The Carters and Habitat for Humanity

November 13th, 2019

In October, 95-year-old former president Jimmy Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, went to Nashville to participate in the 36th weeklong Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project with Habitat for Humanity. Since the couple first connected with Habitat for Humanity, they’ve worked with more than 100,000 volunteers to build, repair or renovate more than 4,300 homes in 14 countries. Although Carter had fallen the previous Sunday and received 14 stitches, he never considered canceling his trip to Nashville. “I had a number one priority and that was to come to Nashville and build houses,” CNN quoted Carter as saying. Aside from their Secret Service detail, the Carters looked much like the other 1,000-plus volunteers on the work site.

Jimmy Carter first became involved with Habitat for Humanity in 1984. One Sunday morning, after delivering a homily at the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity in New York City, he decided to go for a jog on the Lower East Side. During his run, he passed by a group of Habitat volunteers working on a crumbling tenement in a neighborhood ravaged by drugs and crime. More than 30 years later, he recalled to The Tennessean newspaper, “I saw how desperate they were for help. I just said, in the spur of the moment, ‘We need to come back and help you.’ ” Several months later, he brought 42 volunteers from his community in Plains, Georgia, including Rosalynn, to work at the site. Each night, after their day of work, they slept on the floor of a nearby church. Their work that week was the inspiration for the Carter Work Project, which continues more than three decades later. 

The beginnings of Habitat

The idea behind Habitat for Humanity began at Koinonia Farm, a community farm founded by biblical scholar and farmer Clarence Jordan, just outside of Americus, Georgia. The Habitat website explains that it was there that Millard and Linda Fuller developed the idea of “partnership housing,” through which people in need of decent, affordable housing would work alongside volunteers to build their own homes. The plan was to build the homes at no profit and for the homes to be financed through “The Fund for Humanity,” which would provide no-interest loans from a fund that pooled the donations of supporters with payments from other homeowners in the program.

In 1973, the Fullers moved to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) to put their partnership housing idea to the test. After finding success there, they returned to the United States and started working to develop Habitat for Humanity, which was founded in 1976. The huge growth that Habitat has seen in the years since is attributed largely to the personal involvement of Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter, who not only have contributed money and their own personal labor but also have raised awareness of the program. 

What does Habitat do?

Today, Habitat for Humanity is a global nonprofit and ecumenical housing organization that works in local communities across all 50 states in the United States and in approximately 70 countries around the world. Habitat’s website shares its vision of a world where everyone has a decent place to live, and Habitat welcomes volunteers without regard to religious preference or background.

Habitat helps families through a network that partners volunteers with Habitat homeowners. In addition to their homes, homeowners are provided with an affordable mortgage and receive financial education. When people apply, the family selection committee of each local Habitat chapter considers the applicant’s level of need, their willingness to partner with Habitat and their ability to repay a mortgage through an affordable payment plan. Habitat also has a nondiscriminatory policy of family selection in which neither race nor religion is a factor. The selected homebuyers then invest hundreds of hours of “sweat equity” as they work alongside volunteers and other Habitat homeowners.

Habitat says that in addition to building new housing, it also renovates existing homes and helps people who are working to repair their own homes. Beyond its regular activities, the organization also works to address housing needs after natural disasters. Globally, Habitat strives to raise awareness and support for decent, affordable housing; and outside of North America, Habitat works with partner organizations to serve even more families by utilizing creative financing methods.

Church support for Habitat

Many congregations support Habitat both by giving financially and by volunteering. However, some affiliates go even further in articulating the Christian values that underlie their mission. For example, Habitat for Humanity of McLean County (Illinois) names five Christian principles that guide its work and articulate reasons why so many churches offer their support:

1. Demonstrate the love of Jesus Christ.
2. Focus on shelter.
3. Advocate for affordable housing.
4. Promote dignity and hope.
5. Support sustainable and transformational development.

Habitat of McLean County adds that its “mission and methods” are “predominantly derived from a few key theological concepts foundational to Habitat for Humanity’s history.” These theological concepts are referred to as “The Economics of Jesus” and “The Theology of the Hammer.” The first highlights the importance of giving to those in need “without seeking profit” and emphasizes the ways that God “magnifies the effects of our efforts.” The Theology of the Hammer speaks to the importance of working together, finding common ground, and “putting love into action.” As the group’s website states, “Everyone can use the hammer as an instrument to manifest God’s love.” It then goes on to quote Habitat founder Millard Fuller, who said, “The Bible teaches that God is the God of the whole crowd. God’s love leaves nobody out, and my love should not either.”

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