Divine inspiration -- Habitat for Humanity Int'l 1
Faith-motivated volunteers build on shared values.
By Rebekah Daniel
From its roots at Koinonia Farm—a community expressly founded for the purpose of living out Christian values—to the present, Habitat for Humanity has built and renovated houses to eliminate inadequate and poverty housing as a demonstration of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Unsurprisingly, Habitat counts churches as some of its earliest and most stalwart partners.
That is not to say, however, that partnerships with people of other faiths are not also a cherished part of the organization’s history, culture and current practice. The belief that everyone, regardless of their religious viewpoints, can agree on building a decent house in partnership with the family who will own it is known in Habitat circles as the theology of the hammer, and it is alive and well.
In Hartford, Conn., for example, plans are under way for a third House of Abraham, a project that grew from a course at Hartford Seminary called “Building Abrahamic Partnerships.” During the course, roughly equal numbers of Jews, Christians and Muslims study each faith’s traditions and texts while building relationships with each other. The Habitat build is the service-learning component of the course.
“We wanted to work more in the community,” says Aida Mansoor, who coordinates the Muslim community for the House of Abraham. “We came to the conclusion that if you get to know people, once all the walls go down, you can build bridges.”
Dr. Abdullah Antepli, the Muslim chaplain at Duke University, participated in the first House of Abraham and found the connection between faith and action to be tight: “God significantly cares in Islam whether you care about the conditions of other fellow human beings, whether you have genuine interest in helping the pain and suffering of others,” he says.
Theological significance, however, came with a healthy dose of fun, as well. “One of my greatest memories was when we were working on the roof,” he says. “Me and a rabbi … it was so wonderful to share the same misery of not having gifted hands! A Jewish woman and Muslim woman came and showed us, basically, how to hammer the nails.”
From Hartford Habitat’s perspective, the impact of the House of Abraham is far-reaching: A family moves into decent, affordable housing. Interfaith dialogue events introduce more people to Habitat’s mission. The donor base is expanded. The community is a friendlier place to live.
Yehezkel Landau, a professor at Hartford Seminary who founded the Building Abrahamic Partnerships program, sees the virtuous circle continuing. “It’s all mutually reinforcing,” he says. “The learning is deeper and the relationships are stronger if you actually do a service project—unite around common values to make a difference in the world.”
In a similar vein, the religious community in Columbia, S.C., has come together to sponsor and build the shell of a Habitat house in a church parking lot this fall. Reaching out is nothing new for Central South Carolina Habitat; the affiliate’s first interfaith build, involving Christian, Muslim and Jewish congregations, was in 2004. “The common thread is a simple, decent house,” executive director Roy Kramer says. “We all believe in that. Everything else is set aside for that goal.”
Several Christian denominations, such as the Disciples of Christ and the United Methodists, have adopted Habitat as a mission focus and contribute funding and volunteers both in the United States and abroad. Individual churches often form teams to build in other countries for a few weeks at a time or join together to sponsor a house locally.
Highland Park United Methodist Church in Dallas, Texas, is home to a group of builders called Carpenters for Christ that is on track to complete 100 houses by its 20th anniversary in 2016. “When you build 100 homes, you’re truly changing a community,” says Jeff Kramer, Dallas Area Habitat senior director of development and marketing. “They go home from the work site knowing they’ve made the world better.”
The volunteers at Peachtree Presbyterian Church in Atlanta, who have built more than 140 houses with Atlanta Habitat since 1988, would say that they’ve made themselves better, too. Jay Madden, missions pastor at Peachtree Presbyterian notes, “When we’re serving, there’s a two-sided coin. God uses us to change other people’s lives, and so he works through us in that. But while we’re doing that, he’s changing our lives.”
Habitat’s commitment to biblical principles encompasses not only the product of the mission—a decent, affordable place to live — but also the process. Partnering with families reinforces their dignity, capabilities and inherent worth. This commitment has yielded life-changing results around the world for more than 30 years. It is also a lodestone for growth in the future—a future of breaking down the walls that divide people and building up the walls that shelter them.