In recent days, our nation has celebrated, in particular, the life and legacy of the late Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; and, in general, King’s vision in the ongoing struggle for civil rights on behalf of those dis-enfranchised, in whatever way, with respect to the “American dream” of dignity, freedom and justice for all.
Concerning the latter, if many these days likely know the story of the late Millard Fuller, the “father” of Habitat for Humanity, and may have even participated in this vital ministry which provides suitable housing for those who might not otherwise be afforded such, I’m also aware of how few seem to know the story of Habitat’s “grandfather.”
The late Reverend Clarence Jordan (pronounced Jerdan, in his south Georgia drawl) grew up in prominent, affluent family circumstances. Following his graduation, with a degree in agriculture, from the University of Georgia, Clarence attended the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, where he graduated with a Ph. D. in the Bible’s Greek New Testament.
Along the way of his youthful journey, despite the culturally defined conformist appearance, Clarence was becoming notably radicalized with respect to the claims of Christian discipleship. “I tricked myself,” he once told me. “I memorized the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7), so I could show off as an aspiring young minister. Except, then I started paying attention to what Jesus is saying” in that seminal portion of scripture.
If “pacifism” were ever an acceptable ethical norm anywhere, it was hardly, here in America at least, during the height of our nation’s engagement in World War II. Yet Clarence had become a “pacifist.”
Nor was the nation, much less Jordan’s native Southland, prepared for his vision of “inter-racial community.”
Not to mention, the economic implications, expressed so formidably in the Sermon on the Mount, for the kind of Christian “community/fellowship/communion” the Greek New Testament calls koinonia.
“I knew no self-respecting Southern Baptist Church would ever call me as its pastor,” Dr. Jordan would later say. Thus it was in 1942 (a year before I was born) that Clarence and his wife, Florence, along with another young couple, the Martin Englands, who shared the Jordan’s vision of “radical Christian community”; with, in fact, the financial assistance of a wealthy Jewish businessman, from Louisville, the Jordans and Englands cobbled together enough money to finance the purchase of a modest parcel of land, near Americus, Georgia, on which they proceeded to farm peanuts and other southern specialties.
They called it Koinonia. Indeed, a “radical witness to Christian community” resting on those three moral principles: non-violence, racial equality and the economic justice of mutually and voluntarily shared material resources.
If Koinonia’s neighbors may have looked askance at the Jordans and Englands and others who joined them during those early years, still relations were cordial enough to avert open conflict.
By the 1950′s, however, as the larger civil rights movement became so threatening to so many, certainly in the South, along with the “Red Scare” of the “McCarthy Hearings” in that Cold War era, Koinonia became the object of overt violence, including death threats and failed assassination attempts aimed at Jordan, his family and followers. An economic boycott, perpetrated by the local business and financial establishment, represented even more grave consequences. But for the support of friends from across the country, Koinonia’s witness might have been destroyed.
Yet it was when the Jordans were expelled from the nearby Southern Baptist Church in and through which, as faithful members, they had served with sincere devotion; indeed, it was this, more than any other form of being violated, that broke Clarence’s heart. The “formal charge” was that of “befriending colored people,” including “inviting them to church.” This, in a congregation that supported the sending of missionaries to Africa. The Jordans had betrayed the local mores and manners of southern civility. Those good church folk found such Jordan kind of Christians too threatening to be around, and for Clarence, it was like being kicked out of his family.
In the face of such painful reality, Clarence Jordan’s sense of humor served him as well as his intelligence, character and courage. Or as he once put it, after having been investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee: “I can’t imagine being a Christian and not being called a Communist. And to become defensive, that’s like running for your birth certificate anytime someone calls you an SOB!”
The late Ken Chafin, another distinguished Baptist minister, put it well, when he said: “Clarence Jordan loved his enemies. Clarence’s friends didn’t necessarily love his enemies, but he did.”
I met Dr. Jordan in 1968, not long after Millard Fuller had come into his life.
An attorney and successful businessman, Fuller had become a millionaire at a notably young age. Still, he was spiritually restless. Or as Jordan interpreted I Timothy 6: 10, such affluence can be “quite a burden to carry.” With a spiritual sensitivity comparable to his business acumen, Millard Fuller–a pilgrim, a seeker–he showed up one day at Koinonia asking Clarence Jordan to be his mentor; or as it is often more formally expressed, his “spiritual director.”
Koinonia certainly could have used Millard Fuller’s money. Except, as in each of the Synoptic Gospels, for what Jesus explains to yet another “rich young man” (Mark 10, Matthew 19, Luke 18). Clarence told Millard he would have to liquidate his assets before he could become a part of the “community.” Unlike that other young fellow, so “burdened by his affluence,” Fuller, however, didn’t, as the Bible says it, “walk away sorrowful.”
That’s when Clarence Jordan (the “grandfather”) and Millard Fuller (the “father”) began to envision what would become, even as it continues today, the ministry of Habitat for Humanity.
Dr. Jordan died in 1969, and Millard Fuller has died in more recent years.
As Koinonia continues its vital, prophetic Christian witness, each year at Christmas time I send a contribution to its ministry in memory of Clarence, who touched mine and so many other lives in such a profound way. I also order some “hickory smoked pecans” from trees Jordan, the farmer, planted and the “smokehouse” he built more than half-a-century ago. This, from Koinonia’s “mail order business,” which began back when that local economic boycott threatened the “community’s” existence. Today it’s called “Koinonia Partners.”
Ever the country Baptist preacher and New Testament Greek scholar, Dr. Jordan translated portions of the New Testament into the vernacular of the American south and its culture, which he entitled “The Cotton Patch Gospel.” There has even been a catchy, penetrating “musical” produced, bearing the same name, which is available on DVD. Harry Chapin wrote the music.
As Paul Harvey used to say, “And now you know the rest of the story . . .” that of “Habitat’s Grandfather” . . . Clarence Jordan.