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Habitat for Humanity:
Building the City of God

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As the walls of the Inman house go up, other walls tumble down. Habitat volunteers in Salem, Oregon, also build new foundations.

Photo by Maggie Johnson

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Dave Inman is right in the middle of things as Queen of Peace parishioners remove the forms from the poured foundation.

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Everyone is welcome at this common table. Before Habitat volunteers break bread together at midday, they bow their heads in prayer.

Photo by Maggie Johnson

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Donna Inman can't wait to continue homemaking at the wheelchair-friendly counters and cabinets designed and installed by Habitat volunteers.

Photo by Maggie Johnson


One of the corporal works of mercy is to shelter the homeless. Habitat for Humanity is attracting large numbers of volunteers who want to live out this gospel mandate and build those shelters. By Philip J. McBrien

 History of Promise

 ‘Sweat Equity’ Demanded

 Jimmy Carter Swings a Hammer

 San Antonio Finds a Habitat

Close-up of the Inmans’ House

Every House Is God’s House

Involving Your Parish (Side bar)

IT’S SATURDAY MORNING. As he does every day, Wayne Wolfe straps on his carpenter’s apron and gathers his tools. Today he won’t work on remodeling his own home, as he did the whole first year of his retirement. Instead, he’ll drive across town. He’ll work alongside volunteers from Queen of Peace Parish and other Salem, Oregon, churches to help Dave Inman build a house for himself and his wife, Donna, who uses a wheelchair.

Wayne and thousands like him are the lifeblood of Habitat for Humanity. In more than 2,000 locations across the United States and overseas they’re building simple, decent houses for people who might otherwise never own or even live in good homes.

Catholics in the United States have given time, money and countless hammer-bashed thumbs to the work of Habitat since the organization first assumed its name and identity. One part of Habitat’s past success, Catholics and Catholic parishes and institutions can be counted on to play a role in Habitat’s future.

History of Promise

The history of Habitat for Humanity is a tale of individual and communal conversion, and of good words put into action. It’s a love story that began with two characters and that aims today to embrace the whole world. Habitat is an ecumenical organization and thousands of Catholics like Wayne Wolfe know it’s a fine way to put their faith into action.

In the middle of the 1960’s, workaholic Alabama lawyer-turned-sales-mogul Millard Fuller faced the most important choice in his life. His wife, Linda, had left him to sort things out after she’d finally gotten fed up with his neglect of her and their marriage. Fuller caught up with her in New York, begged her not to give up on him and promised that he’d change.

How many spouses have made similar promises? How many keep them? Fuller kept his.

Right away he sold his business holdings and gave the resulting millions to various projects assisting people in need. Within months he also took his family to Koinonia Farm for an extended visit. There he saw an example of what some have called "radical Christianity," blacks and whites living and working together. The Rev. Clarence Jordan, originator of the famous Cotton Patch Gospel, had founded Koinonia in response to what he saw as the New Testament’s central demand: Love your neighbor as yourself.

However "radical," Koinonia’s brand of Christianity struck Fuller as real and important. He would embrace it, partly as a means of keeping the promise he’d made to his wife, but mostly because he felt sure that it was right. Fuller decided to devote his skills in persuasion and sales to creating racial harmony and to giving the poor a fair shake.

But how would he harness his energies? For a decade he tried different things, including leading Koinonia Farm for a time after the Rev. Jordan’s death. He created a fund which enabled people to buy farmland on which they could live self-sufficiently and to build houses in rural Georgia and in Zaire.

In 1976 Fuller invited other much-traveled Koinonia friends back to the farm to evaluate what he and they had learned about their varied ways of living Christianity. Their discussions gave birth to a new organization, which they named "Habitat for Humanity." Its goal was to build houses with and for the world’s needy.

‘Sweat Equity’ Demanded

Habitat isn’t—and never was—a handout. The long and sorry history of handout-thinking seems only to have kept people in substandard housing in every place where it’s been tried. Wishing to avoid similar ineffectiveness, Habitat operated from the beginning on some firm principles. Homeowners would purchase their houses: There would be no giveaways. Habitat would keep the costs as low as possible by using volunteer labor, offering interest-free loans and insisting on what is often called "sweat equity": People must work to build their own houses, as well as those of others.

The first Habitat houses were built near Koinonia Farm, in and around Americus, Georgia. Within months, the Habitat idea started to spread, first to San Antonio, Texas, and not long afterward to rural places like Johns Island in South Carolina, and to big cities like Charlotte, Baltimore and New York. The movement grew slowly at first, but more rapidly as people all over the country got bitten by the Habitat bug.

By 1981 Habitat had drawn the attention of a big-city radio station. In an interview, Millard Fuller was asked to state the goal of his organization. He replied that he wanted each person in the world to have a simple, decent place to live.

Impulsive though the answer may have been, it described perfectly what Habitat was trying to accomplish. Habitat really did aim to build human dignity all over the world. It would do this by helping every person to live in a clean, dry, warm and structurally safe place, and by building safe, hospitable communities one house at a time.

Ever the salesman, Fuller knew that the organization would have to grow quickly to gain even a remote chance at meeting its goal. On the other hand, too-rapid growth could compromise quality. Habitat couldn’t afford to lose sight of its principles, which had in five years succeeded in giving real hope to many people who had otherwise held little or none.

From the start, Habitat seemed to have been that rare activity in which everyone wins. Still, its word had to be spread more widely, even as all involved could continue to win. To draw attention to Habitat, Fuller set out to recruit famous people to be good examples.

Jimmy Carter Swings a Hammer

Former President Jimmy Carter was the first well-known Habitat recruit, and he’s been far more than a mere figurehead. Since 1984, he has swung his hammer to help build hundreds of houses. Many Habitat volunteers tell stories about the president, now in his 70’s, beginning work at sunrise and continuing well past nightfall.

Carter has also sponsored several weeklong multi-house "blitz builds" throughout the United States. Through direct invitation or by good example, he has involved many other celebrities. In their turn, people like Paul Newman, Bob Hope, Ali McGraw, Tim Allen and various NFL stars have attracted attention and additional volunteers to Habitat.

Today Habitat’s goal is more focused, yet more ambitious than ever. Fuller and other leaders at the international headquarters talk about "no more shacks by 2000." Yes, the idea of providing decent housing for every person in need within two years does seem an impossibly tall order, but consider: Between 1976 and 1991 Habitat built 5,000 houses. The next 5,000 went up in just a year. By 1994, Habitat had built 35,000 houses worldwide, and in 1996 the 60,000th was completed.

Millard Fuller admits that the whole thing looks like a crazy idea. He also points out that more than 60,000 families so far have earned a real chance to improve their lives because of this craziness, and that Habitat is growing at an ever-increasing rate. Even if the idea is crazy, it does seem to work and everyone involved still seems to be winning.

San Antonio Finds a Habitat

Few Catholics lived in rural Georgia in the mid-1970’s. The first Habitat affiliate outside Americus, in San Antonio, Texas, owes its existence, however, to Catholics who collaborated with other Christians to build homes in desperately poor neighborhoods.

Throughout Habitat’s history, Catholic support has been steady and strong. According to John Petty, Habitat’s western area director for church relations, by 1996 some 1,800 of 20,000 U.S. Catholic parishes had supported the organization in some way. That’s a nine percent participation rate. In that year alone Catholic financial support exceeded $2 million.

However impressive, these numbers merely hint at the depth of Catholic enthusiasm for Habitat for Humanity. Petty reports that Catholic bishops have been receptive and supportive, both at their conference meetings, which occur twice annually, and in their individual dioceses. The dioceses of Gaylord, Michigan, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota, for instance, have offered seed money to parishes to encourage local and international support for Habitat.

Petty speaks most fondly about Cleveland’s Bicentennial Village project, which "really expresses what the Church can do to work with ‘secular’ agencies and businesses." Following the lead of Bishop Anthony M. Pilla, the diocese spearheaded a partnership through which churches built 25 Habitat homes, and developers raised another 50 to be sold at market rate. The Bicentennial Village has breathed new life into a once-decaying portion of the city.

Close-up of the Inmans’ House

It’s easy to appreciate Habitat’s broad appeal and rapid growth. Retired Catholic bookstore owner and occasional Habitat construction chief Jim Hunt puts it this way: "We’re selling homes to the poor. We’re not handing out anything. We use the Church’s unique resources to reach out a helping hand to people, and they have to reach back."

A glance at the Inman house proves the point. Volunteer labor and contributed and recycled materials make it possible for Habitat’s Salem affiliate to sell Dave and Donna their house for $40,000, in a market where a comparable three-bedroom home could easily command $100,000. Moreover, since their loan is interest-free, the Inmans’ cost really will be "only" $40,000, to be paid over 20 years. The true cost of a similar home built and financed conventionally could easily top $200,000.

Across the United States, Habitat House costs range between $20,000 and $65,000. Habitat realizes dramatic savings by mobilizing riches which churches have in abundance: volunteer labor, connections to all sectors of the economy, and a charter commitment to help persons in need. That’s the helping hand of which Jim Hunt speaks.

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There's no doubt that Dave Inman (center) has plenty of sweat equity in his Habitat house. The windows he's helping install will give him a new view of the world.

Photo by Maggie Johnson

Dave Inman himself found a source to donate windows with outstanding insulating properties, and the crew adapted the house plan to accommodate them. (Habitat’s economies are even more dramatic in parts of Latin America and Africa. There, houses can be built for as little as $280, with the same principles of interest-free loans, sweat equity and volunteer labor.)

Along with paying off their mortgage, like all Habitat homeowners, the Inmans agree to be builders themselves. They’ve paid "sweat equity" by working on their own house and, earlier, on buildings now occupied by other Habitat homeowners. Habitat expects all of its homeowners to work hard in exchange for a fair deal that, for many, is a new lease on life.

Dave Inman talks about his almost completed house as "a godsend. There’s just no other way we’d ever own a home. I’m tired of sleeping on in-laws’ floors, and I’m grateful for this chance."

What’s more, Habitat builds homes to last. When Hurricane Andrew leveled much of south Florida in 1993, it left only a few houses standing. No one can say for certain why the Habitat houses endured winds and rain that destroyed nearly everything else.

The best guess is that the houses are what professionals call "overbuilt." The volunteers who erect these buildings don’t often know shortcuts or other tricks of the construction trade. To compensate for what they don’t know, they drive 10 nails when two would suffice. They work carefully, deliberately and, yes, slowly, but they stay at the job until they’re sure they’ve built something solid.

The houses are modest, but decent. All are built within guidelines and plan options established by Habitat. Owners can build some individuality into their homes, but to keep costs low and prevent jealousies among homeowners, affiliates limit any extras. Salem Habitat owners, for instance, can spend up to $1,000 customizing their homes.

Every House Is God’s House

Wayne Wolfe is one of 85 Queen of Peace parishioners working on the Inman house. Another hundred parishioners have contributed in other ways, including telephone chains and meal preparation. Asked why he works so hard and so often at the Inman house, Wayne replies, "It’s really satisfying to work hard and see the results of my work. Building a Habitat house I can see progress and the difference our work makes in people’s lives."

Mary Gorman, a paralegal, enjoys working at the site with other people who also want to be there: "Even though I’ve done some remodeling and light construction before, every day I worked on Dave and Donna’s house I learned something new. I like even more the camaraderie, the positive atmosphere volunteers bring to the project. When strangers work hard together for the sake of something good, they become friends."

Retired social worker Joe Thimm enjoys working side by side with volunteers from other churches and people of other faiths. "Christians disagree about all kinds of things, such as baptism and communion, and about who can come to the table. There are also good, faithful people who aren’t Christians. Habitat proves that we can all stop arguing and work together. Isn’t that what Jesus called us to do?"

It’s easy to see some distinctly Catholic truths enacted between the lines of what Queen of Peace parishioners say:

  • Building a Habitat house is like a sacrament, in the sense that sacrament is word embodied in flesh and action.

  • When we extend a helping hand to people in need the Church is really present in the lives of the poor.

  • We’re obliged to speak the gospel to all the nations—one person, one family, one house, one neighborhood at a time.

Dave and Donna Inman have worked hard to own their home. They won’t let their neighborhood go to pot. They’ll do everything they can to make it a safe and healthy place to live.

Habitat may be the beginnings of revolution in social action and care for the needy. If so, it’s a revolution deeply compatible with Catholic belief: They’re selling homes to the poor through partnership and teaching by example. They’re getting their hands dirty and sweating along with people with whom they might have no other contact except through Habitat. Isn’t that just what Jesus of Nazareth did so many years ago? Isn’t that what he calls all of us to do today?

Dr. Philip J. McBrien has been a free-lance writer and education consultant since 1991. Prior to that, he was director of religious education in a variety of parish settings. Married to Dana Morgan McBrien, a Protestant minister and Head Start administrator, Dr. McBrien lives in Salem, Oregon, with his wife and two sons. He has helped to build Habitat for Humanity houses.

Involving Your Parish in Habitat for Humanity

People can give Habitat as much or as little time as they can afford. Most volunteers lend a few Saturdays worth of labor. Others work every Saturday, or for whole weeks at a time. "Habitat Gypsies" make perhaps the most dramatic commitment: They travel all over our continent to assist local volunteers building houses and sometimes whole neighborhoods.

Habitat is gentle on overworked parish staffers. Queen of Peace pastor, the Rev. George Wolf, says he "was involved a little bit at the start, to help get the ball rolling. Since then, though, the parish staff and I have just stayed out of the way and watched as parishioners did everything. That's a good thing, too, because I'm dangerous with a hammer!"

Father Wolf also appreciates Habitat's appeal to people who weren't already doing other parish activities. Lots of people who don't participate in parish education, committees, pastoral council, or apostolic work such as that done by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul came out to build the Inman house.

Here's how you and your parish can get started with Habitat for Humanity: Call your local affiliate. It should be listed in the telephone book. Invite the affiliate's staffers to speak to decisionmakers, other leaders and groups at your parish, or get someone from a neighboring church to do it.

If there's no local affiliate in your town, Habitat for Humanity International will connect you with the nearest one. Call 912-924-6935, fax them at 912-924-6541, consult their Web site at, e-mail them at, or write 121 Habitat Street, Americus, GA 31709-3498. They'll work with you and other like-minded folk to start an affiliate in your town.

If you're ready to start hammering right now and you're willing to travel, you can ask the Global Village department at Habitat for Humanity International about projects in the United States and overseas. As is standard for volunteer work, you'll pay for transportation and, most often, for lodging. The local affiliate will keep you busy and fed. If you have access to a recreational vehicle, try the Habitat Gypsies: You can reach them, too, through the Global Village department.

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