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Helping Habitat to Build a Better World: A Column by Jimmy Carter

Editor’s Note: The following column by President Jimmy Carter was written for the next issue of Habitat World and is shared here in advance with readers of www.habitat.org. In it, President Carter discusses how he became involved with Habitat for Humanity and why the mission keeps him involved.

“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’’’
—Matthew 25:40

People often ask how Rosalynn and I became involved in Habitat for Humanity. It’s not an easy answer.

Geography plays a part, since we live just nine miles from Habitat’s international headquarters; my early life with poor neighbors plays a part, since I’ve spent many nights sleeping in a sharecropper’s shack; my lifelong interest in carpentry plays a part, since I enjoy building furniture and houses; and our religious faith plays a large part, as indicated in Jesus’ words quoted above.

I long had known of Koinonia Farm, the nearby Christian farming community where the idea for Habitat for Humanity was born, and I learned after leaving the White House of the fledgling Christian house building ministry started in Americus, Ga.

But it takes going onto a build site, working and sweating alongside other volunteers and the future homeowner, and then seeing lives changed to truly experience the power of Habitat for Humanity’s mission. It is difficult to imagine that anyone—former president, top business executive, celebrity, or Mary and John from down the street—could attend a house dedication service and not be moved to involvement. There is nothing quite like being present when the keys to their new home, along with a Bible, are handed over to a family that never expected to know the security of decent, affordable shelter, let alone homeownership.

I first picked up a hammer on a Habitat construction site in Americus. It was a memorable day, and I knew it wouldn’t be my last. But the event that most has come to symbolize my involvement with Habitat—the annual Jimmy Carter Work Project—happened almost by accident. I was in New York City in 1984 for a speaking engagement and found time to stop by a Habitat project to renovate a six-story tenement. As the project director led me up five flights of a temporary wooden staircase, I remarked casually that I would be happy to do what I could to help.

One lesson you learn quickly in Habitat circles is that offers of help are taken seriously—very seriously. It wasn’t long before I found myself on a bus filled with folks from South Georgia bound for the Lower East Side of Manhattan to help complete the project. We slept in a church, and worked each day to help transform that old tenement into decent housing. It was dirty, sometimes dangerous work, but few accomplishments in life have given me greater satisfaction. Rosalynn and I shared a deep sense of gratitude that we could be part of the project.

In the 20 years since, we have devoted a week each year to building in some community that desperately needs decent housing. We have been to inner cities, rural towns and a Native American reservation in the United States; we have built in Mexico, Canada, Korea, the Philippines, Hungary and South Africa. Wherever the Jimmy Carter Work Project is held, the press continues to show up and to be amazed that a former president of the United States does this grimy, sweaty work -- and enjoys it.

From my rural boyhood, when I often spent the night with black neighbors who lived in unheated and dilapidated shacks, to my years in the White House when I saw the plight of the homeless and those trapped in poverty housing worldwide, I have known that shelter matters. And I know, as a Christian, that I have a responsibility to serve where I can, that as I treat “the least of these,” I treat my Creator.

Jesus was a carpenter, and a builder. Through Habitat, we have been privileged to become builders, too, not only of houses, but of families, lives and hope. Combined with our work at The Carter Center, where we focus on peace-building and health-building, Rosalynn and I have found great joy in serving those who have too few advocates, too few friends, in this world.

As long as we are able, we will keep on building, hammering out love and hope and houses, doing what we can to help Habitat for Humanity build a better and more caring world.

Thank you for visiting the official Habitat for Humanity International Web site.

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