Clarence, I Hardly Knew You by Steve Clemens
I arrived at Koinonia Partners in 1975, six years after co-founder Dr. Clarence Jordan died of a heart attack while working on his “Cotton Patch” translation of The Gospel of John. His widow, Florence Jordan was one of about 21 “Resident Partners” of the re-established intentional Christian community that she helped found in 1942. Even though Clarence was not physically present, his spirit permeated the 1400-acre farm.
In the mid-1970s, Koinonia had a vibrant Volunteer Program that drew people from all over; most, like me, were under age 30 anxious to explore alternative ways to live in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the Watergate political scandal, and the social upheavals of “the 60s”. But it wasn’t just young people; in my volunteer group which arrived in the fall of 1975, two couples of “retired” missionaries were part of the group of 17 who came to experience Koinonia’s style of community together.
The Volunteer Program was designed as a work-study experience in which the group gathered three times a week for two hours of input and discussion focusing on “radical Christian discipleship”, living in Christian community, and social and moral concerns. The 4-month program served as both an introduction to the community as well as an entry point for those who wished to begin the process of becoming members (“Partners”). We worked in assigned areas: home construction, farming/gardening, maintenance, early childhood education, or part of the mail-order business which provided most of the income for the community. The latter included working in the pecan processing plant, the fruitcake bakery, the order assembly and shipping department, or order processing and other office clerical duties.
The work often introduced us to tasks we had seldom encountered before our arrival on this south Georgia farming compound, but it was the theological ideas and how they were lived out which what drew me to Koinonia. My previous exposure was limited to meeting Ladon Sheats, one of the Partners who often was asked to speak about the community and Christian discipleship around the country in a similar manner that his mentor, Clarence Jordan, had done throughout the 1950s and 60s. Ladon, a rising IBM executive, chose to resign that position, coming to live and learn from Clarence. Ladon, Millard Fuller, and Don Mosley soon were thrust in the role of sharing the message of Koinonia to the wider world after Jordan’s death in October 1969. They are the ones from whom I first heard about Koinonia and Clarence’s theology. After I arrived, I discovered a treasure trove of records, tapes, and books of Clarence Jordan’s sermons and other speeches and talks and I loved to listen to his southern drawl, his infectious humor, and his frequent quoting of the Greek text of the New Testament with his own “cotton-pickin’” translation.
Having lived as part of the Koinonia community for 16 years before moving to Minnesota in 1990, I owe much of my Christian formation to this Southern Baptist Greek scholar who tried to put his faith and ideas into practice on a peanut farm in his home state. There are so many memorable phrases from Clarence’s books and tapes that remain fixed in my mind that it is hard to pick and choose a few to illustrate his impact on my own thought and discipleship.
“Fear is the polio of the soul that keeps us from walking by faith”, “Faith is betting your life on the unseen realities”, and “Faith is not believing in spite of the evidence but rather in scorn of the consequences” are three phrases from Clarence that I find myself quoting a lot when describing my own commitment to nonviolence which Clarence not only shared but helped inform. I credit Clarence Jordan’s lively translations and explanations of the parables of Jesus, his retelling of Paul’s missionary journeys and letters into the geography and politics of the US south, and his obvious love of the text with my own re-engagement with the Bible which I had mostly put aside out of disgust with the way Christianity had abused and misused the text during my years at Wheaton College, the evangelical bastion which openly embraced American exceptionalism and American militarism during my undergraduate studies. Their practice of sewing on Wheaton’s motto, “For Christ and His Kingdom” on the compulsory ROTC military uniforms for their male students couldn’t have contrasted more with the active nonviolence of the Jesus proclaimed by Clarence Jordan and the community outside Americus, GA.
Clarence always told us we had to choose either to follow the way of Christ or the way of the culture. Like his southern contemporary, Martin Luther King, both men saw “the giant triplets” of racism, materialism, and militarism as major stumbling blocks to genuine Christian discipleship. Although they took very different strategies, (Clarence strongly disagreeing with tactics such as boycotts due to his community’s own experience at the hands of the Klu Klux Klan and other racists in Sumter County, GA), both of these Sons of Georgia were responsible for challenging and encouraging my generation to take sides in the struggle for hearts and minds as the American empire came into so much conflict with the teaching of the compassionate and radical Jew whose life and message exposed the brutality disguised as benevolence of the empire of his day.
While I never had the opportunity to meet Clarence in the flesh, I loved listening to Florence’s stories about the first 30 plus years of Koinonia before I arrived. I count him as a mentor even though we never met. I spent hours and hours, “sitting at his feet” (more accurately, listening to his voice over the reel-to-reel or cassette tape players), and learning from others he mentored: Ladon, Millard, and Don, among others.
“We worship the hind legs off Jesus – but we don’t do a damn thing about what he taught us to do” is just one of the many gems of Clarence Jordan. His 100th birthday would be on July 29th and I’m so grateful for his life and witness. “Clarence Jordan, presente!”