House United In Selma
by Brad Cope
How a diverse group of seniors helped build community in a city infamous for racial conflict.
As the sun rose over Selma, Ala., retiree Roosevelt Butler considered his options for the day. A self-proclaimed duffer, he could hit the links-and the trees-at Ocmulgee Gold Club. Or he could catch another 20 pounds of catfish at one of the nearby ponds. Perhaps he and his wife, Emily, could begin another trip along the East Coast. But instead of picking up his golf clubs, fishing rod or garment bag. Butler grabbed his tool belt and headed for the Habitat for Humanity blitz build.
Last September, scores of volunteers from Alabama and across the United States converged on a sandy field off Highway 80 in Selma, building 20 homes for low-income families in one week. Many of the volunteers were retired locals. Others motored RVs into town. Still others took a week vacation from their jobs to raise roofs.
Yet all participants recognized the significance of the event: Infamous for bloody attacks against civil rights marchers in 1965, the city now stood for blacks and whites working together for the common good. For Butler, a Selma native and member of the Habitat church relations committee, the multiracial effort was nothing short of an act of God.
"The Lord is doing a wonderful thing in this city through Habitat for Humanity," he said. "For the first time I can remember, all the people and churches are coming together to serve others. He's blessing our community because of our service."
A Movement of God
Amid the staccato thwacks of claw hammers, the loamy smell of fresh sod and the dry taste of airborne sawdust, Christians gave many reasons for joining the building project.
John Sherrer, who works at a brick manufacturing company, and his wife Sherie simply wanted to "do missions locally." Jean Pryor drove her RV to Alabama from her hometown of Suffern, N.Y. "God has blessed me in my life," she said. "I came here to give something back." For Ben Givan, a retired school principal from Selma, the blitz build met a critical need. He said, "It warms my heart to know that the people moving into these houses would probably have never been able to purchase homes."
For many, the upshot of the event-people from all backgrounds joining forces to help the less fortunate-represented a sea change for Selma. About three miles from the building site, the notorious Edmund Pettus Bridge spans the Alabama River. Named for a Confederate general, the arching roadway represents the epicenter of the civil rights struggle in Alabama.
On Sunday, March 7, 1965, state troopers attacked 600 marchers heading across the bridge toward the Capitol building in Montgomery. The troopers used billy clubs, tear gas, bullwhips, ropes and lengths of rubber tubing covered with barbed wire to drive the marchers back into Selma. Though Martin Luther King Jr. led a successful march to Montgomery two weeks after "Bloody Sunday," the conflict tarnished Selma's reputation.
Habitat's "Building Beyond the Bridge" campaign aimed to change that.
Organizers said the blitz build, from inception in 1997 to construction last summer, drew support from citizens of all races, who raised funds, secured land and materials, vetted potential homeowners and recruited home builders. And Selma's faith community led the way.
For starters, local churches bankrolled five of the 20 houses. Moreover, many of the volunteers-including the Butlers, the Sherrers and the Givans-came from local congregations. A massive placard on the building site attested to this fact. From the top left corner to the lower right, the sign listed row after row of local church sponsors.
On the lot surrounding the placard, residents fleshed out their pastors' vision of multiracial community service. Churchgoers cleared land, poured foundations, raised walls and roofs, hung drywall, painted rooms, installed appliances and polished brass light fixtures on five front porches-all in a single week. As an amendment to King's famous statement that "the most segregated hour of America is 11 o'clock on Sunday morning," Selma Christians demonstrated the unifying power of faith.
"Selma is known throughout the world as the city of racial strife," said Michael Slagel, archdeacon of Selma's Cathedral of Christ the King Charismatic Episcopal Church and head of transportation for the blitz build. "But this project has brought healing along racial lines. We have black and white Habitat co-chairmen. Pastors are starting to trade pulpits on Sundays. Jesus Christ is being lifted up. "Building Beyond the Bridge' is a movement of God, not man."
Theology of the Hammer
Given the Rev. Slagel's comments, it is no surprise that Christians launched Habitat for Humanity. Co-founder Millard Fuller became a self-made millionaire by age 29, but his success in marketing did not satisfy his desire for a deeper relationship with God. After a spiritual recommitment, Fuller and his wife, Linda, sold all their possessions and gave the money to the poor. In 1968, they moved to Koinonia Farm, a Christian community near Americus, Ga. There Fuller's theology generated the ideas that culminated in Habitat for Humanity.
Every person, he reasoned, deserves a simple, decent home. Starting in Georgia and later in Africa, Fuller built modest houses on a no-profit no-interest basis, making them affordable to low-income families. But the homes were not handouts. Each family not only agreed to make monthly payments; they also invested 300 hours of "sweat equity"-or their own labor-in the project. The concept, which Fuller says came from Scripture, took off. He and his wife founded Habitat for Humanity in 1976, and now the non-profit ministry houses more than 350,000 people around the world.
Fuller's theology appears in other facets of Habitat for Humanity. The organization does not accept any government money that would limit its Christian witness-a steep price for religious freedom. And before a family moves into their home, a pastor conducts a "dedication" service. The group moves through each room of the house, praying God will be glorified there. At the end of the often emotional ceremony, the pastor gives the family a Bible.
"I wanted to give my brother and sister Christians a ministry that all could feel good about and agree on," wrote Fuller in his most recent book, More Than Houses (Word, 2000). "And what better idea than providing one of the most basic of human needs-shelter-and utilizing a tool that has so much significance to the disciples of Jesus-the hammer." After all, their "boss" was a carpenter.
Despite Habitat's straightforward Christian message, supporters from all viewpoints praise the organization. President Bill Clinton called Habitat "the most successful continuous community service project in the history of the United States." Jack Kemp, secretary of the Department of Housing and Human Development in the Bush administration, said, "When I'm asked about housing success stories from our inner cities, the first group that comes to mind is Habitat for Humanity." Former President Jimmy Carter hosts-and works-a weeklong Habitat work project every year. Other Habitat backers include Braveheart screenwriter Randall Wallace, newscaster Tom Brokaw, musician Charlie Daniels and talk show host Oprah Winfrey.
A Job for Everyone
"You see that siding?" said Merv Connor, gesturing toward Selma site No. 8. "All of it was put up by amateurs. That's what you're looking at."
The former carpenter and current Habitat RV "Care-A-Vanner" wasn't being critical; the siding looked tight and level. Connor was beaming with pride.
"These people do good work," he said. "And you don't have to be experienced and talented to do the job. If you don't know what you're doing, the team leader will show you. And if you don't like construction, you can work on food or something."
"Or something" described the limits of the work done by Christian seniors in Selma. In other words, they did everything. Some, like Connor, built houses, hammers dangling from their hips. Others, like fellow Care-A-Vanner Pryor, worked the registration table. From all appearances, physical limitations did not lessen any volunteer's impact. One man motored his wheelchair over a front yard to flatten the sod.
Angela Olds, a single mother with five children, expressed appreciation for the seniors who helped build her Habitat house: "The older volunteers have been wonderful. They've painted, they've hammered-lots of them have more spirit than I do. Without them, I wouldn't be about to move into my new home."
At an event packed with new beginnings-for a host of churches, 20 proud families and one infamous city-Roosevelt Butler turned to nature to describe the impact of "Building Beyond the Bridge."
"You have to plant a seed to get a harvest," he said. "You gotta serve in order for God to bless you. And you do that outside the church. You worship God in church, but you serve Him outside church. That's what I told people who came out to Habitat. When you plant that seed to help humanity, you'll be surprised how God blesses you."
LifeWise Magazine, Feb/March 2000, published by Focus on the Family. Copyright 2000. Focus on the Family. All Rights Reserved. International Copyright Secured. Used by Permission.