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Kirk Lyman-Barner

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Celebrating the 100th Birthday of Clarence Jordan: The Man Who Inspired the Fullers' Affordable Housing Movement

Posted: 08/12/2012 9:20 am

Clarence Jordan (July 29, 1912 - Oct. 29, 1969) would have turned 100 recently. A farmer with a degree in agriculture from the University of Georgia and a Doctorate in New Testament Greek, Jordan was a widely admired scholar and preacher.

In 1942, Clarence and his wife Florence, along with Martin and Mabel England, purchased a farm near Americus, Ga., and named it Koinonia, from the Greek word meaning community or fellowship. The farm was to challenge the deeply entrenched segregation in the South by becoming an integrated intentional Christian community that was a "demonstration plot for the kingdom of God."

This radical effort went largely unnoticed by the local citizens of Sumter County until the court ordered desegregation of schools began in the early 1950s. But the community that farmed together and had whites and African Americans sharing meals together was seen as a threat and the Ku Klux Klan took notice. Koinonia suffered property damage, shootings and bombings. The Jordans and Koinonians were excommunicated from the Baptist church they attended, and crosses were burned on the Farm.

Sumter County residents imposed a complete economic boycott on Koinonia, hoping to shut it down. Koinonia decided to shift their efforts to a federally protected postal service mail-order pecan business, appealing to supportive individuals and churches around country "Help us ship the nuts out of Georgia."

The Farm survived the boycott and became the spiritual birthplace of some big ideas.

Known for his humor, Jordan translated much of the Greek New Testament into his "Cotton Patch Gospel," changing the geographical locations of the story to 20th century southern Georgia locals and incorporating the distinctly Southern vernacular. Actor Tom Key along with Harry Chapin turned the "Cotton Patch Gospel" into a successful off-Broadway hit musical which won many awards and continues to be one of the most often performed play by churches, schools and theater groups around the nation.

It is hard to overstate the importance of Clarence Jordan to the modern affordable housing movement.

Jordan's thinking was molded and nurtured during his time studying at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky. Clarence and some of his maverick classmates such as Henlee Barnett, Carlyle Marney, Frank Stagg, Wayne Oates were introduced to the Walter Raushenbush and the Social Gospel Movement. The students engaged in experiments such as Union Street Gospel Mission attempting to help the poor, integrate races, and by living in intentional Christian community. They tried to model their efforts on the early Christian community as reported in the second chapter of Acts.

It was at Southern Baptist Seminary in the 1930s that Clarence Jordan first came up with the "Fund for Humanity" concept. It's the model for how The Fuller Center uses mortgage payments from homeowners' zero-interest loans to help fund housing for others in need.

Clarence Jordan has often been remembered for saying, "What the poor need is not charity but capital, not caseworkers but co-workers." But he followed this with a challenging sentence that most people don't hear: "And what the rich need is a wise, honorable and just way of divesting themselves of their overabundance." Jordan thought the Fund for Humanity would solve both of those needs.

An attorney and an entrepreneur with a golden touch, Millard Fuller and his wife Linda visited the farm in 1965. Though he was a millionaire, Millard had been so driven by success at an early age that Linda became discontent in their marriage. After a brief separation, they decided to give up their wealth and began exploring a new direction for their life when they visited Koinonia Farm in 1965

The Fuller's visit with Clarence Jordan was supposed to be just a couple of hours. Millard remembered that visit: "I met Clarence. When we started talking, I knew that guy was somebody special. So we stayed a month. Clarence and I milked cows together, and we packed pecans together, and day and night we talked about how to be a Christian. I was like a year, or two years, of seminary crammed into one month." The Fullers remained close to Koinonia and the Jordans for the next few years.

In October 1968, in a letter to the Farm's supporters, Clarence outlined a new vision to help sharecrop farmers purchase land they would own called Partnership Farming, Partnership Industries which was a continuation and expansion of their mail order business and Partnership Housing to build modest homes for their poor neighbors. All three partnership programs would be supported by the Fund for Humanity.

Almost exactly one year later, Clarence passed away before the completion of the first partnership house for Bo and Emma Johnson. Though his mentor was gone, Millard Fuller remained enamored with the Fund for Humanity concept.

Fuller's book "Bokotola" tells the story of a grand experiment to put Jordan's partnership housing idea to the test in Mbandaka, Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. During a trip last year to visit a Fuller Center covenant partner deep in the Congo jungle, I had the chance to stop in Mbandaka with a group of representatives from the Southeast United Church of Christ and see the houses the Fullers built there. Some of the houses are still occupied by their original homeowner families and remain in excellent shape.

The homes stand today as one of the nicest neighborhoods in the entire city. The impact of that early experiment is that every time a homeowner makes a house payment on a Habitat for Humanity or Fuller Center mortgage, paying capital forward to help other neighbors in need, this is a quiet and simple witness to Clarence's powerful idea that changed the world.

More than 500,000 families worldwide have partnered with Fuller-founded organizations to obtain simple, decent housing. Millard Fuller received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Clinton in 1996. At the time, Clinton said, "I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that Millard Fuller has literally revolutionized the concept of philanthropy."

Koinonia Farm continues today striving to be a demonstration plot for the Kingdom of God focusing on farming, food, peacemaking and is seen a model community for the New Monastic Movement. The pecan mail order business remains one of their most important business efforts.

This fall, Jordan will be remembered with the Koinonia Farm 2012 Celebration, chaired by the Jordan's son Lenny, which will begin with the Clarence Jordan Symposium to be held in Americus, Ga., on Sept. 28-29. The event will bring together theologians, activists, academics and lay leadership influenced by Jordan and the Koinonia experiment that is going strong today. President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn Carter are honorary co-chairs. Tom Key will perform his one man version of The Cotton Patch Gospel. Topics will include homiletics, partnership housing, environmental theology, racial reconciliation, civil rights, agriculture and more. The honoring of Jordan's legacy that will continue for a month will include the Renovation Blitz Build at the farm Oct. 1-26 and the Koinonia Family Reunion Oct. 26-28.

To listen to Clarence Jordan and see a video produced by Habitat for Humanity, click here.

 
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