Habitat founder's gone, but work can't be forgotten

By Lynda Spofford
The Atlanta Journal Constitution

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

During a time of renewed optimism yet extreme economic distress, our country is searching for heroes. I can’t help but feel we took a big step backward with the death of Millard Fuller last week.

Like the country he loved, Millard Fuller was a man of great contrasts. Someone once described him as part honey, part jet fuel, and surely that was true.

Fuller was a highly educated son of the Deep South who made his first million by the time he was 29. A practicing lawyer, Fuller was troubled by racial and economic injustice and worked to redress it, first by defending black citizens in Sumter County, and later at Koinonia Farms — an interracial community founded by Clarence Jordan for black people and white people to live and work together in a spirit of partnership. There, Habitat for Humanity was formed.

As the founder of Habitat, Fuller transformed the concept of philanthropy, mobilizing armies of volunteers to shelter a million people in need. For his vision, inspiration and labor, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

When his 30-year career as founder and president of Habitat for Humanity ended, Fuller started a similar organization in his own name.

In the four years it operated, the Fuller Center brought thousands of families and communities together to build decent, affordable homes in places as close as the hurricane-ravaged U.S. Gulf coast to as far away as Romania, Nigeria and Sri Lanka. Bringing inspiration to the inner city, Fuller also set about renovating low-income homes in poor condition, asking that the beneficiaries mail modest contributions on a regular basis to keep the “repair cycle” going.

The Fuller Center model rested on the small community efforts often deemed unworthy of the administrative hassle by other, larger organizations. Yet it was precisely these grass-roots programs that had the greatest appeal to Fuller.

In defiance of those who felt he was too slow to shed his unapologetic Christian bent, Fuller called his new organization a “housing ministry.” Ironically, as he held tight to the Christian origins that were part of the founding of the group, his organization embraced people of all backgrounds around the world to achieve his goals — Muslims, Hindus, Christians and Jews — a multi-faith appeal that is increasingly popular today. Fuller knew what many evangelists often forget: that decent shelter should be a matter of conscience and action no matter who you worship or what books you read.

For those who followed him, he was part deity, part rock star. The people who gathered in churches and town meeting halls to hear him speak understood his almost otherworld appeal. I knew him more as a kindly grandfather and green-shade fiduciary who took time to write personal responses to every letter and e-mail he received. A woman from North Dakota always asked Fuller to send a stamp along with his reply so that she could write back. (He did.) Another entrusted his stewardship to everything she owned of value — a pencil, some loose change and her wedding ring — all crammed into a padded envelope.

In the years he worked, he took a modest salary for himself. In 2008, his annual salary was $21,000 a year (often donating a portion back) — and he insisted on driving a 1992 Ford Taurus with a torn roof liner. Yet he quietly paid for college tuition for many bright young people who couldn’t afford it, including children he met when their families received a new Habitat house. He did this quietly and without fanfare.

As I read the news, I can’t help but note the irony of the hype and attention we bestow upon our celebrities and athletic champions, society’s heroes. I watch the television at night to find that even reputable news organizations are wasting time on Jessica Simpson’s high-waisted jeans and other trivial Hollywood gossip. I wonder how many other Millard Fullers are working in the trenches we ignore while glorifying others with far less notable accomplishments.

Last week, our country lost a true hero. There was no halftime show, no parade, no costumed dancers. He was buried in a plain wooden shipping crate and laid to rest in a pecan orchard without a headstone.

I hope the world remembers.

• Lynda Spofford is the former VP of Communication for the Fuller Center and remains an active volunteer.

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