Millard Fuller Legacy Build, annual conference both coming to Americus in April

Millard Fuller Legacy Build, annual conference both coming to Americus in April

(Photo: First United Methodist Church of Americus)

For the first time, The Fuller Center for Housing’s Millard Fuller Legacy Build will be held in Americus, Georgia. The build, featuring new home builds and rehab projects is the week of April 15-20, 2018. The Americus-Sumter Fuller Center for Housing will be coordinating the build.

But that’s not the only first coming to Americus in April: The Legacy Build will conclude as The Fuller Center’s Annual Conference begins — with the two events merging for the first time on Friday, April 20. On that day, the annual conference will begin at 1 p.m. at host First United Methodist Church before attendees join Legacy Build volunteers for house dedications in the afternoon. That evening, both Legacy Build volunteers and conference attendees — including some people involved in both events — will join together again for a 5 p.m. social hour and a 6 p.m. dinner at historic Koinonia Farm.

“Millard used to say that while the Northeast has beautiful fall foliage and the West Coast has sunny skies and beaches, Americus has April,” Fuller Center President David Snell said. “It’s a glorious month, and it will be even more glorious with the two great events that will be hosted here. It will be one great family reunion! Start making plans now to join us for either or both — the Legacy Build, April 15-20, the Conference on the 20th and 21st. I’ll look forward to seeing you here!”

Fuller Center Director of Communications Chris Johnson added that the idea of joining the two events was spurred by a four-day build that preceded The Fuller Center’s Annual Conference in Hammond, Louisiana, in April of 2017.

“Our partners there had a very successful Higher Ground on the Bayou flood repair blitz over the four days before the conference, and it provided a lot of enthusiasm and momentum heading into the sessions,” Johnson said. “It also put the learning of the conference into a very tangible context for those who attended both. We expect the same to happen in Americus, and we expect plenty of folks will want to be part of both events.”

conference — Register or learn more

LEGACY BUILD — register or learn more

SERIES: The terms that define our mission — “faith-based”

SERIES: The terms that define our mission — “faith-based”

(Photo: Volunteers pray with Mark and Kendra Singleton at the dedication of their home at the 2014 Millard Fuller Legacy Build in Louisville, Kentucky.)

This is the fifth in a series of blog posts about terms that define how The Fuller Center for Housing works to help families have simple, decent places to live.


The Bible is a pretty thick book. It has multiple gospels and thousands of verses. So, what exactly does it mean to be a “faith-based” nonprofit housing ministry?

It means different things to different people, obviously. No two people’s faith journey is identical. People read scripture and walk away with differing opinions. Biblical scholars debate the meanings, context and nuances of the words.

Many Christians point to Matthew 22:35-40 when a lawyer tests Jesus by asking what is the greatest commandment. In the King James Version, Jesus is quoted as saying: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.”

This harkens back to earlier in Matthew where we find The Golden Rule (Matthew 7:12): “In everything, do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”

As many have said of the Bible, “It boils down to ‘do unto others.’ All the rest is commentary.” There are about a gazillion versions of that statement, but the gist of it is that if we show love for our neighbor, we are on the right track.

All the rest may be commentary, but there’s some good commentary in there. Perhaps the commentary that most relates to The Fuller Center for Housing is James 2:14-26, which asks what good is having faith if there are no works  Millard Fuller’s take on it, delivered with his trademark Alabama southern drawl, was: “Faith without works is as dead as a doornail.”

You can associate the word “faith” with many things — praying (in private and in public), worship, singing hymns, fellowship and studying the Bible. It can be all those things and more. It certainly was to Millard, but most important to him was to demonstrate his faith through action — doing unto others and loving his neighbors. He promoted the Theology of the Hammer and called on thousands to love their neighbor until millions had simple, decent places to live.

Now, putting faith into action and loving our neighbors around the world is in The Fuller Center’s DNA. Occasionally, we’ve had people ask us to take a stand on a controversial religious debate or to condemn this or that. Our business is putting God’s love into action and helping others put faith into action. That is our faith-based mission.

Millard Fuller speaks in 2007 about putting faith into action and letting your light shine!:

SERIES: The terms that define our mission — “partnership”

SERIES: The terms that define our mission — “partnership”

(Photo: Group shot from the first day of the 2017 Millard Fuller Legacy Build in Indianapolis.)

This is the fourth in a series of blog posts about terms that define how The Fuller Center for Housing works to help families have simple, decent places to live. On Sunday, we’ll wrap up this series with a look at the meaning of “faith-based.”


Whom do you see in this group photo from June’s Millard Fuller Legacy Build in Indianapolis? If you’re well-acquainted and heavily involved with The Fuller Center for Housing, you can probably list a whole bunch of familiar names you see — David and Sheilla Snell, Chuck and Joyce Vogt, Jeff Cardwell, LeRoy Troyer, Chuck Lee, Bob Pack, Mary Lou Bowman, Doug Miller, and … well, if I listed every name I see in this picture I wouldn’t be able to write about today’s topic — “partnership.”

For those of you who might be less familiar with The Fuller Center, let me give you a general overview of who’s in that picture — a neighborhood association president, homeowners, volunteers, house captains, nonprofit executives, political leaders, city representatives, church members and youth from the Church of the Nazarene, whose General Assembly coincided with our Legacy Build.

All of these good folks came together in partnership to help five families have simple, decent places to live in the neighborhood of Tuxedo Park, a blitz build that marked a turning point for a once-thriving east Indy area that had been on the decline for decades. No more.

You can’t build five homes in a week without a lot of partners. You can’t build 200 homes in Haiti, El Salvador and Nigeria without partners. You can’t build and repair hundreds of homes in Louisiana, Kentucky and Georgia without partners. Building a single home takes partners.

The Fuller Center’s affordable housing ministry sprung from theologian Clarence Jordan’s teachings at Koinonia Farm in the 1960s, where his final days were spent sharpening the concepts of partnership economics, including partnership housing. One particular line from his writings is oft-cited by The Fuller Center:

Clarence Jordan

What the poor need is not charity, but capital; not case workers but co-workers.”

That directly explains our partnership with homeowners. They are not charity cases. They work alongside our volunteers and repay the costs of materials on terms they can afford, over time, with no interest charged or profit made. Their payments go to help others in their community get the same hand-up, and in the process they become givers themselves.

But we have a multitude of partners beyond homeowners. Because we do not accept government funds (and the strings attached) for building, we rely on the generous partnership of our donors. We partner with skilled and unskilled-but-willing volunteers to build and repair homes, thus keeping the costs as manageable as possible. We partner with like-minded organizations such as People Helping People in El Salvador and Presbyterian Disaster Assistance in Texas. The local groups who do our work in the field in the United States and abroad are not called affiliates or chapters but are referred to as covenant partners. We do not dictate to them how to do their work. We see ourselves as partners with the same mission — to help families in need have simple, decent places to live.

Perhaps our most important partnership is with the church. The Fuller Center is not a church but is a servant of the church. We provide a vehicle for churches to put faith into action in a real, tangible, difference-making way. Churches also host teams of Fuller Center volunteers, host our fundraising Bicycle Adventure cyclists across the nation, send team on U.S. and Global Builders trips and often help feed our volunteers. We appreciate every way churches partner with us.

Church attendance and affiliation has been steadily declining in the United States for decades. We could debate ad infinitum the reasons for the decline. But at The Fuller Center we have seen time and time again a church become enthused and reinvigorated after tackling a Fuller Center project. Maybe it’s because Jesus was a carpenter, but there’s just something about swinging a hammer and pounding a nail that drives home the importance of loving thy neighbor. At the end of the day, you can look at the structure and enjoy the feeling of a job well done. More importantly, you can look on the faces of people to whom you’ve extended God’s love. That feeling is hard to beat, and it’s something you want to experience time and time again.

We are always seeking new partners who want to express God’s love by helping families have simple, decent places to live. If you want to know more about how you can partner with The Fuller Center for Housing, be sure to email us or call 229-924-2900.

SERIES: The terms that define our mission — “ecumenical”

SERIES: The terms that define our mission — “ecumenical”

(Photo: Tamara Danel was one of dozens of volunteers who helped Lytonja Smith and her Muslim family build a home during the 2015 Millard Fuller Legacy Build in Shreveport, Louisiana.)

This is the third in a series of blog posts about terms that define how The Fuller Center for Housing works to help families have simple, decent places to live. On Saturday, we’ll take a look at the meaning of “partnership.”


After founder Millard Fuller’s unexpected death in February of 2009, those closest to The Fuller Center for Housing’s affordable housing ministry and its leaders had a decision to make: Since this grass-roots, Christian ministry was so closely tied to Millard’s dynamic persona, should it end with his earthly end or was the work so important that the ministry should persevere?

Millard had set the moral compass in the right direction for his ministry for decades. If they chose to continue with the ministry — which they obviously did, for which thousands of families are now grateful — they had to stay pointed in the right direction and not drift away from those simple principles that Millard was so passionate about. So, they drafted a Statement of Foundational Principles that would guide them going forward. You can find them on our Mission Statement and FAQ page or read below:

We at the Fuller Center for Housing believe that:

  • We are part of a God movement, and movements don’t just stop.
  • We have been called to this housing ministry; we didn’t just stumble into it.
  • We are unashamedly Christian and enthusiastically ecumenical.
  • We aren’t a church, but we are a servant of the Church.
  • We are faith driven, knowing that after we’ve done all we can do the Lord will help finish the job — something that requires us to stretch beyond our rational reach.
  • We are a grass-roots ministry, recognizing that the real work happens on the ground in communities around the world through our covenant partners, so a large, overseeing bureaucracy isn’t needed.
  • We try to follow the teachings of the Bible and believe that it says that we shouldn’t charge interest of the poor, so we don’t.
  • Government has a role in our work in helping set the stage, but that we shouldn’t look to it as a means to fund the building of home.

Tucked away in there is an awfully key word — “ecumenical,” actually “enthusiastically ecumenical” to be exact. Most often, the word is used in the context of Christianity in the coming together of Christians and churches for a uniting purpose. But we take it a step further.

We believe that all of God’s people ought to have simple, decent places to live. And we are all God’s people.

We are a Christian ministry, but we preach the Gospel through action — the Theology of the Hammer. You do not have to be a Christian to partner with us to get a home or repairs, nor must you be Christian to work with us. We’ve worked with Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and those who adhere to no religion or faith. We share God’s love without a litmus test.

We are ecumenical in another way, as well — one that has nothing to do with religion. We are politically ecumenical.

When I joined The Fuller Center in 2011, I was weary of the hyperpartisanship that had gripped America and has since only increased its stranglehold. Yet, in The Fuller Center’s ranks I’ve met and worked with an equal amount of liberals and conservatives and all kinds of folks in between. I remember President Carter speaking at a Fuller Center dinner five years ago in which he thanked The Fuller Center for being “a harmonious oasis” in polarizing times.

I knew what President Carter was saying was true, even though I’d been here only a few months at the time. I’ve since come to understand why it is true that those of all faiths and political persuasions unite at The Fuller Center oasis: It’s because no one is against helping people help themselves. Liberals and conservatives are all for it. The religious and non-religious are all for offering a hand-up. No one is against a hand-up. I’ve even seen Auburn and Alabama fans, Georgia and Georgia Tech fans unite under this umbrella — and that’s no small feat down here in this college football-mad land.

Being ecumenical in more ways than one allows us to pitch a mighty big tent and to welcome everyone who shares our simple belief that everyone ought to have a simple, decent place to call home. If you also believe that, then you’re in the right place.

Below, a handsome fellow talks briefly about this topic:

SERIES: The terms that define our mission — “grass-roots”

SERIES: The terms that define our mission — “grass-roots”

(Photo: Doug Miller (left) is a generous financial supporter of The Fuller Center for Housing and an active volunteer who recognizes the direct impact made possible through The Fuller Center’s grass-roots mission. He helped build the home of Latisha Booker (right) in Lanett, Alabama, Millard Fuller’s hometown.)

This is the first in a series of blog posts about terms that define how The Fuller Center for Housing works to help families have simple, decent places to live. On Thursday, we’ll take a look at the meaning of “hand-up.”

A lot of political campaigns tout “grass-roots” efforts to convey their message. A lot of organizations, especially charities, like to describe themselves as “grass-roots.” But what does the term really mean?

No, it’s not the musical group who belted out great songs like “Let’s Live for Today” and “Midnight Confessions” in the 1960s. Nor is it a simple term to explain, but simplicity is at the heart of what “grass-roots” is all about — especially at The Fuller Center.

When Millard and Linda Fuller were forced out of Habitat for Humanity in 2005 — nearly 30 years after founding the nonprofit — it was heartbreaking for them, but Millard saw an opportunity. Tired of the corporate struggled he had enduring the previous 10 years or more, he recalled the simple days of the 1970s and early 1980s when his affordable housing ministry was just getting started.

Back then, they relied on generous individuals, a determined corps of volunteers and churches committed to putting faith into action. As Linda recalls of the early days:

“We lived at Koinonia Farm after returning from Africa in mid-1976, with a makeshift “office” in an old rat-infested, pecan-drying barn. It was hot in the summer, cold in the winter. We purchased a $2,500 dwelling in Americus as Millard’s law office and the first “real” office of Habitat for Humanity. The rotten porch was replaced with a neat brick entrance, painted and modestly furnished. I sewed drapes from bed sheets. In order for our family to live in town, we purchased an old house for $12,500, a 10-block walk for Millard to the office.”

Some might say Millard was too committed to living simply. Some might think it was an overcorrection for the lavish lifestyle he had gained as a millionaire businessman in the 1960s before giving it all away to serve others.

By the time 2005 rolled around, Habitat was not just a household name but had grown to have large offices in both Americus and Atlanta. Corporate influence on the board was growing. Fundraising, marketing and technology expanded. Habitat continued to grow by leaps and bounds. But Millard was concerned about the direction and the adherence to foundational principles. He wanted to ensure that a family “served” was actually a family housed. The head-butting continued until Millard and Linda got the boot from the nonprofit they had founded as an affordable housing ministry.

It didn’t take long for Millard to seize an opportunity from that disappointment — and he, Linda and current President David Snell founded The Fuller Center for Housing as a return to the founding principles with which they had set out more than three decades earlier. They vowed that The Fuller Center would not stray from its grass-roots, Christian principles — the same principles that proved so effective in the early days. They vowed to be transparent and used clear words like families “housed” when reporting success. A family who simply attended a class on home ownership or whose current housing situation was merely evaluated would not be considered “housed.” They knew that donors wanted results — homes built and repaired — more than peripheral and tangential activities that may never result in homes built or repaired.

Millard worked joyously and tirelessly for this restarted affordable housing ministry right up until the day he died unexpectedly in 2009. Linda said that his final years were some of the happiest of his life because he had been able to simplify and do what he really wanted to do with his life — help people in need. He was simply committed to putting faith into action. He was happy that he once again had a nonprofit that allowed him to make a direct impact without a hindering bureaucracy.

FCH headquarters

The Fuller Center remains a grass-roots ministry. Simplicity guides the mission. Despite having more than 70 U.S. covenant partners and 21 international partners, the nonprofit’s headquarters remains a donated former Chinese restaurant in which a handful of dedicated staffers are committed to running a lean operation. They have forsaken larger salaries and greater benefit packages to serve the ministry because they believe in it.

Because of our grass-roots commitment, 90 percent of donations go to work in the field with less than 10 percent going to overhead. (See latest independent financial audit.) Overhead is not inherently evil as it is important to keep the lights on and ensure that such dedicated staff is reasonably compensated for their efforts, but Fuller Center leadership is committed to maximizing every cent given to the ministry in the field where families are housed.

Because of our grass-roots commitment, individual donors know that their donations make a bigger impact. A $6,000 gift can build an entire house in some countries. Donors know the feeling of direct impact that brought Millard such joy in his final years.

Because of our grass-roots commitment, a company or business can work through The Fuller Center to build an entire community or transform an entire neighborhood. They can have far more direct impact. They can point to an actual project they made happen instead of simply sending out a press release about a large financial donation to a corporate nonprofit that went into the same ol’ big bucket with other such gifts.

The Fuller Center is committed to growing the impact this ministry has on families in need of simple, decent places to live. But we remain committed to the grass-roots principles that maximize the impact. In fact, the question has been raised more than once: How do we grow and remain committed to our grass-roots principles? A whole panel of concerned thought leaders who care about this ministry has actually been convened to consider this question and offer guidance on the subject.

We will never allow our commitment to growth to overtake our commitment to the simple, grass-roots, Christian principles that allowed this ministry to flourish in the first place.

So, what does the term “grass-roots” mean to us? It means simplicity that allows the greatest direct impact.

Fuller Center co-founder Linda Fuller talks about getting back to basic principles after leaving Habitat:


Point University football players tackle 25-home Block of Blessings in West Point, Georgia

Point University football players tackle 25-home Block of Blessings in West Point, Georgia

RELATED STORY (Click here):
Chattahoochee Fuller Center Project
announces 38th and 39th new home builds

Chattahoochee Fuller Center Project Executive Director Kim Roberts brought her Block of Blessings neighborhood improvement event to West Point, Georgia, on Tuesday, working in the city adjacent to late Fuller Center for Housing founder Millard Fuller’s hometown of Lanett, Alabama.

Roberts and her 25 volunteer house captains spruced up 25 properties along east Seventh and Eighth Streets in West Point — an effort made possible by more than 75 freshman athletes from Point University’s Skyhawks football team.

“It was awesome,” Roberts said of the day that included everything from yard maintenance to painting and minor repairs to help families in the area. “Those football players did a tremendous job.”

Roberts gave special appreciation for West Point Mayor pro-tem Steve Tramell, who, again, not only supported the CFCP’s work but also volunteered his skills on the site.

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Homeowner partners selected for
CFCP’s 38th and 39th new homes

Chattahoochee Fuller Center Project Executive Director Kim Roberts said that the organization will begin its 38th new home build on November 2 in West Point as a team raises the walls on a simple, decent new home in partnership with Ruthshun Hall and her three daughters.

Roberts said that a team of skilled volunteers will work November 2-4 on the home that is slated to be completed the week of December 4-8 by a team of volunteers from East Alabama Medical Center-Lanier Hospital, major sponsor of the build.

In February, the project plans to begin construction of its 39th new home, also sponsored by EAMC-Lanier, in Lanett, Alabama, in partnership with Loretta Brewer.

Chattahoochee Fuller Center Project Executive Director Kim Roberts (center) with future homeowner partners Loretta Brewer (left) and Ruthshun Hall.

Alaskans Bob and Leslie Bell eager to lead first Global Builders trip to Papua New Guinea

Alaskans Bob and Leslie Bell eager to lead first Global Builders trip to Papua New Guinea

(Photo: Fuller Center for Housing Global Builders Coordinator Maegan Pierce, Registrar Stacey Goolsby, Bob and Leslie Bell and Director of International Field Operations Ryan Iafigliola during the Bells’ visit to Fuller Center headquarters in Americus on Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017)

Bob and Leslie Bell ought to be the most famous folks from the small, coastal hamlet of Homer, Alaska — also known as the “Halibut Fishing Capital of the World” and “the end of the road” as the last stop on Alaska’s Sterling Highway.

Instead, that recognition probably goes to their neighbors, the Hillstrand family from The Discovery Channel reality TV show “Deadliest Catch” or to singer Jewel Kilcher (“Who Will Save Your Soul,” “You Were Meant for Me”), who rose to instant stardom in 1995 with her album “Pieces of You,” still one of the best-selling debut albums of all time, having gone 12-times platinum.

The Bells, though, have been volunteering in the affordable housing ministry for more than 20 years and have visited 75 countries and led 48 international volunteer build trips. These two former teachers, though, are more interested in service than stardom and in faith-building more than fame-building.

“We’ve got too many things to do to watch TV,” Bob said with a chuckle during a visit to The Fuller Center for Housing’s international headquarters in Americus, Georgia, on Thursday. “I’ve got more important things to do.”

“We don’t even have TV, for one,” added Leslie, who taught Jewel in middle school.

Among the important things the Bells have to do is to plan next month’s first-ever Fuller Center Global Builders trip to Papua New Guinea, one of this affordable housing ministry’s newest and most exotic international covenant partners. Fortunately, the Bells not only have loads of experience leading international volunteer trips with Habitat for Humanity and The Fuller Center, but also the 75 countries they have visited includes previous visits to Papua New Guinea. In fact, years ago they trained Petrus Martin, who now serves as the coordinator for The Fuller Center’s operations in Papua New Guinea.

“Martin is an intense person in that he is so committed to his community as a whole,” Leslie said. “He is going to make this a community that thrives. He’s very Christian, very compassionate, and he has a way of motivating other people in the community. He’s not a preacher, but he is like a New Guinea version of Millard Fuller. He doesn’t take no for an answer, and he doesn’t think anything is impossible.”

The Fuller Center Global Builders team led by Bob and Leslie Bell will be partnering next month with the Korong family from the Panapai Village of Kavieng District, New Ireland Province, to build a safe, new home.

The Bells will be leading a team of at least 16 volunteers on next month’s trip to build a home in partnership with the Korong family in the Panapai Village off Kavieng District in New Ireland Province. Sam, a woodworker and furniture maker, and Harriet, who sells produce and baked goods, have longed for a decent home in which to raise their daughters since their former house made of untreated logs and bamboo recently had to be torn down.

Bob and Leslie both said that based upon their previous trips to Papua New Guinea and the motivation provided by Martin they know the Korong family and others in the community will be heavily involved in working alongside Fuller Center volunteers.

“If you just mention anything, it will be done,” Leslie said. “They just jump right to it. They love to teach other people. They love to learn. Interaction is like in their DNA. They don’t stand back or watch. They’re not bystanders. They are a people that are involved in what they are doing. Everybody is involved. It’s not pushed onto them — it’s just what they do.”

Venturing to far-away places like Papua New Guinea may seem inconceivable to people used to the modern conveniences of bustling American cities with a Starbucks seemingly on every corner, but 50 years of Alaskan living on the shores of Kachemak Bay have the Bells prepared to handle all the ups and downs that come with international volunteering in impoverished villages.

“To live in Alaska, you have to be pretty independent,” Bob said. “There’s a lot of things you have to be able to overcome, so you’re used to problem-solving. You don’t wait for somebody else to figure it out for you. I think a lot of that transfers to going to other countries. If you’re in another country, you need to figure things out. And if you’re standing back and waiting for somebody to figure it out for you, you’re going to be waiting a long time.”

“To live in Alaska, you have to be pretty independent. There’s a lot of things you have to be able to overcome, so you’re used to problem-solving. You don’t wait for somebody else to figure it out for you.” — Bob Bell

One thing they have figured out, time and time again, is that these trips are part of a spiritual journey — their own and the volunteers who join them on these missions, something Leslie said she and Bob learned directly from Millard Fuller, who met the Bells while speaking to churches in Alaska and then encouraged them to come to Americus for a volunteer stint, where their love of international service was nurtured and flourished.

Leslie said that the volunteers on this trip are not just fulfilling needs in a community but are nourishing their own spiritual needs, adding that morning devotions before each work day are a crucial component of their trips. They also believe that by planning and organizing such trips that they are merely opening doors for other service-minded people to walk through.

“This one trip is part of their spiritual growth — it’s not a one-shot, been there, done that, got the t-shirt kind of thing,” Leslie said. “Our morning devotions is a really important time because that’s where we connect, where we share not just things that inspire us but share our questions, share why we’re doing what we’re doing and what draws us here. … I know that 100 percent of the people who go on our trips are going because of something that they need to grow and understand why they do what they do. If you give them an opportunity to learn that, it helps the teams be successful.”

“We want their experiences to be personal,” she added. “We’re not there to make their experience our experience. We want them to have the opportunity to build a relationship with the homeowner or be one-on-one with the community’s kids so that when they leave, it’s their place. .. It’s about setting up opportunities for them to grow and learn on their own.”

become a global builder

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: