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A beacon for dark times

Published April 22, 2007


With all the madness in the world, from the Virginia Tech massacre to the carnage in Iraq, Millard Fuller's letter couldn't have come at a better time, a small light breaking through the darkness. He is a good man doing God's work, and he wanted to bring me up to date on what's going on at the Fuller Center for Housing, which he started after he was maligned, fired and exiled by officials at Habitat for Humanity, the Christian housing ministry he co-founded and led for almost three decades.

Since its messy breakup with Fuller two years ago, Habitat has become more corporate. It moved its top executives from the small southwest Georgia town of Americus to Atlanta and increased their compensation (Fuller had insisted on modest salaries for Habitat leaders). Its new spiritual leader and most famous volunteer carpenter is former President Jimmy Carter, who once wrote that Fuller inspired him to pick up a hammer for Habitat but now rarely mentions his name when talking about the organization. Habitat, an international brand name, continues to raise big money and build small houses, even though it lost some longtime contributors who thought Fuller had been treated unjustly.

The Fuller Center for Housing is not as big or as well-known as Habitat, but it has allowed Fuller and his wife, Linda, to continue to build houses for low-income people in partnership with churches, businesses and individuals. Fuller, who received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian award, says his housing center should not be seen as a rival to Habitat but as a partner. Although he disagrees with the new direction of Habitat International, Fuller said he has been working with local Habitat affiliates around the country and speaking on their behalf.

In his latest book, Building Materials for Life, Fuller writes: "I pray for all of Habitat, and I hope that it continues to thrive and be a blessing to thousands more people in the years ahead. There is no shortage of need. We are not in competition with Habitat. The Fuller Center is an ally in the struggle to provide adequate housing for all who need it."

Since Katrina's devastating blow to New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast in 2005, the Fuller Center has been building houses for low-income families who lost their homes in the hurricane. In Shreveport, the center built 10 houses in a one-week construction blitz. Last fall, the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund gave the center a $100,000 grant to continue its housing project for storm victims who have relocated to Shreveport. The center also has housing projects in other areas of the United States and abroad, including El Salvador and Nigeria.

Perhaps the center's most ambitious undertaking so far is its plan to build 500 houses, a few at a time as donations allow, in the Chattahoochee Valley of Georgia and Alabama, an area where the textile industry has been devastated by globalization. The local Habitat affiliate in Americus, where the Fuller Center is headquartered, contributed $25,000 and dozens of volunteers to the Valley project. One of the towns where Fuller Center volunteers will be working to eliminate poverty housing is Lanett, Ala., Fuller's hometown.

After his banishment from Habitat, I worried that Fuller, who was 70 at the time, would let that unhappy experience end his housing ministry. Some of his friends urged him to "hang it up" and move on to the next chapter in his life.

"I couldn't do it," Fuller writes in his book. "By the Grace of God, I was in good health and high spirits. I loved what I had been doing; it was God's calling for me. I couldn't wait to get out of bed each morning. The job was not finished."

Today, Fuller is as busy as ever raising money and recruiting volunteers to translate Christian love for one another into decent housing. When a house is ready to be occupied, Fuller hands the new owners a Bible and tells them, "This house was built by God's love."

That is an inspiring sermon, words matched by deeds that make a difference in the lives of the poor.

[Last modified April 21, 2007, 19:43:07]

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