Remembering Millard: My Reminiscing About Millard Fuller

Remembering Millard - My Reminiscing About Millard Fuller by Steve Clemens. March 20, 2009

Even the name was memorable; how many of you know a person named “Millard”? Millard Fillmore, an obscure US President, comes to mind. But for those who encountered Millard Fuller, the first name sufficed to know to whom you were referring.

One of my first recollections of Millard Fuller occurred with a double dose of “Millards” – boy, that jury must have been confused, facing not one, but two Millards. Millard Farmer and Millard Fuller teamed up to defend five black teenagers accused of murder in the south Georgia town of Dawson in 1977. Fuller did the jury selection and planned to do the closing argument; Farmer handled the evidentiary part of the trial. It was more than 30 years ago so my memory isn’t exact; I just have broad impressions today.

What I remember of the man from that encounter as well as numerous others over our 34 year friendship was his ability to look you in the eye and challenge you to do more, to be more, certainly to give more. He called you to act on your beliefs, not just sit back in pious contemplation of them. “What good is your faith if it doesn’t have works/deeds to back it up?” is the way the Epistle of James, the reputed brother of Jesus, puts it in the Christian scriptures. It seemed to be the life force of Millard Fuller.

Oh, I’d heard the story of “Millard and Linda” soon after I arrived at Koinonia Partners in the fall of 1975. Millard and Linda Fuller and their kids had already left for Zaire (Congo) in Africa several years before. But the story still lingered in mythological tones: he made a million dollars before he was 30 – and then gave it all away and moved to Koinonia to learn at the feet of his new mentor, Clarence Jordan. Together, these two giant personalities came up with the vision of Partnership Housing “to provide decent, affordable housing for God’s people in need.” In 1968, the first house for Bo and Emma Johnson’s family was under construction and finished just before Clarence’s untimely death in 1969. Little did we know his collaborator in that effort would also succumb to the grave before his three score and twenty.

The Millard Fuller I knew wasn’t perfect; he was over-sized, he was packed full of zeal and energy, but he was fallible and had his foibles. One can concentrate on those weaknesses of the flesh or the abuses of power as a way to dismiss him and his message – but it is often a defense mechanism on our part to try to avoid his clarion call to do more, to be more, to give more. He could have had a celebrated and successful career as a lawyer. His presence in the courtroom was a sight to behold and experience. His gifts of word and presence made him a powerful advocate and a force to be reckoned with. I should know; Millard was directly responsible for getting me out of jail once, long after he had given up his legal practice to concentrate on his Habitat work. But this story is about him, not me.

Both Millards, Farmer and Fuller, persuaded that south Georgia court not only to forgo the death penalty but to drop the fraudulent, racist charges and freed the young men. It was a significant blow to Jim Crow and the rampant racism routinely dominating the “justice” system of south Georgia. With President Jimmy Carter’s home not far away in the next county, this case drew some national attention and Millard could have used that spotlight to further his legal practice. But Millard used his legal practice primarily to pay the bills while he nurtured his fledgling Habitat For Humanity program through its early years.

Millard and Linda had returned to Koinonia after their years in Zaire convinced that this radical idea that houses could be built by volunteers and sold for no profit and with no interest on a mortgage so that the poor could have a simple, decent place to live. The model had continued at Koinonia while they were in Africa. Several dozens of homes were owned by families next to Bo and Emma’s and more were being built as the Fullers moved back into the duplex house owned by this small, Christian community founded in 1942 in rural Georgia amongst the gnats, fire ants, and racists known to populate the region.

Millard’s style of leadership and personality had caused some tension in the intentional community that was trying to re-establish itself after a radical restructuring in 1968. Part of the Fuller’s decision to work in Africa arose from those tensions and their return to Koinonia was with the understanding that this new venture (which didn’t even have the name Habitat yet) would become a separate identity - lest this new project, an expanded housing ministry, completely overtake the community life and work in 1976.

The Fullers used Koinonia’s connections and mailing list (as well as some of it’s present community members) to form its own identity and moved it’s operations into the nearby town of Americus after its first year. Even with the seven-mile distance separating us, Koinonia and Habitat retained a close relationship during those formative years and we saw the Fullers often. We were pleased when they attended our wedding in 1978 and not terribly surprised that they brought along a couple of Habitat volunteers we had never met along with them.

Of course, if you knew Millard, the phase, “You’all come now, you hear?” fit him to a T. Millard was always inviting more to come. It was certainly fitting to have Tony Campolo give the sermon/eulogy at the Memorial Service for Millard held in Atlanta last week. Tony always talks about how the Kingdom of God is a party! – and no one better exudes that spirit quite like Millard. He was always inviting more people to join in, much to the chagrin of any staffers or community members who were responsible for the planning of meals, bed-space, or other logistics. Millard truly understood the concept of God’s abundance and he did his best to incarnate that in his life and activities.

I couldn’t begin to estimate the number of speeches Millard must have given in his 74 years – especially during those last 33 years of Habitat For Humanity and The Fuller Center For Housing. He seemed indefatigable, bounding with his loping steps to a podium or into a room of people gathered to be engaged by his warmth, enthusiasm, and energy. I imagine his tall, lanky frame to be similar to our national hero, Abe Lincoln, unless you were still holding on to the dreams of the Confederacy.

Millard was born in the South and lived virtually his whole life in the Deep South but he was no son of the Confederacy. Millard always tried to find ways to include everybody. Although a deeply committed Christian, he made it clear that his “theology of the hammer” meant that everyone was to be enlisted – no matter your race, color, creed, gender, or nationality - no one was excused from the call to justice and compassion. His own faith drove him in his work but you didn’t have to share it to join him. And his enthusiasm was contagious.

President Jimmy Carter understood how infectious that energy was and he jokingly said at the Memorial service that probably all of us in that crowded Ebeneezer Baptist Church sanctuary had a hard time resisting Millard’s call to join him. Carter laughed as he recounted his initial meeting with Millard and Linda; Jimmy said he and Rosslyn had decided ahead of time that they would politely listen to Millard’s pitch and then nicely turn him down because they already had too much on their plates after his failure to be re-elected to a second term. “Millard came with a list of 32 items he wanted me to do, all written up on one of his yellow, legal pads. And before he left, I had agreed to all 32 of them”, Carter said. We all laughed because we too had had been challenged and cajoled by Millard Fuller, many of us not just one time!

Some of the past years have been bittersweet. Millard and Linda battled with the increasing corporatization of Habitat and its new leadership. It led to a messy public parting of the ways with Millard refusing to go quietly into retirement. Certainly he had earned a quiet retirement from all the millions of miles traveled in a ministry that had housed close to 1 ½ million people.

But Millard refused to quit. He and Linda started the Fuller Center For Housing to try to ensure the early principles of no-profit, no-interest remained at the heart of their work. It’s not that Millard didn’t take or seek corporate money and help – he just didn’t want the mentality of “the suits” to take it over. He knew down deep that the social and economic systems that caused the housing crisis in the first place couldn’t be trusted to solve the problem. He knew it would have to take a radical new approach that some would mislabel and confuse with “communism” or “socialism” -- no-profit and no-interest when it comes to relationship with “the poor”. This wasn’t out of some dreamed up ideology but because it was what God wanted/demanded in the Christian scriptures that Millard read and frequently quoted.

For me, the genius of Habitat was in getting the staff and volunteers to work alongside the families and developing a personal relationship with poor folk. Those personal relationships, in turn, would change us as we began to see poor folk as no longer “the other” but instead recognize our common humanity. As Habitat and its affiliates grew bigger and bigger, it became harder to keep a bureaucratic structure from overwhelming the original “Personalism”. In my own work with a Habitat affiliate, I longed for the days of that smaller, personal encounter with the volunteers and the families working together.

Part of the problem – and not just a small part- was Millard’s insistence of housing more and more families; when you set a goal of “eliminating poverty housing”, more and bigger sometimes gets into the way of relational styles. Efficiencies and economies of scale often trump what I call the Catholic Worker style of Personalism. But again, that is more my agenda than Millard’s. He was focused on the mission, the need. He left many of the details of how to do it to those he had inspired. Yet, often he didn’t. I remember hearing staffers at Habitat complain about “Millard’s meddling” in some of the everyday operations instead of just being “the visionary”.

Millard wasn’t an easy man to work with. His boundless energy, while initially empowering, also came with high expectations. Many staffers felt like they had “married Habitat” in that the commitment of time and energy expended and expected often conflicted with home and community life outside of Habitat. Some people felt consumed in the process; others could engage for several years and then had to pull back, lest they too be consumed. Did Millard ever really have much “down time”? Could he ever turn off that same drive that made him a millionaire but was now re-directed not toward making money and accumulating worldly goods but rather in service to others?

One thing that sticks in my mind from the moving Memorial Service last week: I never even knew Millard had a brother –or if I knew, I had forgotten. Doyle, Millard’s brother was close to a dozen years younger and doesn’t look too much like his older brother. But he movingly told how Millard was his “hero” while growing up. How Millard had carried him up a hill when Doyle’s legs were crippled. How he was such a graceful yet powerful baseball pitcher. How he made his million dollars. Hero. Hero. Hero.

But when he decided to “give it all away”, “I thought he was crazy”, Doyle continued. And then he announces he’s going to house the world! Crazy!. Doyle reminded us that Millard had his flaws. But he continued, “You don’t have to be perfect to do perfect things”. All of us in the room knew what Millard (and those he inspired) had accomplished in his life. All those families living in decent, affordable shelter around the world experienced that “perfect work”. And for that life, that witness, that modeling, I’m eternally grateful for my friendship with Millard Fuller.

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