Christ in the Cotton Patch: Clarence Jordan and Koinonia Farm

10/19/2012 08:02 am ET | Updated Dec 19, 2012

Drive a hundred or so miles southwest from Atlanta's Greenbriar Mall, site of the first Chick-fil-A restaurant and you will arrive in Americus, Ga. Twenty-five years before S. Truett Cathy founded his fast-food empire, another Christian endeavor was just getting started.

A self-described "agricultural missionary enterprise," Koinonia Partners has weathered great opposition over its 70-year history. While Chik-fil-A faced "kiss-ins" this summer after Dan Cathy said he believes marriage equality advocates are "inviting God's judgment on our nation," Koinonia's residents have had crosses burned on their farm, bullets shot through their windows and bombs thrown at their buildings.

As conscientious objectors during the Second World War, the earliest residents were criticized for their pacifism; as sharers of a common purse during the Red Scare, later participants were condemned as communists; and as integrationists in the era before Brown v. Board of Education, the community faced violent hostility from its neighbors.

Last weekend, a symposium led by former President Jimmy Carter convened to remember Clarence Jordan, the man who founded Koinonia Farm, and next month a reunion of former residents of the farm will mark Koinonia's 70th anniversary.

In 1942, things were just getting started at Koinonia Farm. "For everything," as the writer of Ecclesiastes observed so long ago, "there is a season." The seasons of sowing and harvesting are as fixed in the American South as they are anywhere else in God's glorious creation. The planting and plucking of pecans in Georgia follows the same schedule as that of some other flowering trees, namely apples, peaches, walnuts, pears, plums, figs, apricots, nectarines, chestnuts and persimmons.

These are the very tree varieties that two young couples began planting on their nascent farm in Americus, Ga. Clarence and Florence Jordan, along with Martin and Mable England, borrowed a mule team to plow for a vegetable garden they would seed that spring, prepared fence lines to enclose the cattle and hogs they would later purchase, and built chicken coops to shelter to the hens whose eggs they would one day sell.

None of this building or preparing or planting surprised their Georgian neighbors, but when Clarence Jordan and Martin England began sitting down for lunch with their African-American farmhand, the residents of Sumter County were outraged.

A band of men from the Ku Klux Klan appeared one night early in Koinonia's history. "We understand you been taking your meals with the nigger," said their spokesman, according to Dallas Lee's hagiographical "The Cotton Patch Evidence," "and we're here to tell you we don't allow the sun to set on anybody who eats with niggers."

Clarence Jordan smiled and, speaking on behalf of the two families, said, "I'm a Baptist preacher and I just graduated from the Southern Baptist Seminary. I've heard about people who had power over the sun, but I never hoped to meet one."

The Klansmen returned Jordan's smile, unclenching their fists. Even their menacing spokesman was chastened: his father was also a Baptist preacher. This early encounter is representative of both the tensions that the residents of Koinonia Farm were to face and the candor with which they continue live on what they call "a demonstration plot for the Kingdom of God."

Community has always been a contested idea in Christianity, lived in various ways since the days of the Apostles, those earliest years described in the Book of Acts. From separatists like Anabaptists and Pilgrims to monastics like the Desert Fathers and the Benedictines, Christians have long wrestled with how best to live out their faith in the world.

Clarence Jordan wrestled most with the idea of community as he was completing his doctorate at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. As an undergraduate, Jordan had studied agriculture at the University of Georgia, but in his graduate studies of Koine Greek, he fixated on a single word from the New Testament.

That word, κοινωνία, is found in Acts and the Apostle Paul's letters to the Corinthians, the Philippians, and Philemon. In the second chapter of Acts, the earliest followers of Christ are described as follows: "they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship (koinonia), to the breaking of bread and the prayers ... and had all things in common (koina); they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need."

From this account in Acts, Jordan came to define koinonia as "deep fellowship" where "newly-found spiritual life revolved around the church, or brotherhood." Definition was only the beginning. Jordan hoped to foster a fellowship like that of the early Christians in Acts.

"We have come together," Jordan wrote in an article for The Journal of Religious Thought, "from many denominations, occupations, and sections of the nation. Some of us are white, some Negro. Our education ranges from illiteracy to Ph.D. Our economic backgrounds are from middle-class to poor. We come from both farms and cities, from North and South."

While Koinonia Farm embraced many varieties of diversity, its most striking was its racial diversity. Born in 1912 in Talbot County, Jordan had always been passionate about racial justice. Even as a child, he found a popular Sunday School song inimical to his life in Georgia. If "Jesus loves the little children, / All the children of the world / Red and yellow, black and white / All are precious in his sight," then how cold it be that society so perniciously discriminated against African Americans?

From busing local African-American children to school to hosting interracial summer camps, Koinonia realized integration. In his letters and sermons, Jordan expressed his particular desire that Koinonia would provide a national example for racial integration in America.

In a sermon titled "The Mind of Christ in the Racial Conflict," Jordan preached: "I can hardly take it at times when the whole integration struggle is being fought, not in the household of God, but in the bus depots, sitting around Woolworth's counter, arguing over whether you can eat hamburger and drink Cokes together."

Jordan was ashamed by the integration of schools and buses before churches. He longed for the willing integration of life at the table and the font in Southern churches. "We ought to be sitting around Jesus' table drinking wine and eating bread together," he lamented.

Its pacifism and communalism drew scrunity, Koinonia Farm's integrationist agenda inspired legal harassment, economic discrimination and physical violence. Jordan dated the peak of opposition to August of 1950, when a resident at Koinonia took a visiting Hindu student to worship at nearby Rehoboth Baptist Church. The Indian man was mistaken for an African-American man, and the Rehoboth church council forbade Koinonia Farm residents from attending services.

Koinonia experienced more aggressive persecution six years later after Jordan attempted to sponsor two African-American students at the Atlanta's Georgia Business College. Threatening phone calls gave way to economic boycotts, leaving Koinonia isolated in Sumter County without local customers.

By 1957, a series of shootings, bombings and cross burnings led Koinonia Farm to create a mail-order catalogue to sell its products. Almost half of Koinonia's income still comes from these catalogs. Pecans have always been among their most popular items, inspiring the mail-order slogan: "Help us ship the nuts out of Georgia."

For the next 10 years, Koinonia's numbers dwindled. It was not until December of 1965, a year after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, that Jordan and his faithful remnant would find a new direction. That month, a couple visited Koinonia in an effort to save their marriage. Leaving behind their professional lives in Montgomery, Ala., Millard and Linda Fuller intended to visit Koinonia for a day, but stayed for an entire month.

In his autobiographical manifest "The Theology of the Hammer," Millard Fuller described his first encounter with Jordan and Koinonia:

"Clarence," he wrote, "introduced me to 'the God movement' (his term for the Kingdom of God), to the concept of being God's partner and partners with one another to do God's work in the world. He also introduced me to the clear imperative in the Gospels to act our faith."

From that introduction, Fuller found a new focus for his entrepreneurism. Already a millionaire, he liquidated his assets and left his law firm, which had defended one of the Montgomery Klansman who attacked a bus full of Freedom Riders in 1961. Fuller's law partner was Morris Dees, who would later found the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Fuller and his wife moved to Koinonia Farm, where they lived for five years. By 1969, Fuller had already made Clarence Jordan's dream of low-income housing a reality. Jordan's hope for a "Fund for Humanity" that would finance no-interest loans for those who did not qualify for commercial loans led would become Fuller's Habitat for Humanity, which has built more than a half-million homes around the world.

With Fuller at work on low-income housing initiatives, Jordan pursued another one of his passions. One by one, Jordan rendered the gospels and epistles of the New Testament into "The Cotton Patch Version," using contemporary speech and altering the setting from the Middle East to the American South. Beginning in 1963 with Hebrews and finishing with Luke and Acts just before his death in 1969, Jordan relocated Jesus Christ from the depths of dusty tomes to the cotton patch.

Transplanting the New Testament from Palestine to America, Jordan's "Cotton Patch Version" offered a Gospel story in which Jesus is born in Gainesville and begins his ministry after being baptized by John in the Chattahoochee River. The Cotton Patch Christ heals and preachers in Savannah, Dalton, Calhoun, Augusta and Griffin, before being crucified by Governor Pilate in Atlanta. In his 1968 introduction of "The Cotton Patch Version of Paul's Epistles," Jordan explained two particularly controversial aspects of the work: translating "crucifixion" as "lynching" and "Jew and Gentile" as "white man and Negro."

This was a Jesus who, like Jordan, would not tolerate segregation. A Christ, who like Clarence, would not abide economic injustice.

Koinonia Farm