Habitat Orange County: 30 years strong

The ache for a home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.

–Maya Angelou

This year, Habitat for Humanity of Orange County celebrates 30 years of making the dream of home ownership possible for people for whom it would otherwise be out of reach. It was an honor to join some 300 supporters on Saturday at a celebratory BBQ at Phoenix Place, a neighborhood in the Rogers Road area of 50 green-certified Habitat homes. There was live music and face painting, along with strategies for keeping our cool in 90-degree weather: snow cones and powerful electric fans.

In 30 years, Habitat has built 249 homes in Orange County, 100 of them in Chapel Hill. New homes are planned in Efland, Northside/Pine Knolls and Rogers Road. A recently introduced program, A Brush with Kindness, offers exterior repair work for homeowners in neighborhoods where Habitat builds homes. Ninety percent of the recipients of this work are elderly. What a great extension of Habitat’s core resource: human beings willing to give with their hands as well as their hearts.

Exploring the origins of Habitat International, it turns out that this history, like that of the community land trust, is entwined with the story of the civil rights movement. Thirty miles from Albany, Georgia, an experiment in integrated living began in 1942: Koinonia Farm, founded by Rev. Clarence Jordan. As John Emmeus Davis tells it, so openly did this community embrace the “commingling” of blacks and whites that they were excommunicated by their Baptist church. When they started an interracial summer camp in 1956, a boycott began that lasted into the late 1960s. The KKK fired on their buildings, burned their roadside market, and threatened worse.

During these years, Koinonia Farm attracted notable civil rights activists and pacifists. Friends of Koinonia worked nationally to raise money on their behalf. Bob Swann, a key player in the community land trust movement, was deeply involved.

Inspired by Koinonia, Swann and fellow civil rights activist Slater King developed an idea for a cooperative agricultural community that could offer economic self-sufficiency to the poor. Out of that vision emerged New Communities, remembered today as the first community land trust. Swann and King’s thinking continued to influence Jordan’s as he worked out a plan to offer individually owned houses on land leased from a nonprofit. As Jordan described his new idea: “all land will be held in trust by the Fund for Humanity, but will be used by the partners free of charge. Thus, usership will replace ownership.”

Millard Fuller, a self-made millionaire who had traded the world of mammon for a life of Christian service, became the first director of the Fund for Humanity, the predecessor of Habitat for Humanity.

Fuller, who died in 2009, is buried at Koinonia near the unmarked grave of Clarence Jordan.

Orange County’s Habitat for Humanity’s unflagging commitment to healing the “ache” that Angelou describes is our community’s contribution to this important historical legacy. And there’s another connection to the larger movement. The current head of Habitat International is Jonathan Reckford, who grew up in Chapel Hill.


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