From Peanuts to Partners
Clarence Jordan’s son Lenny recalls life on the farm where Habitat was born.
In 1942, Clarence and Florence Jordan started Koinonia Farm with Martin and Mabel England. Their “demonstration plot for the Kingdom of God” promoted racial equality and Christian fellowship. Twenty-six years after founding the farm, Clarence Jordan began pursuing another radical idea, a concept he called “partnership housing.” Today, Jordan is remembered as the spiritual godfather of Habitat for Humanity. His youngest son, Lenny, grew up at Koinonia, and he remembers his father testing the model that would become Habitat.
As the school bus rolled to a stop, we saw the tractor with the tree planter and a stack of pine seedlings ready to go. As Daddy emerged from the barn, it was clear he had been patiently waiting for the bus — and he was ready for our help.
The old tractor moved slowly over the rough ground that just the year before still grew peanuts — peanuts we looked forward to picking green to boil. Bouncing along on the tree planter, placing small pine seedlings where marked, I realized that we would not be enjoying green peanuts again.
I didn’t really understand that Koinonia could not rely solely on its farming operation due to the economic boycott under way because of views on racial equality. With timber in high demand, Daddy was planting a new vision that day. As I grew into my teenage years, those pines grew tall and straight. Each time I walked through them, I marveled at the orderly rows and the dense mat of needles keeping the weeds at bay. While the pine trees continued their rapid growth, however, Koinonia’s community was growing smaller. The economic boycott and physical threats on the farm were having an effect.
Then in the late ’60s, things began to change. Daddy had come up with the idea of setting up a “Fund for Humanity” to help nearby residents build better housing for their families. He explained his plan to Millard Fuller, and the concept was simple. Folks who had resources would donate to the Fund for Humanity, helping those without resources. Everyone would work together and partner families’ payments on their homes would then go to help build or fix up houses for more people.
It was just a few short weeks before enough money had been raised to begin building a house. In south Georgia, there is only one good place to build a house: in the shade on a paved road. With those two criteria in mind, my former peanut field — now tall with pines — looked to be the perfect place.
Within days, chainsaws were carving out spaces for houses and roads. The Fund for Humanity’s first house soon started taking shape, a place for Bo and Emma Johnson. Within months, construction began on more houses. Volunteers from around the world were helping build these first interest-free homes, reducing the cost of building and allowing more houses to be built.
Looking back, over the 40-plus years since the Johnsons’ house was built, it is hard to imagine that the old peanut field — given up first for trees and then for affordable homes for our neighbors — marked the beginning of a worldwide effort to eliminate substandard housing. But that’s what happened.
This year, Koinonia celebrates 70 years of simple living, focused on serving others. I might still miss those boiled peanuts we once eagerly awaited each year when I was young, but I now understand the vision that was driving Daddy and Millard when they set up the Fund for Humanity.