Photo: Talbotton native Clarence Jordan (left) and Lanett native Millard Fuller at Sumter County’s Koinonia Farm, where each was crazy enough to think they could change the world.
Note: This is an extended version of the column that ran in the October 5, 2021 Columbus Ledger-Enquirer.
It’s Tuesday morning, October 5, which means I’m waking up in a hotel room in Lanett, Alabama — where everyone operates on Eastern Time … except the cell phone towers. (I’m a little tired of having to do math to set the alarm on my cell phone. What’s next? Facebook going down?)
(Actually, it’s Friday evening as I’m writing this in advance, so I’m merely assuming I’m waking up Tuesday morning in a hotel room in Lanett, Alabama. If I don’t show up where I’m supposed to be today, please go check hotel rooms in Lanett for my lifeless body and find out who did it. Could be my bookie’s Cousin Vito, but more likely it was Colonel Sanders.)
I’m here to meet friends in adjacent West Point, Georgia, where dozens of folks from as far away as Arizona, Nevada, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Belize, Americus and a whole bunch of other exotic places have gathered to build a couple of houses with the Chattahoochee Fuller Center Project in celebration of a man who changed the world, Millard Fuller. He was crazy. And that’s why he changed the world.
He grew up here in Lanett, where he was born in 1935. He would go on to school at Auburn and Alabama — I guess he had no stake in the Iron Bowl — and got a law degree. Along the way, however, he discovered he had a knack for selling … anything. Tall and charismatic with a proud Southern accent and unbridled enthusiasm, he was a natural and made a fortune. It’s a skill I can’t grasp. I couldn’t sell a $5 Ferrari.
With business partner Morris Dees, he became a millionaire — in the 1960s. You likely know the rest of the story: He and wife Linda were unhappy with their wealthy lifestyle. To save their marriage, they gave it all away and became poor again. Happily poor. They hit the reset button to find their purpose in life. They took off to Florida for a vacation to think about it and then dropped by a little farm in Sumter County — an intentional Christian community founded by a radical (for his time) theologian named Clarence Jordan.
The Talbotton-born Clarence and Lanett-born Millard hit it off immediately, and Clarence would help them find their purpose after inviting them to stay at the farm, where white folks and black folks — gasp — lived and worked and worshiped side-by-side as equals. (That was pretty crazy in those days, and they often paid the price.) Millard and Linda went to live at Koinonia in the late 1960s. The mix of Clarence’s principles and Millard’s entrepreneurial genius was potent.
Among the ideas that sprang from it was partnership housing. There was also partnership economics, partnership farming and so on, but the basic principle was “enlightened charity,” or as Clarence wrote: “What the poor need isn’t charity but capital, not case workers but co-workers.”
Seeing the awful shacks in which the poor of Sumter County lived — especially in the black community — Millard and Linda decided to run with the partnership housing concept. They took it on the road to test it out. In fact, they picked up their family and moved to Zaire, in the heart of the Congo, to try it out — definitely crazy. If it worked there, it could work anywhere, they figured.
It indeed worked, and they came back to the U.S. in 1976 and started Habitat for Humanity with the crazy dream of eradicating poverty housing … in the whole world! Then he decided to twist the arm of some recently unemployed fellow by the name of Jimmy to support his crazy dream. The former president warned his wife, Rosalynn, that they would hear Millard out but not commit to more than one or two things. Millard showed up with a long list. Crazy! The Carters agreed to every bit of it and are grateful today that they did.
In 2005, after butting heads with the Habitat board and ultimately getting fired, Millard and Linda went back to their roots with the grass-roots Fuller Center for Housing. Their headquarters, a little building that once houses a Chinese restaurant in Americus, was given to them. It was quaint, but Millard wasn’t interested in a lot of overhead or bureaucracy. The money came into headquarters, the money went out to work in the field — building and repairing homes. When Millard died in 2009, The Fuller Center doubled-down on those grass-roots principles. Today, more than 90 percent of Fuller Center revenues go directly to work in the field. I urge you to compare that to some of the more familiar big-wig names. (Spoiler alert: The Fuller Center’s ratios far exceed nonprofit industry standards, especially most of those in nonprofit housing.)
The Chattahoochee Fuller Center Project here in Lanett is a covenant partner of The Fuller Center for Houising. In fact, they’ve build more new homes than any other Fuller Center partner in the U.S., a number that increased sharply as they led home rebuilding efforts after the 2019 tornado in Lee County.
That’s why I’m in Lanett this morning and in West Point all day — to honor a man who was just crazy enough to think he could change the world … for the better. Generally, those are exactly the kind of folks who do just that. Normal folks don’t go looking for the South Pole or the top of Mount Everest. Normal folks don’t go sailing off on a flat Earth. Normal folks don’t invent light bulbs or try to fly. Crazy folks, meanwhile, have an awful lot of trouble understanding the word “no.”
So, today’s a good day to honor the bold, audacious dreamers who are crazy enough to think they can build a better world. And you’ve had more than a few from the Chattahoochee Valley, not just Clarence and Millard. Celebrate them. Honor them. Emulate their best qualities, first among which would be to dream big.
Fortunately, you don’t seem to be overly burdened with normal folks around this here parts. At least, I haven’t encountered too many of them.