I was visiting the hospital around lunchtime today, when I got a Tweet that Habitat for Humanity cofounder, Millard Fuller, had died. This news makes me terribly sad, as I consider Millard a personal hero and inspiration.
Like all of us, Millard had feet of clay. But his dreams and visions, his zest for helping the poor and less fortunate, are virtually unrivaled in our time. He is perhaps the most inspirational figure I have ever known, and I am driven to write about him today.
“Faith must become more than a verbal proclamation or an intellectual assent. True faith must be acted out.”
“”We want to make shelter a matter of conscience…We want to make it socially, morally, politically and religiously unacceptable to have substandard housing and homelessness.”
— Millard Fuller
I had the great good fortune to be with Millard Fuller at least a half dozen times during the years I served as Outreach Minister at HPUMC. And Millard was directly responsible for a thing I consider one of the greatest achievements of my ministry.
Millard used to come through town several times a year on business with Habitat. This was more often than other part of the country, because his daughter and her family live in the Mid Cities. I got the chance to be with him in at several small dinners, a few large speeches, at least one worship service, and a couple of times on the site of a Habitat build.
Millard had in infectious, larger than life, personality. He was tall and lanky. He was extremely outgoing and had a spirit that charmed, inspired, and motivated others. He and his wife, Linda, built Habitat for Humanity from a humble beginning in Americus, Georgia, to an international ministry that has, quite literally, changed the lives of millions of people and provided housing for hundreds of thousands of families.
Stop. Reread that last sentence, and think about its impact.
Millard, as others often said about him, was an entrepreneur. It was that spirit that allowed Habitat to thrive. And anyone involved in the organization understood that it was Millard’s vision that drove the entire ministry forward.
He loved to tell the Habitat story, and in the time I knew him he had become something of an “Evangelist in Chief” for Habitat.
Millard loved to tell his personal story as a transformational story, which he always began by recounting the period when he was a wealthy businessman. He had a net worth somewhere upwards of a million dollars.
But as he describes it, he was deeply unhappy. More than this, so was his wife, Linda. She let him know she wanted to leave, and they got very close to the point of divorce.
That moment led him to re-evaluate his priorities, and caused him to leave his high-powered job. He and Linda began exploring other life-goals.
That led them to a stint at Koinonia Farms, just outside Americus, Georgia. Koinonia was a Christian community that attempted to be self-sustaining, ecologically, and economically. It was a very edgy community of faith, trying to live out the Gospel in terms of what it would mean for society. Among the others inspired by their work were President Jimmy Carter, and Morris Dees. (Who later found the Southern Poverty Law Center…perhaps the nation’s foremost center for the study and tracking of racist groups like the KKK…)
Millard and Linda sold all their possessions, learned an inexpensive homebuilding model on a trip to Africa, and began what would become Habitat for Humanity.
The goal was simple and elegant: provide low-cost, affordable housing to families.
A home — especially one a family has some part in building– is the kind of thing that can change the trajectory that family forever. It creates an asset many lower income families only dream of. It provides stability for the future, and helps children achieve more.
The process is simple. Find needy families –willing to put in their own “sweat equity” on their home– find volunteers from churches and other civic groups, create usable floor plans that can be inexpensively replicated, and build as many homes as possible.
Think: George and Mary Bailey and the Bailey Building and Loan from “It’s a Wonderful Life.” If you remember that scene in front of the “Martini Castle,” then you’ve seen the gist of a Habitat Home Dedication, where the keys are turned over to the family, symbolic gifts are shared, and lives are changed forever.
One of the things Millard never forgot, and never failed remind everyone about, was Habitat’s roots as a Christian Ministry. To Millard, the power that dove Habitat –the thing that gave Habitat its moral imperative– was its foundation in the Gospel. The blunt fact that the Gospel calls us to “love our neighbor as ourselves,” and that we are called to care for the poor. That was what drove Millard. And it’s what drove him to get folks involved with Habitat.
The corporate connection was fine and dandy. But the engine of Habitat was communities of faith building houses for the poor. That’s how Millard saw it.
That’s why, I think, he took a special interest in what was happening in Dallas, and what was happening at the church I served, during the late 1990s. HPUMC, under the leadership of four extraordinary laypersons and a supportive senior pastor, undertook what we came to call “Carpenter’s for Christ.”
I suppose we could have just called it “HPUMC Habitat.” But for some reasons, “Carpenter’s” caught on as a nickname and spread like wildfire.
It was my great pleasure to work with the initial group of volunteers as we built our first house in 1996 in the “Bon Ton” area of Dallas. Mark Craig, my boss and the Senior Pastor of HPUMC, was incredibly supportive of the efforts too. To his great credit, he made it a goal to come to every one of the first dedications for those Habitat houses. (That support cannot be underestimated, in my view…)
This ministry grew and spread. It clearly filled a hole in the lives of many of the adult volunteers. On almost every Saturday, on almost every weekend, dozens of folks routinely gave their time to work on our houses; or spent endless hours in committees, doing the planning for our builds.
By the time I had left HPUMC in 2001, we had completely thirteen Habitat houses! This made use one of the largest Habitat builders in the Dallas area, in the span of a few short years.
During that time, we participated in the first-ever Dallas “Building on Faith” build, where religious communities from around the city came together to build houses together. We literally created an entire community in what was called “North Fair Park.”
An entire city block –which started out as nothing but weeds and the remnants of long-gone homes, sidewalks that led to nothing and nowhere– was transformed into a safe neighborhood for dozens of families.
A Dallas cop (A member of the church. I did his wedding) told me how that street used to be his “beat,” and how he and his partner would routinely arrest drug dealers there. But after the blitz build, and a few dozen more Habitat houses built two streets over, the area was transformed. Families moved in and created a stable, vibrant community.
Habitat not only changes the trajectory of an individual family, but also of entire neighborhoods. And, in the process, changes the lives of the many volunteers.
During our first blitz build, in 1997, Highland Park UMC built three of the dozen or so houses that were constructed as a part of that build. With one of those houses, we built alongside of the Dallas Mosque of Al-Islam. It was the first known Habitat house on the planet where a Christian church and a Muslim mosque came together to “build in faith.” Sometimes, we’d bring the meal. Other Saturdays, our Muslim friends would. It was an incredibly special time.
During the planning for this build, we were informed that the house right next door (one of our other two houses) would be designated as Habitat International’s 60,000th home. So, on the first Saturday of that build, Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk was in attendance, as was Millard and the exceedingly grateful Ruiz family. Here’s a pic from that day
Yes, I’m the beardless guy on the far right. The Ruiz family lives there to this day. I visited with them as recently as the Fall of 2006, when I made a stop by the street. Most of the houses seem well cared for, and are still owned by the original families who helped build them. In fact, it’s one of the amazing statistics about Habitat…very few families ever sell their homes, and even fewer ever default on their loans.
Those few weeks of early September in 1997 are incredibly memorable to me for so many reasons….
…the build with the Muslims…
…the 60,000th house…
…being interviewed by every news channel in Dallas
But the biggest news of all?
Maria was born that week too.
There are few times in life when that much amazingly good stuff happens in your work and home life. I will always remember those weeks. They were incredible.
Here’s a compilation of the local new coverage of that week in Dallas…
Ironically, after Habitat builds houses in a neighborhood over a period of several years, they often have to find a new place to build, because the neighborhoods recover so well that Habitat can no longer afford to build there! Private homebuilders jump in..home values rise….and Habitat, having done their job, moves on to another needy part of town.
(In Dallas, the best example of this is the Munger Place area, the very first neighborhood where Dallas Habitat built, which recovered sharply after Dallas Habitat started building there in the 1980s).
Looking back now, I can remember when we thought it would be amazing to do just one house. So, how amazing it was when we’d built thirteen!!!
But, wait…there’s more….
During the Fall of 1999, Dallas Habitat told me that Millard would be in town again, and would be available to speak at HPUMC, if we could find a time slot. I spoke with Mark about it and, as luck would have it, Mark was planning to take off Thanksgiving Weekend. Mark cleared the way for us to invite Millard to be the guest preacher at HPUMC. I served as liturgist for the day.
As we sat in Mark’s study that morning, Millard told me a little about what he planned to say that day.
And then he said, “Eric, I’ve got an idea I want to run by you…There’s a church in Atlanta, Peachtree Presbyterian, that has built almost one hundred Habitat homes over the years. I’ve been thinking that your church is the kind of church that could do that too.”
I paused for a minute, and probably stumbled a little. We had been having great success with our builds. But at the moment, we were building a community center in South Dallas. And, frankly, it had been a huge logistical headache. It was over budget, suffered hassles from City Hall, and had somewhat syphoned-off the energy of our “Carpenter’s” volunteers.
I expressed this reservation. Millard pushed back.
“Well, it would just be houses. And, like I said, there are very few churches in the world that could undertake such a thing….but I think you all could do it.”
I told Millard that it was an interesting idea, and I said, “Well then, why don’t you throw it out there, and we’ll see what happens…”
So it was that, at all three services on Thanksgiving Weekend, Millard preached to that church, and told his typical Habitat stories.
But as the punch-line, he delivered the “100 House Challenge.”
The goal: for Highland Park UMC in Dallas to build 100 Habitat for Humanity Houses.
Needless to say, when Mark returned from vacation, he was both excited and concerned. It was a tall order. How could we sustain such a huge effort of resources, person power, and energy?
I went to Atlanta, on behalf of our church, and interviewed some of the staff of Peachtree Presbyterian. I also met with Dallas Habitat staff, and we eventually signed an initial agreement of intent to complete this challenge.
Soon afterward this agreement was complete, I was moving to Northaven UMC. (These things were not related!)
But to this day, I count the creation of the 100 House Challenge as one of my greatest success of my ministry….perhaps even the greatest.
Because, should it be fulfilled, it would mean that 100 families, thousands of human beings, would have the trajectory of their lives forever altered. Entire neighborhoods in Dallas would be transformed.
I have merely watched from afar these past eight years, as the good folks on Highland Park UMC continued forward with the 100 House Challenge. But I bumped into the current chair of “Carpenter’s” at an HPUMC event just before Christmas, and he told me that they are now working on House #64!!!
It’s the kind of thing that leaves you speechless. You hope and pray that something like this can continue, and to see that it has, to see how it’s grown and expanded, is truly awe-inspiring.
Here’s a history of “Carpenter’s for Christ,” as told by Kent Roberts.
But this day, I pause to write, and to remember, the man who started it all.
Of Millard Fuller, President Jimmy Carter said this today:
“He used his remarkable gifts as an entrepreneur for the benefit of millions of needy people around the world by providing them with decent housing…As the founder of Habitat for Humanity and later the Fuller Center, he was an inspiration to me, other members of our family and an untold number of volunteers who worked side-by-side under his leadership.”
President Carter called Fuller “one of the most extraordinary people I have ever known.”
Think for a moment just how many remarkable people President Carter has known. That’s saying a lot.
Millard had an ugly split with Habitat about four years ago. There were allegations of inappropriate behavior around female staff members.
Bluntly, there were other issues going on at the time too. The board of Habitat was taking it in a more “corporate” direction, moving the headquarters from sleepy Americus to downtown Atlanta.
Frankly, I don’t know what to think of the allegations. And I certainly don’t want to deny their significance.
But I also know that Millard Fuller was more the entrepreneurial type than the corporate type. My family systems training tells me that what broke the camel’s back likely included far more than the allegations or the fact that Millard broke an agreement not to talk about them.
I don’t know these things for certain. It’s just a hunch.
I do know this: Millard led by sheer enthusiasm and energy…casting out nets of outrageous goals and visions that others were expected to reel in.
As one senior Habitat staff once joked “Millard’s dreams are the Habitat’s staff’s nightmares.”
But organizations like Habitat only flourish with that kind of crazy, outrageous vision. I think Millard sensed that Habitat’s move toward a more corporate structure also meant a move away from an explicitly Christian focus too, and my own personal sense was that it bugged him.
Millard and Linda, as I said before, gave up hundreds of thousands of dollars to create the Habitat ministry. Despite Habitat’s success, they lived relatively austerely for the rest of their lives. In fact, I recall a conversation with his daughter once, where she described their modest home in Americus. Turns out, for all the years they lived there, they never installed air conditioning. But, she told me, she had fairly well insisted on one, so that her kids (Millard and Linda’s grandchildren) would be more comfortable when they visited.
The Fuller’s relented. And, sometime during the late 1990s, they finally installed an air conditioner in their rural Georgia home.
Millard Fuller was certainly not a saint, in the traditional sense.
But, as for me?
I rate him alongside folks like Mother Theresa, Desmond Tutu, and Jim Wallis…Christians whose faith compels them to make the world a better place.
Millions of lives have been touched by his ministry and vision.
And I will always be deeply grateful that, however briefly, our paths crossed and he became one of my Balcony People.
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