Photo: Clarence Jordan and Millard Fuller at Koinonia Farm in 1968
During that last, eventful week of Jesus’ ministry He visited the home of Simon the leper in Bethany. A woman came and anointed His head with costly oil, a wasteful act to the disciples who thought the more practical thing would have been to sell the oil and give the money to the poor. But Jesus said to leave her alone, that He was soon departing and, in one of those enigmatic quips that make the Bible so challenging, said, ”For ye have the poor always with you.”
Throughout His ministry Jesus taught that those with more should share with those with less. In the simple story that haunts good Christians he told the wealthy young man that the way to salvation was for him to sell all of his things and give the money to the poor. If you have two coats, He’d say, give one to the man with none. But against all that good counsel was the simple observation there will always be the poor.
And He was right. Now, two thousand years later, we live in a world where the majority of people live in poverty. A billion people go to bed each night in hovels and shacks. Hunger, illness and boredom are the realities of life for countless people around the world. And yet the resources exist for all of God’s people to have a decent place to live, enough food to eat and something interesting to do. Two questions, then, immediately come to mind: Why is this so? and How can we fix it?
The why’s of poverty are complex and include a wide range of causes, from politics to weather. In too many cases poverty is an inherited condition, a mindset. Remarkably, though, we live in an age when technology and resources could well come together to provide all people with the means to lead lives of dignity, freed of the shackles of poverty. Theologian Clarence Jordan, the leader of Koinonia Farm, identified the problem clearly in his October 1968 letter, where he laid out the plan for the Fund for Humanity. He wrote, “It has also become clear to us that as man has lost his identity with God he has lost it with his fellow man.”
It was with a hope of restoring that identity with God and our fellow man that the Fund for Humanity was born, a new economic model in which those with resources could share with those in need in a thoughtful, efficient way. In that same October letter Clarence wrote, “What the poor need is not charity, but capital, not caseworkers but co-workers. And what the rich need is a wise, honorable and just way of divesting themselves of their overabundance”. The Fund for Humanity will meet both of these needs.
The three pillars of the plan were Partnership Farming, Partnership Industries and Partnership Housing. The idea for each was that the Fund would provide the basic resource—land, equipment and capital. The partners, the Koinonia community and their poor neighbors, would provide the human resource and together they would raise food, create products and have a decent place to rest their heads each night. With interest-free cash from the Fund for Humanity the poor would be better positioned to grow and process their own food and compete in the marketplace. At the same time they would be able to help build and own a simple, decent home. What was at work here was a new and practical sort of charity. Clarence wrote, “The Fund will give away no money. It is not a handout. It will provide capital for the partnership enterprises.” An unstated purpose of the partnership model was that the dignity of all those who participated would be retained, indeed enhanced. By making capital available to the poor one of their most significant barriers to prosperity was lifted.
The importance of the Partnership concept to charitable giving can’t be overstated. To many charity means that those with surplus give to those in need, but in that transaction is a serious flaw. The very act of giving creates an imbalance between the two parties—the giver, by his simple ability to give, is superior to the recipient, who, for whatever reason, cannot provide for himself. There are times when this is necessary—disasters, famine and sickness all produce conditions where those who have are called by simple human decency to provide for those who don’t.
In too many cases, though, simple giving has unintended consequences, creating dependencies, robbing the recipients of dignity and a sense of self-worth, stealing initiative and the will, and sometimes the ability, for the recipient to care for himself. Entire nations have become victim to this imbalance—Haiti, for example, that has been on the receiving end of so much simple charity over the years that it no longer functions as a productive society. Government welfare programs can create this same unhealthy imbalance.
The genius of the Partnership concept is that it maintains the balance. “The Fund will give away no money. It is not a handout.” Recipients of the Fund’s capital work for it. In the case of housing, the partner families help build their home and then they pay the cost, over time with no interest charged or profit made. The point, though, is that the recipient of the ‘charity’ is a full partner in the transaction, and, in the case of housing, at the end they own the house that they helped build and paid for.
Further, the house payments go back into the Fund for Humanity to help build and renovate more houses, thus turning the recipient of the capital a donor in his own right. Jesus said that it is more blessed to give than to receive, but the poor seldom have the opportunity to have the greater blessing. Partnership Housing gives them that opportunity. This is an elegant and transformative type of charity.
Millard Fuller was a part of the group that developed the Partnership plan, and he was drawn to the housing component. It was to this that he dedicated his life, his vast fund raising and promotional talents and, and in the process, helped redefine charitable giving. Through Habitat for Humanity he made decent shelter a reality for millions, and through The Fuller Center for Housing he refocused his energy on the basic tenets of that early plan. Partnership Housing has been a success, although a good deal has been learned along the way.
The first houses were built on two subdivisions laid out on Koinonia Farm. Clarence didn’t live to see the first house, Bo and Emma Johnson’s, built, and theirs is a great story. Bo signed the mortgage with an ‘X’ as he never learned to read or write. They raised five children in that house– one went on to be a New York attorney. There was a great celebration when the Johnsons burned their mortgage. Bo and Emma lived in that house the rest of their lives and became the first Partnership Housing success story.
Millard and Linda left the Farm after that to test the philosophy in Mbandaka, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) where over 500 houses were built at a place called Bokotola. Mbandaka was a Belgian outpost and has fallen on hard times over the years, but Bokotola remains to this day a peaceful enclave of well-kept houses and laughing children. Another success story.
Not every partnership house has a happy ending. Often the poor are trapped because they simply don’t know how to manage money—understandable if they’ve never had much money to manage. Many times they lack basic knowledge of how to maintain the house. A certain level of discipline attends homeownership, and one of the lessons learned is that creating successful homeownership often requires training in the basics of money management and home maintenance.
A third essential element for success is the willingness of the recipient to do what is necessary to succeed, and this is the greatest challenge. Without a change of behavior and attitude people continue the same destructive habits that keep them trapped in poverty. People who have lived their life in poverty, and who may come from generations of poverty, need to be reminded that success is something they can aspire to. It is in this that the human flaw that Clarence sought to correct finds expression.
“It has also become clear to us that as man has lost his identity with God he has lost it with his fellow man,” wrote Clarence. Perhaps a step towards reestablishing that identity with God might be reestablishing an identity with his fellow man, and an opportunity for that lies in the Partnership Housing model. A Fuller Center build, for example, brings a wide variety of good hearted souls together for a common purpose. Rich and poor, black and white, Catholics and Baptists put any differences they might have aside in order to get a house built with a family in need. The most visible product of Partnership Housing is the house, but perhaps the most significant product lies in the relationships that form as people of goodwill reach out to those in need and lift them up. The engagement with the partner family will begin well before the build and last well after it. The local Fuller Center covenant partner’s family nurture committee will work with the family to secure appropriate financial counseling, train them in household maintenance, and be with them through the trials that will surely follow. The volunteers and partner family will have many opportunities to reestablish that lost identity.
So what of the future of partnership housing? Throughout most of his forty year ministry Millard Fuller provided decent shelter by building new houses. This is still true in the developing world where housing is in short supply. But here in the United States, where there are millions of vacant houses, The Fuller Center is moving toward rehabilitation work. By taking existing housing stock and repairing it, upgrading as necessary, derelict properties are restored, neighborhoods enhanced, and waste reduced. In the process the local tax is increased and, when properties are acquired from lending institutions their ‘toxic asset’ problem is solved and CRA requirements met. And a family gets a decent place where they can make a home.
Whether it’s new construction or renovation work the basic purposes of Partnership Housing are being met—people have an opportunity to renew their identity with God and with their fellow man; capital is made available to the poor; and the rich have a wise, honorable and just way of divesting themselves of their overabundance. Everyone is enriched and ennobled, which is just what Jesus is looking for us to do.
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