’re talking about a global thing. I realized when I was over there that we weren’t dealing with peers. We were negotiating with the government of North Korea. But if you don’t try, you know you’re going to fail. We tried. We were blessed in that it didn’t happen because it’d be a terrible thing right now. It’s not a good time to be an American visiting North Korea. The volunteer component would have crumbled anyway. But you learn from your failures.

Now, I don’t know anywhere in the world we could go that would be as challenging as North Korea. Cuba would be a cakewalk compared to North Korea. But we reached out and actually made some relationships. They can’t sustain themselves because we can’t communicate with them. And we don’t know what we left behind. We don’t know whose lives we may have touched. We’ll never know, but, by golly, we made the effort.

Kim Il-Sung’s birthplace and childhood home, as photographed by David Snell in 2009.


With all the tension between the U.S. and North Korea today, do your experiences there put a human face on this political turmoil?

It does for me. I know some of these folks now. I’ve met them. One of the folks that I worked with there I really enjoyed, just a wonderful guy, was in the equivalent of our State Department. Recently he was posted in New York at the United Nations. There’s no way I could call him up and say, “Hey, how are things?” But he was a very decent man, and I wonder what’s going through his head as we’re watching all of this happen.

There’s an interesting bunch there. When you arrive in North Korea, you’re met by your translator, who is with you the entire time. You don’t leave the hotel without them. It’s their monitoring system; I’m not naive to that. But a couple of these guys were very interesting young men. They’re exposed to the West. One of them came to me — in the upper floors of the hotel where the tourists stay, they had BBC and China TV in addition to the local stations — and he came to me and said, “Do you have BBC up there in your room” I said yeah. He said, “Can I come up and watch the news?” I said, “It’s fine with me; I don’t know about your folks.” It was a 20-minute thing that came on at five o’clock. He knocks on the door at five o’clock, I let him in and he came and sat five feet in front of that television set, absolutely riveted for the entire broadcast. When it was done, he thanked me and left.

But there’s a corps of these folks, a fair number of them, because every foreign visitor has someone to accompany them. I think at some point this is gonna fail; this regime can’t sustain itself. And when that happens, I think these people are going to be in an interesting position to help guide the future. I was very taken with their intellect, friendliness and interest.

We’re sharing a photo gallery (below) of just some of the images you’ve captured in North Korea. How did you bring home so many images?

I see these things on Facebook — photos that the North Koreans don’t want you to see that some guy is secretly taking — I took pictures the whole time I was there. I’d ask. … One place we went when we were first looking for a site out in the country, we could see in the distance artillery covered in camouflage. I thought, hmm, we might have gotten too close to that particular post. But I never had a problem and didn’t have a problem getting my camera out of the country. So, I don’t know. We blow things up in the West. One of the things that always bugged me about Kim Jong Il was how he was always portrayed as a buffoon, and he wasn’t a buffoon. He was an autocrat. He was a dictator. He was cruel. But he wasn’t a buffoon. Now this youngster (Kim Jong Un), I’m not so sure about.

One of the things I’ve learned from this and from my other travels is if we could get governments out of the picture, we could probably all get along. The Koreans, really, on a 1-to-1 basis, love to get to know folks. And that’s true all around the world. If we could get governments out of the picture, we could probably have peace.

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David Snell’s visit to a Christian church in Pyongyang:

David Snell’s footage from Arirang Mass Games:

Bicycle Adventure director: Until you dig deeper, this ride makes no sense

Bicycle Adventure director: Until you dig deeper, this ride makes no sense

Fuller Center Bicycle Adventure Director Connor Ciment was praying for direction in his life when he decided to take a trip across the country in 2015 — on his bike when the Adventure traveled 4,000 miles from Oceanside, Calif., to Portland, Maine. Within a week, he had that direction for which he had been praying and has gone from rider to leader. Connor spoke last week to The Berkeley Independent in South Carolina while leading this year’s East Coast ride from Maine to Key West about how this Adventure may not make sense on the surface. But it makes perfect sense when you understand the motivating factors.

Click here to read the entire article in The Berkeley Independent.

The Bicycle Adventure is nearing the all-time
fundraising mark of $2 million. Click here to help
them reach this year’s ambitious goal!

NBC affiliate catches up with cross-country cyclists whose Adventure ends Saturday

NBC affiliate catches up with cross-country cyclists whose Adventure ends Saturday

NBC-41 television of Macon, Georgia, caught up with members of our cross-country Fuller Center Bicycle Adventure on Wednesday after they rode 91 miles from Americus to McRae. The 3,600-mile fundraising and awareness journey officially ends on Saturday with a short ride from Savannah to Tybee Island, where riders will dip their front wheels into the Atlantic Ocean two months after dipping their rear wheels in the Pacific. Click here to view NBC-41’s report.

The Bicycle Adventure is nearing the all-time
fundraising mark of $2 million. Click here to help
them reach this year’s ambitious goal!

Bicycle Adventurers repair roof in Albany, Ga., on last build day of cross-country ride

Bicycle Adventurers repair roof in Albany, Ga., on last build day of cross-country ride

WALB-TV of Albany, Georgia, caught up with cyclists on the 3,600-mile cross-country summer ride of The Fuller Center Bicycle Adventure on Tuesday as they had their final build day of the ride with the Albany Area Fuller Center for Housing. Their ride officially ends on Saturday at Tybee Island, Georgia.

Click here to view WALB’s report.

Bicycle Adventurers relish opportunity to help people during build days

Bicycle Adventurers relish opportunity to help people during build days

(Photo: Americus-Sumter Fuller Center homeowner partner and frequent volunteer Thad Harris leads cyclists building a wheelchair ramp in Americus, Georgia.)

The Fuller Center Bicycle Adventure’s primary purpose is to help raise funds for The Fuller Center for Housing’s affordable housing ministry — something it has succeeded in doing over the past 10 years to the tune of nearly $2 million.

Related to that mission is spreading awareness about The Fuller Center. Because The Fuller Center does not build or repair homes with government money, it relies on the generosity of individuals, churches and companies to accomplish its work. Naturally, such generosity only comes when people know and appreciate the cause they are supporting.

Several days during the Adventure, there is a bonus mission as riders hop off their bikes and spring into action, building with Fuller Center covenant partners across the United States. The cross-country summer ride — which has less than one week remaining on its 3,600-mile, two-month journey from San Francisco to Savannah — was busy with its fifth build day of the ride Monday in Americus, Georgia, birthplace of the world’s affordable housing movement. Tomorrow, they will have their sixth and final build day of the ride in Albany, Georgia.

“It’s a full-circle blessing — to bless someone else blesses us.” — Wes Shattuck, cyclist from New Hampshire

For Oklahoma City’s Macy Holsinger, who is riding for the third straight year, the Adventure would not be complete without these build days.

“It’s like you pour cement in a hole, but really it’s the water that makes it form,” she explained from a site where she and several other cyclists were adding a much-needed wheelchair ramp to the home of Frank Angry. “The biking is the framework, but then the build days kinda put it all together and tie it into something more concrete, literally.”

Also working at the Angry house was New Hampshire’s Wes Shattuck, who has been riding with wife Cheryl on his first Bicycle Adventure at age 65.

“It’s a full-circle blessing — to bless someone else blesses us,” he said. “We receive something as a group that’s a little different when we come to the build sites, a sense of accomplishment not just of moving as a group but creating something as a group. That’s really cool.”

Across town, other cyclists — including Colorado’s Jennifer Wells — are working with the Americus-Sumter Fuller Center for Housing, which is converting a vacant second floor above its office into transitional housing.

“I’m walking in my faith when I’m helping others.” — Jennifer Wells, cyclist from Colorado

“The build days for me are a way of helping someone else,” said Wells, who is participating in her fourth straight Bicycle Adventure. “I love to help people out. It’s heartwarming, it’s fulfilling and it’s a way for me to be more Christ-like or Christian. I’m walking in my faith when I’m helping others. It’s one of the most rewarding aspects of this experience because that makes it more personal.”

While fans circulated fresh air through the upper area of Americus-Sumter’s office, the cyclists at the Angry home worked in the sunshine with Monday’s low humidity and relatively tame 88-degree high temperature providing a welcome break from weeks of oppressive heat and humidity in Georgia.

“This is wonderful,” Shattuck said. “Believe me, we are thankful for it. This feels more like my New Hampshire home in July.”

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The Bicycle Adventure is nearing the all-time
fundraising mark of $2 million. Click here to help
them reach this year’s ambitious goal!

Cross-country ride leader Henry Downes talks Saturday after the riders arrived in Americus, Georgia:

Fuller Center Armenia builds 600th home with help of Christian Youth Mission to Armenia

Fuller Center Armenia builds 600th home with help of Christian Youth Mission to Armenia


NOTE: The Fuller Center builds exclusively with private donations, not government funds. Therefore, your generosity makes these success stories possible. Click here to give.


For The Fuller Center for Housing of Armenia, each year seems to bring another milestone. That’s what happens when you’re the busiest Fuller Center partner in the world.

Earlier today, the Christian Youth Mission to Armenia (CYMA) helped mark the construction of the 600th Fuller Center home by working with our Armenian partners to help the Miinasyan family of Dvin Village in the Arara region build a simple, decent and safe new home.

Nearly three decades since a devastating earthquake struck the historic country, many families are still dealing with the lingering effects of that disaster and the collapse of the Soviet Union, which ruled the country at the time of the quake but soon fell apart, leaving many broken promises of rebuilding.

Until now, the Minasyan family has been living with family father Arsen’s parents and brothers with 16 members total crammed into one small house. Soon, they will be moving into this nearly complete home.

“The Fuller Center for Housing Armenia has crossed another milestone building their 600th house,” Fuller Center President David Snell said today. “This shows what can happen when a dedicated leadership team develops a phenomenal support base and gets to work! Congratulations to the Armenia staff and to all of the volunteers and donors who have made this possible.”

The Fuller Center of Armenia has a strong leadership team on the ground that has cultivated numerous partnerships to support its work. It also receives consistent support from Armenian-Americans and is a popular destination for Fuller Center Global Builders volunteer experiences.

“Fuller Center Armenia continues to show why they’re a leader among all the Fuller Centers around the world, constantly seeking and finding ways to partner with more and more families,” said Ryan Iafigliola, Fuller Center Director of Field Operations, who joined President Snell and others in Armenia last year for the international Millard Fuller Legacy Build shortly after Armenia dedicated its 500th home. “We’re so proud of all that they have accomplished.”

A volunteer’s perspective

Jackie El Chemmas recently returned from a Global Builders trip to Armenia with a group from her church, St. John Armenian Church of Greater Detroit. Volunteer groups from the church have built 21 of those 600 homes, including the milestone 500th home last year.

“They need the help, and I’m doing my part — my itsy-bitsy part — but we’re building a home every year,” she said, adding that the Armenian Fuller Center’s leadership makes the experience productive. “They’re fantastic. The whole setup is just fantastic. If there’s ever a problem, they handle it.”

She also sees how the week of serving others in their homeland makes her church stronger and builds faith — something church groups always report from such faith-in-action service opportunities in Armenia and elsewhere with The Fuller Center.

“It makes us stronger, and it makes them have a stronger sense of identity with other Armenians, she said. “We definitely have ties to our heritage, no doubt about it. When we go, we don’t feel like we’re in a strange place. It’s ours. We take ownership of Armenia.”

And those ties do not fade. In fact, she already has made plans for next year. Moments before she spoke with The Fuller Center today, El Chemmas said she received a call from a friend wanting to know about next year’s trip.

“She said, ‘I already have 12 people who want to go, so don’t take any more people with you next year,'” El Chemmas said with a laugh. “Plus, my husband will go, and one other person is going, so I’m already booked up for next year.

“The Fuller Center really does good, and we thank you.”

And The Fuller Center, of course, thanks all of the volunteers, supporters and leaders who make these success stories possible.

If you would like to learn more about Global Builders opportunities in Armenia — two upcoming trips are now accepting volunteers — click here.

Your contributions make our work possible.
Click here to give. Thank you!

Slideshow of CYMA’s work July 27-28 in Armenia:

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Selma Times-Journal catches up with cross-country Bicycle Adventure in Alabama

Selma Times-Journal catches up with cross-country Bicycle Adventure in Alabama

Selma Times-Journal journalist Thomas Scott caught up with our cross-country Fuller Center Bicycle Adventure as it arrived in Selma, Alabama, on Wednesday and did an outstanding job of explaining how the ride works and why its mission is so important.

Click here to read the complete article
in the Selma Times-Journal.

The Bicycle Adventure is nearing the all-time
fundraising mark of $2 million. Click here to help
them reach this year’s ambitious goal!


Television journalist rides along with Bicycle Adventure through Mississippi backroads

Television journalist rides along with Bicycle Adventure through Mississippi backroads

The Fuller Center Bicycle Adventure’s mission is to raise funds and awareness of The Fuller Center for Housing’s nonprofit housing ministry. One way they help spread the work about the work is by speaking with media during their rides. On Tuesday, though, a television journalist took the coverage a step further.

Journalist Jeremy J. Ford of Meridian, Mississippi’s Fox 30 rode along with the Adventurers for 22 miles of their ride from Newton, Mississippi, to Demopolis, Alabama. You can see his excellent report below:

The Bicycle Adventure is nearing the all-time
fundraising mark of $2 million. Click here to help
them reach this year’s ambitious goal!