Biking on Higher Ground

by Katherine Stump (FCBA ’08 cyclist)

Published online at The American University in Washington, D.C.
Friday, May 02, 2008

A Habitat for Humanity Offspring Finds a Unique Way to Establish a Grassroots Presence

One in every 194 households in the United States received a foreclosure filing in the first quarter of 2008, up 112 percent from the same quarter in 2007. The fourth quarter of 2007 saw the highest rate of loans past due since 1985.

The numbers are striking, but they don’t tell the story of the people who have found themselves homeless, a condition that can destroy families, jobs and futures. While the government and the Federal Reserve Board struggle with trying to tweak the system on a national level, grassroots organizations are filling the void, quietly going directly to the people who most need assistance.

This June, just ten people on bicycles will leave San Diego, CA with the hopes of bringing a solution to those in crisis.

Seventeen is not too young and 61 is not too old. They have little in common, other than a desire to serve the poorest of the poor and the reactions they get when they tell others about riding a bike across the country in summer. Most people think of a motorcycle, but the group of volunteers will cover nearly 3,400 miles in 40 days the hard way: by the strength of their own legs.

And with the strength of their hands, they will support the non-profit organization they are riding for, The Fuller Center for Housing, by speaking to local media, fundraising and helping to build six houses for families devastated around the country by the likes of market forces and Hurricane Katrina.

We want to create a movement, and we want to reach people beyond just relying on the media, said Ryan Iafigliola, the national trip leader and special assistant to Millard Fuller, the organization’s founder.

Fuller, the founder and former president of Habitat for Humanity, created the Fuller Center in 2005, but the cross-country bike ride was Iafigliola’s brainchild. He brought the trip into being after discussing it with a friend over handlebars last summer while – yes – riding his bike across the country. When he pitched the trip to his boss, Fuller was excited and supportive, but the 71-year-old maintained the upper hand.

“As far as he’s concerned, we’re cheating because we’ve got wheels,” said Iafigliola.

In 1981, for Habitat’s seventh birthday, Fuller and four others walked the 700 miles from Americus, GA to Indianapolis, IN. It was the first of three such trips designed to do grassroots organizing for Habitat. Fuller spent his evenings speaking in churches and anywhere else that would take him. Many of those locations are now covenant partners with Habitat.

That kind of effect is exactly what Iafigliola is trying to replicate. Even though the cross-country group is small, the core riders will be joined by countless others along the route.

Iafigliola wants the ride to have a dynamic feel, without turning the trip into a small, exclusive club.

“Some days there might be 30 people riding with us from one city to another, or maybe ten extra riding across whatever state we happen to be in,” he said.

The radical, out-of-the-ordinary stunt is likely to get attention of its own, which will indirectly further the group’s desire to raise awareness for such a young organization, which is crucial. The Fuller Center is still coming into its own, especially under the shadow of big brother.

“Building on Higher Ground”

The driving force of The Fuller Center is that it is Christ-centered, but it will work with and build for anyone. Its partners in Sri Lanka are Buddhist and Hindu in Nepal. There is no religious test administered to those applying for homes. The only gauge is one of desperate need.

The organization seeks the ambitious goal of eradicating poverty housing by promoting partnerships with individuals and community groups to build and rehabilitate homes for people in need. They do this by working on a grassroots level with community organizations, places of worship, businesses and schools to build and repair homes.

The Fuller Center’s centerpiece innovation is the no-interest mortgage rates they offer. Payment deals are negotiated based on a family’s ability to pay. Even more radical is the leap of faith called the “Greater Blessing Program.” These smaller renovation projects allow the homeowners to repay the loan on their own terms and on their own time schedule. The loan agreements are made without signing a mortgage, relying on basic human kindness and faithfulness.

Such deals allow The Fuller Center to reach the poorest of the poor, a group it is currently serving in 31 U.S. cities and ten countries around the world.

What About Habitat for Humanity?

“Millard’s departure from Habitat wasn’t exactly what you could call smooth,” said Iafigliola.

After 29 years spent building and working for Habitat for Humanity, Millard Fuller was ousted by the board of trustees over philosophical differences.

“The board is now a who’s-who of corporate America,” said Iafigliola. Fuller always said that you need good business principles, but Habitat is a ministry and Fuller wanted to do things differently from a corporation.

Iafigliola gave an example of one of the problems that has caused Habitat to pull out of at least ten countries it once served. From its humble beginnings in 1976, Habitat has been about not making a profit on the homes and not charging interest, but now the board wants to charge interest overseas. Fuller was very against it because it would cost the poorest of the poor a huge chunk of their income, said Iafigliola. Charging more for services moves Habitat into a position of building only for more middle class families rather than the poor, believes Fuller.

The board also decided it had an image to keep up and wanted to start raising executive salaries to make positions more competitive, but Fuller was always about modest salaries, said Iafigliola.

The Nuts and Bolts of Supplying Nuts and Bolts

As non-profits well know, fundraising is the vein of an organization’s lifeblood. Each person cycling from California to Georgia has been asked to raise $4 thousand. Many have pledged to raise $10 thousand, and many more will have to come together to achieve the ambitious goal of bringing much-needed capital to an unfamiliar organization.

An anonymous donor pledged to cover all the costs of the bike trip, including food and lodging. This translates into every donated penny being put directly to work on a Fuller Center project.

But what might be more important is empowerment. And not just for the people who’s lives will be able to get back on track once they have a place to live, but for the ten people cycling cross-country through mountains and deserts to change lives, including their own.

“This is going to be an adventure of a lifetime,” said Iafigliola.

We'd love to hear your comments!