By Georgia Fuller Luedi,
May 2014, Jacksonville, Florida
For most people, Millard Fuller is remembered as the founder of two not-for-profit organizations, namely Habitat for Humanity and The Fuller Center for Housing, and for building 200,000 homes worldwide for those in need of decent shelter.
As for me, who knew him beneath the surface and out of the spotlight, he was much, much more: He was my daddy — the man who rang the community bell at Koinonia Farm announcing my birth, the man who tossed me in the air in my toddler years with a joyful smile, who tickled me and said my prayers with me at night, who pitched ball with me, who taught me how to laugh and take the punches of life, how to count my blessings, who made funny sounds with my bottom lip when I frowned, who taught me about God, who made me stay in college when I wanted to give up, and who, with tears in his eyes and a quivering bottom lip, stood up and said at my wedding how much a privilege it was for him to have raised me.
I am just a few years older than Habitat for Humanity, so I had the awesome and unique privilege to see it steadily grow as I myself was growing up. I remember rising up on my tippy-toes as a toddler painting some of my dad’s first houses in Africa. Then as a teen, I remember summer housing projects, where I loved climbing up to rooftops as soon as the trusses were up to hammer down shingles. I’ll never forget the loving, close-knit Habitat family of the early years, as well as all the hosts of lovely, joyful, and dedicated folks at all the builds and fund-raising walks between Maine and Atlanta. In a personal way, I also had the unique honor of watching my dad behind the scenes at home and at work and coming to understand the secrets of his success.
Certainly, I did have to sacrifice those long weeks when my dad was away on extended speaking engagements or visiting Habitat affiliates in the U.S. and around the world, but for all the excitement, the meaning, and the rich experiences I received in return, I would definitely say it was worth the sacrifices. As much as my dad was engaged in the community and the world, though, he always made it a point to be present at my most important moments.
Growing up, my dad showed me one good example after another of how to live a life pleasing to God, not only on a personal level, but also in regards to others. He taught me the valuable lesson that God loves all people regardless of race, religion, social or economic status. To say the least, we were not a very popular family in all social circles, and we all had to endure a degree of social shunning within the early years of his ministry, but for this upbringing, I am so very grateful! And I am so glad to see how far we as a town and a society have come since then!
My dad is best remembered for building houses, but he did other less noticeable, yet very significant things. For one, many do not know that my dad picked up trash every day on his walk to and from work; and if my family and I were walking with him, he would have us pick up trash too. I never liked doing it, but this engrained in me the conviction that to do good in the world, sometimes you have to get your hands dirty! He also regularly picked weeds around his law and Habitat offices and said, “No one minds a clean place, but some people mind if it’s messy, so to please everyone, you keep the place clean!” His practice of picking up trash revealed his strong sense of responsibility towards his town and the world around him; whether it was trash, weeds, houses, or buildings in need of attention, he would take action.
Church Street, in and of itself, is one of the many visual testimonies and reminders of the positive change that Millard Fuller brought to Americus. Once riddled by broken-down, bat-infested, paint-crackled homes is now a street adorned with sweet, bright, colorful, renovated homes. (In the 400 block of West Church Street was his law office, which served also as the first Habitat headquarters, and on the other end of Church Street was our home.) Then, there are the formerly run-down buildings in downtown Americus, now the present Habitat for Humanity International Headquarters and the former peanut mill on Spring Street (soon to be Millard Fuller Boulevard), now the present Global Village and Discovery Center. Lastly, which I believe is my dad’s greatest, most unforgettable gift to all of Sumter County, was the eradication of poverty housing in the entire county by the start of the millennium!
In a social sense, beyond fixing up material things, my dad loved to tackle whatever was in bad shape in society and make it right. For instance, as a criminal lawyer, he took it upon himself to defend African-Americans whether it was a case of discrimination or death row. I clearly remember numerous phone calls for dad from folks urgently needing help or advice. He never refused a call, whether it was late in the evening, or he was busy with something else; I must admit, I sometimes got tired of the phone ringing, but my Dad never did; in fact, every opportunity that came his way to help someone seemed to energize him all the more.
My dad also had an amazing ability to forgive others who persecuted, hurt, or rejected him. In the early years of his ministry in Americus on his daily walk to work, he was for a time harassed by a man who aimed a rifle at him and cursed him for “helping n—–s.” Years later, when that same man was on his deathbed, one of the only men who came to visit him was my dad. The man was so moved by his visit that he apologized and asked for forgiveness, which my dad had already done in his heart. Some 20 years later, another man sought to kill my dad, but was halted by police. Nevertheless, my dad asked in court that this man not be given the death penalty, rather be given treatment and help for his mental illness. Lastly, after 33 years of building up and nurturing Habitat for Humanity and after an unceremonious parting of ways, he was again quick to “kick the dust off his sandals” and move on. Thus, came about his second housing ministry, The Fuller Center for Housing. This was the heart and also resilient, unstoppable nature about my dad, which kept him going and kept his spirits high.
Of course, since Millard Fuller was my own daddy and “hero” in so many ways, it was earth shattering to lose him, especially so suddenly and unexpectedly. As devastating as this loss was for my family and me, it was so comforting to have so many friends and people from Americus and from all around the globe come so last minute to his burial at Koinonia Farm. Then, a month later, our family was blessed as more friends and supporters attended his memorial in Atlanta at Ebenezer Baptist Church. We were encouraged that his legacy and his dream of eliminating poverty housing would continue and remain strong.
In light of remembering my dad, I am so thrilled about the upcoming street renaming of Spring Street into Millard Fuller Boulevard this upcoming Sunday, June 8 (2014)! To Jacob Battle, my dad’s all-time faithful friend to the end, for envisioning this honorable event, to Peggy Minor for helping Jacob make it a reality, to Mayor Blount and the city council for wholeheartedly approving it, to my mom, Linda Fuller Degelmann, along with folks at the Fuller Center for Housing and Koinonia, for working out all the logistics, along with all the sweet Americus residents who are supporting it, I extend my deepest thanks!
I’ll conclude by sharing a little secret with you readers, which my dad whispered to me not too long ago and which I will never forget. He said, “Not many people know it, but behind those office doors, I get down on my knees several times a day to pray.” In the end, my dad never wanted himself to be glorified, but the One who was the wind beneath his wings, God Himself. He never said his ideas or his life or his organizations were his own, yet that they belonged to God, and that he was simply an instrument that God was using for His divine purposes.
On this note, this article is not to seek glory for my dad, rather to share from a daughter’s perspective the real God man beneath the surface as a way to inspire those in our town by his life and his example. One man, with God, truly can make a profound, positive impact on the world, and one of those men was our very own, Millard Fuller. For those who didn’t get a chance to know him and would like to learn more about him, my hope is that this article and the upcoming street renaming event can be a good starting point. May we all glean from great heroes and pioneers of our past and continue to work together to make this world a better place!