February 23, 2004

Habitat founder Fuller 'talks tots'
in Tull

By Michael Terrazas

For Millard Fuller, the mission of Habitat for Humanity was driven home last summer in Romania. On hand to dedicate the 100th Habitat house built in that country–which also happened to be the 150,000th Habitat house worldwide–Fuller stood on a platform outside the home and spoke to the gathered crowd for about 20 minutes.

For all 20 of those minutes, Fuller held in his arms a 4-year-old boy named David, one of five children in the family that would be moving into the house. David's previous home (located next door to the new one) was a broken down, "visibly poor" house filled with black mold, making the children who lived there perpetually sick.

"Their new house was white and bright and light and beautiful," Fuller said Feb. 17 in Tull Auditorium. "We were giving that child a better chance–whatever he becomes in life, we're giving him a better chance."

Fuller appeared at Emory as part of the Center for the Interdisciplinary Study of Religion's Family Forum Series, focusing on the plights of children in crisis. Along with his wife, Linda, Fuller founded Habitat in 1976 with the goal of eliminating poverty housing and homelessness from the earth, and in 28 years the organization has made an admirable start: Habitat for Humanity International has provided homes for some 750,000 people, working in all 50 states and 90 other nations and territories around the world.

"We're talking tots tonight," quipped Martin Marty, Robert W. Woodruff Visiting Professor of Interdisciplinary Religious Studies, who "interviewed" Fuller as the two sat in easy chairs on the Tull stage. Marty said each installment of the Family Forum Series had examined a "lack" from which children suffer: lack of food, lack of justice, lack of care.

Fuller's role was to address lack of housing, and he did so by describing Habitat's work. Actually, young David's house in Romania harkened back to Habitat's very first home, built in the south Georgia Christian community of Koinonia. That house also became a home for two parents and five children; the father, Fuller recalled, was illiterate and had to sign the mortgage note with an X. Today one of the man's daughters writes mortgages of her own as an attorney in Washington, Fuller noted with a hint of pride.

"The symmetry of those two stories [of the two houses] is amazing," Fuller said.

Marty encouraged Fuller to imagine Habitat's work through the eyes of children, to channel the emotions of a 10-year-old who no longer needs to be ashamed to show his friends where he lives. Fuller responded with more stories from Habitat's 28 years, with explanations of Habitat's principle of asking owners to put "sweat equity" into their homes, of involving the entire homeowning family in the building process.

The conversation necessarily diverged at times from just children. When asked the greatest challenge Habitat faces for the future, Fuller replied: "Leadership."

"It's my greatest frustration when I see so many talented people who are not using their God-given talents to help others, only to help themselves," he said. "The need is so great, and laborers are so few."

Fuller also ticked off a list of Habitat programs that encourage efforts from women, persons with disabilities and even state prisoners. He said more than 11,000 U.S. college students will spend their spring breaks building Habitat houses; another program, "First Shelter," provides low- or no-cost building materials and provisions in bitterly poor countries like Afghanistan, in hopes that a full-fledged Habitat program may later prosper.

Fuller called on more communities to follow the lead of Anniston, Ala., and LaGrange and Valdosta in Georgia, which have embraced Habitat's "21st Century Challenge" of pledging to end all substandard housing by a target date. Years ago Sumter County, Ga., where Koinonia is located, made a similar pledge to eliminate all poverty housing by 2000. And the county did it. Habitat still builds in Sumter County–there is the need to maintain the existing level of housing–but the county's poorest children at least know they have simple, decent, clean places to live.

"That's what we advocate: Don't leave any child behind," Fuller said. "We don't think any society is so well off that it can afford to squander the next generation."