At the midpoint of life, you start to take stock of your accomplishments and see where they rank. One of the most important accomplishments of my ministry —if not the most important— was being a part of the “100 House Challenge” at Highland Park UMC in Dallas.
This Saturday, HPUMC’s “Carpenter’s for Christ” will dedicate their 100th home built with Dallas Area Habitat for Humanity. This fulfills a commitment first made in the late 1990s, negotiated by myself, on behalf of HPUMC; and Dallas Area Habitat for Humanity.
ONE. HUNDRED. HOMES.
When I hear what’s happening with “Carpenter’s for Christ” now, and knowing the very early history, I’m reminded of this:
Now and then in life, God places a door in front of you. Maybe it doesn’t look like a big door at the time. Maybe it seems others are opening bigger doors, and that your little door doesn’t matter much.
Or, maybe it is a big door, and that’s what makes it scary to open. It’s so big that it’s hard to see where the door leads. It’s hard to see how you will handle what comes on the other side.
The point is this…
When God places that door in front of us, our only calling is to open it and walk through… in faith…and to trust that others will open their own doors too. We must trust that, together, we can create realities out of dreams that are far grander than any we can achieve on our own.
That’s what began to happen at HPUMC in the late 1990s. All sorts of people opened the doors —big and small— that God put in front of them. They stepped out in faith, that faith has led to 100 houses being built for the poor.
Among those who walked through their doors…
— The four original lay members of HPUMC, who had a vision for us to become active in Habitat.
— Mark Craig who, despite early fears and concerns, came to be a big supporter
— The thousands of volunteers, who took countless Saturdays and weekdays off, to swing a hammer and pound a nail.
— The hundreds and hundreds (if not thousands) of DONORS who have funded ONE HUNDRED houses. That’s a HUGE financial commitment.
— Millard Fuller, who cast the original vision (more on that in a moment…)
— Rex Spivey, who was director of Dallas Habitat at the time, and his staff.
— Staff from HPUMC over the years…myself….Linda Roby…Joe B. Fortson…and others…who help to keep things going and, most importantly, try to not to screw up the innate power and energy of the movement.
But, before I talk about each of these…pause for a moment with me to reflect…
ONE. HUNDRED. FAMILIES.
Think about that…
One hundred FAMILIES.
You see, a Habitat home changes the future trajectory of a family. These families are, now and forever, out from under exorbitant rents and slum lords. They are safe in the the security of their own home. As such, new dreams and visions can emerge. Money can be saved for kids to go to college. Opportunities open up that were never possible before.
When we first started to build with Habitat, we would say…”A Habitat home changes the future trajectory of a family.”
So many years have now passed that this statement can now be proven in fact. Joe B. Fortson, the current staff persons who works with “Carpenter’s for Christ,” tells me that some of the kids in these families have gone to college. They are the next generation of the American dream. And a big part of their being able to move forward, economically and socially, was the stability and security of being in a safe, affordable home as these children grew.
ONE HUNDRED families.
Think of the scale of that. Now, put that alongside the hundreds of other homes Habitat has been building alongside each of these hundred. For every house HPUMC built, Habitat built many many more.
You see, the other thing we always used to say is that “Habitat homes change the future trajectory of a neighborhood.”
And, again, so many years have passed that we can also see this is true. Together with other Habitat families, next door and down their block, these 100 families have become a “critical mass” in each of their neighborhoods. These families, like pioneers of old, literally take back whole city blocks and neighborhoods, from gangs, drug dealers, crime…and make them safe and livable areas again.
I still recall the Blitz Build of 1997 (more on that in a minute…). An HPUMC member, who was a Dallas Police officer, told me that his beat was that very block in the North Fair Park neighborhood. He remembers the drug dealer —who he arrested numerous times—who used to sit at the very end of that block day after day. But not after Habitat moved in.
The Habitat houses built in that neighborhood —the thirteen that week, and many more in the next year or two— transformed the neighborhood, not just those families.
ONE. HUNDRED. HOMES.
No church in the entire world (yes, world) has fulfilled this kind of commitment, over time. Congratulations to all those who have done the heavy lifting to build the bulk of this commitment: the 87 homes that were built after I left HPUMC. Congratulations to Paul Rassmussen, and everyone at HPUMC today. You deserve much credit for staying with this incredibly big challenge, and for seeing it through.
But back to the metaphor of opening the doors that God puts in front of us, and those early years. Because the story of how each one opened their door, helps us see how such a great thing actually happens.
“Carpenter’s for Christ” started with four lay families at Highland Park who, separately and passionately, approached Mark Craig about HPUMC getting involved with Habitat: Kent and Susan Roberts, Doug and Jeanne Reinelt, Phillip Wise, and Stephen White especially. These key lay folks opened the doors in front of them. And none of these 100 houses would have happened without them.
But to his credit, Mark Craig also opened his door too. He immediately saw the benefit of being involved in this kind of outreach ministry. He knew it would change the lives of the volunteers/members who got involved (and it has). He also knew that raising these hundreds of thousands of mission dollars would not necessarily take away from funds people gave to the church. (and it has not) And, to his credit, he placated untold number of people, behind the scenes, who were apparently concerned that it would.
Mark personally attended each of the first five house dedications for the houses HPUMC built. That early support cannot be underestimated. None of these 100 houses would have happened without him. He opened his door too.
As Outreach Minister, it sounds like tooting my own horn a bit to talk about my own “door.” But, the point here is that it’s never really about your own skill or brilliance. It’s just about opening the door. Being present…doing what you can with the place God has placed you.
And so it was that I was present when Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat for Humanity, opened his door too.
In those days, Dallas was fortunate, because at the time Millard Fuller’s daughter (and maybe more importantly, grandchildren) lived in the MidCities. So, Millard came through more often than average. Which meant, we got to have lunches and dinners with him rather frequently.
In the fall of 1999, Dallas Habitat told me Millard would again be in town, 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 Millard and me sat alone in Mark’s study that Sunday morning, he told me a bit about what he planned to say in his sermon that day.
After outlining it, he shared his punchine.
“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 too. We had been having great success with our builds. But at that very moment, we had diverted away from houses, and were building a community center with Habitat in South Dallas. 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. That project did not engender the same enthusiasm that building houses had. I was worried about volunteer fatigue, and finances.
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 to him, “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 1999, Millard preached. He told his typical, inspirational 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.
When Mark returned from vacation, he was, to put it mildly, not totally thrilled. He was more than a bit frustrated with me. He knew immediately what a commitment this would be. And, we were in the midst of a huge capital campaign too…to transform the home campus of the church.
He was also a bit frustrated because, frankly, the lay folks were already pumped and excited about it. It had a momentum of its own. But, from his chair, Senior Pastor of this large church, the devil was in the details…how could we actually do it? How could we sustain such a huge effort of resources, person power, and energy?
Mark eventually overcame his initial fear and anxiety, and once again, as with the start of “Carpenter’s for Christ,” he became a major supporter. I understand that the 100th house is dedicated to him. This is very appropriate. None of this could have happened, without Mark opening the door in front of him.
I was sent to Atlanta, on behalf of our church, to investigate what Peachtree Presbyterian had done. I interviewed some of the staff of there. What I found was troubling. It turned out, it was going to be even more of a challenge than we realized, financially.
Peachtree had made a deal that every house they built would qualify for a faith-community grant from their local Habitat affiliate. Their homes were just half the cost of a regular Habitat house!! Well, it was easy to see how you could build that many houses, if it just cost half!
So, I came back from Atlanta, despairing. How would we make this happen? We had numerous meetings with Dallas Habitat staff, to discuss how both they and we might change our processes….streamline things…to make building easier and most cost effective on a larger scale.
This is the door that Dallas Habitat, and Rex Spivey, walked though. Frankly, they also didn’t know how they could manage 100 houses.
As Rex once told me, “Millard’s dreams become Habitat staff’s nightmares…”
From my chair, all these years later, even though we didn’t implement half of the ideas we brainstormed back then, it got both partners dreaming on a much larger scale. I’d like to believe that the 100 House commitment helped Dallas Habitat, overall. It helped them dream of increasingly larger visions for transforming whole neighborhoods…on a grander and broader scale…which they absolutely have done in the ensuing years.
Dallas Habitat also walked through their door too.
My point in telling all these stories is what I said at the beginning: None of this could have happened without scores of people, walking through the doors God opened to them at the time.
Could we see clearly, logistically and financially, how we would build 100 homes, on the day we signed that agreement in 2000?
No. We could not. It was an act of faith. Like getting married, you really have no idea where the journey will take you. But you take the journey in faith, trusting that God will provide the way.
Time and time again, God has provide the way. And so, again, all credit to God.
But all thanks to the great staff and people of Highland Park UMC too, for seeing this major commitment through to completion. Highland Park UMC has kept walking through the doors in front of them, year after year, trusting that the way would be opened to them. And it has.
And I look forward to being with them this coming Saturday as they celebrate the 100th house.
One of the best weeks of my entire life was in mid-September, 1997.
Kent and Susan Roberts were the chairs of “Carpenter’s for Christ,” and we had committed to building THREE houses, as a part of a large “Blitz Build” in the North Fair Park area of Dallas. All told, thirteen houses were going up on that street. Again, the largest “blitz build” Dallas Habitat had done to date. (They’ve scaled up much larger since…)
Millard Fuller came into town again. Habitat designated one of our three houses as their “60,000th House” worldwide. Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk came for a ceremony.
Governor Bush made an appearance, mid-week, to thank the workers.
The build clearly captured the attention of local TV. They all did stories. Just last week, I finally pulled out a dusty videotape that’s been in the bottom of a closet for two decades, of news footage from the time. Here it is. (Yes, I really used to look like that…)
If the references to “Princess Diana” and “Mother Teresa” seem weird, it’s because they had both just died. Almost every reporter who interviewed us that week tried to make some connection between what we were doing that week, and their deaths.
“Were we volunteering in the spirit of Diana and Teresa?”
“Well, no. This build has been planned for months. We’re volunteering to help these families and change whole neighborhoods.”
Thankfully, most of the reporters backed off that non-existent angle….but it comes up in one of the interviews…and that’s why…
HPUMC also did something else quite edgy for the time too: Through Kent and Susan’s connections, we invited a Dallas Mosque to build alongside of us. It was the first time in Habitat history worldwide, that a Mosque and Church built a Habitat home together. That was huge and groundbreaking too.
It was the first time I’d worked alongside Muslims on any interfaith project. As you may know, interfaith work has become a passion of mine in the present day. But it all started back then.
I prevailed on my friend, Rev. Kathleen Baskin, to come and interpret. The Ruiz family —who were set to live in that 60,000th house— did not speak English well. So, Kathleen spent a part of her day, translating for both the media and the 60,000th house ceremony.
I also recall Billy Crockett helped sponsor another of the homes. Inmates helped build yet another….a work-release program where they got to build in the hopes that they would rehabilitate their own lives, get out, and perhaps consider the stability of a Habitat home for themselves.
As you might expect, a few (not all!) of HPUMC’s volunteers were quite wealthy. I mention that last fact because of the following thought that rattled in my brain all that week:
“Prisoners and millionaires…Christians, Muslims and Jews…all working together to build houses for the poor….if that’s not the Kingdom of God, I don’t know what is…”
But the other reason that weekend sticks in my memory so prominently is that it was also the week Maria was born. Somehow, in the midst of all of this, that happened too, It was a crazy busy time, professionally and personally. I don’t ever recall being that busy in any single week, ever. But, I also don’t recall a single week of my life that has ever been filled with more joy and satisfaction either.
Such joy. Such great memories of those days. Such an honor to have played a small part in this big story, and to have helped lay the ground work that has led to this momentous day.
Thanks be to God.