All Things in Common
I like Clarence Jordan.
But if he were around for his 100th birthday this year, it’s unlikely he would feel honored by a virtual befriending or an electronic thumbs-up. Clarence — the Greek scholar, theologian, community-builder, social critic, prophet and farmer — would have wanted those thumbs in the dirt instead, planting seeds of justice and mercy. Or poking the ribs of the slothful to prod them into action or to jolt selfish numbskulls into radical generosity. These things Clarence would enjoy for a birthday celebration.
Clarence and his wife Florence, who would also be 100 this year, founded Koinonia Farm, a Christian community located just south of Americus, Georgia. This fall, Koinonia commemorates the Jordan birthdays as well as the 70th anniversary of their community. Habitat for Humanity’s founder Millard Fuller claimed that Clarence was the spiritual father of Habitat. This anniversary is an opportunity for all of us who are Habitat adherents to listen to Clarence, reflect on our calling and renew our commitment to this work.
Clarence as a spiritual ancestor carries personal meaning for me. I’m marking one other anniversary this year: Forty years ago, in 1972 as a sophomore in college, I read Dallas Lee’s book The Cotton Patch Evidence and first learned about Clarence and the Koinonia Farm “experiment.” I was deeply moved, but to explain why that book was so formative in my experience I have to back up four more years.
1968 was the high-water mark of a season of worldwide turbulence; many spirits, including the one we call Holy, were moving across the face of the earth. In August of that year, Clarence and Millard called a group of people to Koinonia and innovated, not from scratch, but with ideas and values that were classic, vintage gospel. Their October announcement of the Fund for Humanity was, I am convinced, more foundational to Habitat than our actual founding in 1976.
The Fund for Humanity was to be collective wealth, a common purse so to speak, that would birth partnership industries, partnership farming and, yes, partnership housing. “What the poor need is not charity but capital, not caseworkers but coworkers,” Clarence pronounced in words familiar to all of us in Habitat. “And what the rich need is a wise, honorable, and just way of divesting themselves of their overabundance.” Their vision was global (reaching everywhere) and universal (for everyone).
That same fall, four states over in central Texas, as a 16-year-old I was also in the midst of change and searching. I had heard the bid of Jesus calling me to follow him, but the path of discipleship, I found, was obscured by 2,000 years of religious and institutional clutter. I wandered one way and then the other until I spied a landmark, the koinonia of the first church in Jerusalem.
Koinonia is the Greek word usually translated as “community” or “fellowship” and most familiarly used in Acts 2:44: “The believers came together and had all things in common [koinonia].” My heart was stirred as I read how the people met daily and “broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people.” (Acts 2:47) This, I realized, was the fulfillment of Jesus’ command to leave everything and follow him. From that point, I was on the lookout for live, tangible, 20th-century examples of koinonia.
In Koinonia’s story and the founding of Habitat, I saw a coherence and train of development that could only be attributed to the Holy Spirit. Jesus commanded us to give it all away and follow him. The early church did exactly that and found koinonia. Clarence envisioned a radical extrapolation of koinonia into the Fund for Humanity. Millard established Habitat as an organization that would package and propagate worldwide the Fund for Humanity. In the fullness of this vision everyone, “the whole crowd” as Millard would put it, would gather around the table and break bread with glad and generous hearts.
While Habitat’s roots took hold, my wife Nancy and I pursued, and made, a life in Christian community that took us to an inner-city neighborhood in Chicago. In 1976, I was able to make my first trip to Koinonia and had the privilege of meeting Florence. A few years later, as we started housing work in our Chicago neighborhood, I traveled back to Americus to consult at Habitat’s headquarters. Then, in a turn of events that I have never humanly been able to explain, we moved in 1986 to my hometown of Waco, Texas — a place where years earlier I could not see koinonia — to help start Habitat’s work here.
Several years ago I asked a friend and mentor who knew Clarence “back in the days” how she thought he would feel about the growth of his spiritual progeny called Habitat. She thought, smiled and said, “He might not understand it, for after all he was a farmer, but he would be pleased.”
The gift of Clarence is not that he rediscovered a specific formula of the early church or that he left us with some memorable sermons. It is that we have a brother who daily, in his boots caked with red Georgia mud, walks with us, encouraging us to be faithful and courageous and to persevere in our calling to contextualize the gospel truth we have been given.
Based in Waco, Joe Gatlin currently serves as director of field operations for Habitat for Humanity International. Visit www.koinoniapartners.org to learn more about this fall’s celebrations, which begin with a Clarence Jordan symposium Sept. 28-29.