25th Anniversary

President Jimmy Carter's Speech
at Habitat's 25th Anniversary Celebration
Indianapolis, Indiana
September 15, 2001

I was watching the video of Millard Fuller talking about the first time he and Linda came over to see me and Rosalynn; and he asked me to do fifteen things, wishing that he had (asked for) 24 things. I can assure you that since then he has added the other nine things. Tonight is one of the most pleasant ones.

Rosalynn and I have recently been in China for more than a week helping the Chinese initiate real democratic elections in more than 800,000 small villages. I flew from there to Mongolia, a small struggling nation isolated between Russia and China (it’s the only country in the world that's surrounded by two permanent members of the Security Council), trying to help them enhance democracy and bring a better life to the people. I came back home Monday night, landed in New York, flew down to Atlanta, drove to Plains, changed clothes and was on the way back to Atlanta when the horrible news came forth (of the terrorist attacks against the United States).

Yesterday, I had a different experience.

I think tonight it is good to adopt a sober tone, but not one of despair. Crises come to us on occasion. I was a young naval officer during the Second World War and during the Korean War; my oldest son spent three years in Vietnam. I've seen our country face crises and I've seen our country not only survive but grow stronger. Crisis calls for reassessment of life's values, the cherishing of those most precious, the reaching out to others and forming alliances. Crisis calls for the resurrection of hope and a consummation of mutual faith.

I would say that one of the greatest personal crises for a father or mother would be not having a shelter for one's children, which would generate despair and a sense of hopelessness and isolation and abandonment. And then comes the element of sharing and reaching out to others and of faith and hope. That's what brings us here to this 25th celebration of Habitat and what provides hope and faith to those who experience the personal embarrassment and despair of homelessness.

Yesterday, Rosalynn and I flew up to Washington and we went to the National Cathedral (for the National Day of Prayer and Remembrance). We sat in the same row with Republican President Gerald Ford and his wife Betty, two of the closest friends that we have evolved in the world. With us were President and Mrs. Clinton and their daughter, George Bush, Sr., and his wife, and the President and his wife. It was a vivid demonstration not only to our country, but to the world, that partisanship or the division between Democrats and Republicans is relatively insignificant in the foundation of our country and in the future of our people.

We watched with open and impressed hearts as Catholic Bishops and Protestant leaders and Muslim leaders and Jews went to the podium one by one and quoted the holy scripture in an attempt to remind us about the values of life that never change. With the exception perhaps of Billy Graham, the reading and the few words that made the most impression on the people in the National Cathedral were those of the Muslim Imam, who quoted from the Koran. It was hard for me as a Baptist Christian to distinguish between the deep faith that he expressed and my own. I’ve noticed since then on television that there are two comments that are repetitively displayed. One is, obviously, the words of President Bush, and the other one is of the Imam.

I have been involved in international affairs since I was President. I’ve just written a book about Christmas, and in it I described the various experiences I have had during this holy time. It is usually a time of enjoyment and pleasure, of bringing families together. But also I described the Christmas of 1979. That week the Soviet Union began to send plane after plane into Afghanistan, a country that has been in the news the last few days perhaps more than any other country except our own. Ten thousand troops were sent in to conquer that little country that was already destitute from poverty. It was my responsibility as the President of the United States to condemn and to warn the Soviet Union, but also to provide some hope and some assistance of a tangible nature, secret at the time, so that the Afghan people, whom we quickly branded as freedom fighters, could prevail. Their country in that moment of crisis was brought together in total harmony and eventually the Soviet invaders, with perhaps the most powerful military at that time in the world, were repelled.

With freedom came divisions in Afghanistan with one faction of one sect of one clan fighting against the other, and that country has been further destroyed. Now a terrible group, in my opinion, the Taliban, have harbored perhaps the orchestrator of the attacks against America. I have had discussions with the White House and I have talked several times with Secretary of State Colin Powell, and, as Americans, I know that you and I are interested in the response that President Bush is evolving with his advisors. There has to be a response of strength, of punitive action against those that are guilty of this horrible crime against our country, and against our people. That's a decision that is inevitable and absolutely necessary. But I think it's also very good for us to give thanks to our President that there has not been any precipitous action, no bombing or missile attacks against, for instance, the people of Afghanistan. That he’s determined to identify the culprits in this attack and those that directly harbor them.

I teach Sunday school at our little church in Plains every Sunday as Millard has just said. I'm there about 35 times a year; the rest of the time I'm out doing things for the Carter Center. When I'm not there, my substitute teacher is a young man named Mashuq Askerzada who came to this country while I was President, as a matter of fact, from Afghanistan. He wanted to train to be a better officer so he could defend his country, and he fell in love with a beautiful blonde girl from Columbus, Georgia, not too far from Fort Benning where he was in training. They were married and have three kids. He's become an American citizen, and although he was a Muslim, he's become a Christian and he's a member of my church and he teaches every time I'm not there. Some of the regular church members have been heard to say that they're glad when I'm away somewhere.

But the point is that now is the time to remember things and personal relationships like this. We need to garner as much as possible the full support of our natural allies, NATO obviously, Canada sure, Mexico of course, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, even China and Russia, who fear the same kinds of terrorist attacks that we have just experienced. But it's also important for us to reach out to the moderate Arab countries and Muslim countries who have been known [even our best friends] to have permitted terrorist groups or cadres to exist in their own countries, and then to focus our attention on the punishment of the guilty and not the innocent.

I’ve noticed in the newspapers (today’s New York Times) that in Gary, Indiana, there was an Arab who had a store and the front window of his store (was) filled with bullet holes. Twenty-one high-powered rifle shots were aimed at him just because he was a Muslim and also, by the way, an American. And I know in the last few hours here in Indianapolis there has been an attack on an Arab citizen that didn't result in his death, but concerned us.

What do you think was a main goal of a terrorist who launched this well-planned attack? It was not to destroy two buildings in New York and to attack the Pentagon. It was not to see a few thousand innocent lives lost. Their goal has been to set Christian against Muslim, to set America against the Arab world. If they can do that, they will have been successful.

And that presents us with a much greater challenge, a much more difficult choice of actions than we have known in the previous wars that I have known and which my father and my son have known. It was not difficult for Franklin D. Roosevelt after Pearl Harbor to declare war against the Japanese, or for us to fight against Hitler and the Nazis. But it's difficult now to know exactly who the culprits are. I'm filled with admiration and gratitude for the sound judgment and the courage that President Bush is demonstrating as he seeks to make the response, the retribution, the punishment, focused not on the innocent but on the guilty.

Habitat is an organization that builds homes working side by side in partnership with the poor who have never known adequate shelter, not with a sense of charity or arrogance or superiority, but with a sense of sharing on an equal basis the dreams for a better life for us all. I've never known a Habitat volunteer—who bought one’s own tools and travels on one’s own expense and worked hard without payment—that wasn't convinced at the end of that challenge that their sacrifice had been relatively insignificant compared with the blessings they received.

Rosalynn and I have enjoyed this sense of, I would say, the finest aspects of our faith—our faith in ourselves, our faith in our fellow human beings, our Christian faith. Habitat gives us a natural means by which we can reach out to others with a spirit of compassion and love and understanding, on level ground. Well, 18 years have passed now since Rosalynn and I first began what is nicely called the Jimmy Carter Work Camp. The first year I went up to New York to make a speech for my good friend Archbishop Iakovos of the Eastern Orthodox Church. It was his 25th Anniversary and I was asked to give the morning sermon in a Greek Orthodox Church, maybe the first time a Baptist had ever done that. Early in the morning I decided to jog out to a place on 6th Street, a stone's throw from the World Trade Center, to see a project that Habitat had undertaken. There I made an off-hand remark to some grime-covered student volunteers that “maybe Rosalynn and I ought to come back up here and help you.” Perhaps unfortunately for us, that remark was picked up by the news media, Millard Fuller found out about it, and, as you can well imagine, it wasn't too long before we were on a Trailways Bus with 42 volunteers. That was the first year we did this.

The next year we went back to the same place. We would stand on that dilapidated building on the roof and, as I say, we could almost have thrown a stone to the magnificent twin towers of the World Trade Center.

Most of the time since then we've built homes in the poorest ghetto areas of America—in Philadelphia, Miami and Los Angeles, or an Indian reservation in South Dakota, or in Chicago. We've also reached out across the boundaries of America’s national limits. We built 100 homes on a sand dune outside Tijuana, sleeping in pup tents each night. We built homes in the center of Europe, in Hungary, which had not long before cast off the bonds of Soviet domination, when people didn't like the word "volunteer." We met some fishermen on the Danube River. (We were just 100 yards from the Danube River.) We asked the fishermen if they volunteered and they said, "No," that all the time the Soviets were dominating them, they had to volunteer four hours every Saturday morning. They got paid the other five days; they didn't get paid Saturday morning. But by the end of the week, all of those fishermen abandoned their boats and came and worked side by side with us, without pay.

We built 293 homes in five days in the Philippines, and we’ve just come back recently from South Korea. Next year, we’ll be, as has been said tonight, in Durban, South Africa.

Well, the point is that Habitat not only provides hope and a realization of faith to an individual family, but also provides a means by which we can expand our religious faith to encompass others and to draw us nearer to God. It’s not just governments that have a responsibility to resolve crises, it’s really a conglomerate of dedicated individuals; and this is particularly true in democracy. To demonstrate our faith—our faith in ourselves, our faith in each other and our faith in God—that’s what Habitat means to me.

Thank you.

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