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How firm a foundation -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1

How firm a foundation

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn put their faith to work on Habitat build sites.
By Shala Carlson

 

 

The Carters’ faith plays a significant role in their support of Habitat. Photo by Steffan Hacker

   


The former U.S. president and first lady cherish house dedications most of all. They are often overcome, they say, gathered together with fellow volunteers, their tears reflecting the joy and hope of what is essentially a sacred exchange. After hours of hard work and moments of cordial collaboration, new homeowners open their hands to receive a key that has the power to unlock a different, dreamed-of future.

“That just does something to your soul,” says Mrs. Carter.

As Habitat for Humanity’s most famous volunteers, President Jimmy Carter and his wife Rosalynn have witnessed these occasions in neighborhoods near and far. There are always two things, President Carter says, that he likes to present to homeowners when he can: a Bible and a board.

The Bible, a touchstone of his personal theology and an emblem of the fields of faith from which Habitat was born and in which the organization has flourished. And the board, signed by all of the volunteers who had a hand in the construction of the house being dedicated, a symbol of the life-changing, hope-giving work that marshals people of so many faiths and backgrounds to its cause.

Because of differences in construction and culture, the Bible and the board are not always physical constants at every house dedication, but for the Carters—and for so many volunteers like them—the principles they represent are the unseen presences that grace every build site.

“I know that Christian beliefs correlate very closely with those of other great religions concerning love and care and benevolence,” President Carter says. “All of us who have different kinds of faith look for ways to put our beliefs into actual, practical action.

“How do you actually reach out to people who are different from you, whom you don’t know, who may speak a different language, live in a different country? How do you reach out to them in a way that’s not arrogant and supercilious and looking down on their poverty as a brand for their character in the eyes of God?

“I think the most practical and far-reaching answer to that question, for me,” he concludes, “has been in Habitat.”

And so the pair has traveled the world together, working shoulder to shoulder alongside others who share their vision of what the world can be when people of faith—and people of good faith—take action. As lifelong Christians, it’s their deep and abiding beliefs that have led them to seek out ways to make a difference. It’s just something you do, Mrs. Carter says. “That’s what my faith means to me.”

And it’s that faith that has fueled their devotion to an array of world-changing work, part of which has been their generous and continuing support of Habitat for more than 25 years. Sometimes, that alliance means lending a voice to the fight against poverty housing; sometimes, it means lending a hand. For both, the act of building has taken on a spiritual significance. Even more, though, the simple, decent house that results, they say, fulfills a human right as fundamental as freedom of speech and freedom of religion. “It changes people’s lives,” Mrs. Carter says. “It makes a total difference. I’ve seen it happen so much.”

The partner families, however, aren’t the only ones who share in the blessing. Everyone each project touches is touched in turn. Whether in South Africa or South Korea, in Mexico or Michigan, a build site, they say, can create a special space in which precious convergences can occur, as families and volunteers come together. “Some are Muslim, some are Hindu, some are Jewish, some are Protestant, some are Catholics—but that’s something else that Habitat does,” President Carter says. “It breaks down the barriers that sometimes exist between people from different countries or between people who worship in different ways.

“I would say it has made all of us volunteers more broad-minded, less inclined toward being prejudiced against people who are different from us in color or income or nationality or faith,” he continues. “And I think that’s one of the major attributes of Habitat that’s quite often overlooked.”

As Mrs. Carter sees it, one of the common threads that runs through all of her Habitat experiences is faith. “Christianity,” she says, “but also other religions. I think because of the faith of all the volunteers, they’re there just for the purpose—almost without exception—of just doing something good for somebody who is less fortunate. And so it’s being able to help the people, but it’s also being in a place where everybody wants to do something good.”

And it doesn’t really matter, she adds, who all of those everybodies turn out to be. “Because,” she says, smiling, “Jesus thinks there’s no difference in people.”