Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Black History Month: Clarence Jordan

A little over a year ago, I picked up a paintbrush and spent nearly an entire day applying a coat of white paint to a bedroom door.  The reason it took so long was because the door kept absorbing the paint.

The door was located inside a house built by Habitat for Humanity, the well-known non-profit whose mission is to provide housing for low-income residents.  I was lucky enough to get to see the dedication of that house, now the home to a single mom and her two daughters.

Had it not been for a man named Clarence Jordan, I never would have picked up that paintbrush.

Clarence Jordan was born July 29, 1912, in Talbotton, Georgia, located between Macon and Columbus.  Growing up, he was influenced by his Southern Baptist culture but also by the values of what was called the "Social Gospel".

While a student at the University of Georgia, he went to conferences put on by the YMCA, and he became convinced that the gospel of Christianity and the cultural and racial traditions of that time didn't mix.  After he graduated from college, he went to seminary at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville.  He studied the Greek New Testament and eventually earned a doctorate.

Jordan, while in Louisville, met a man named Martin England.  England, a Northern Baptist minister, was interested in collective farming.  They both agreed that creating an interracial cooperative would both show the Christian values of harmony and virtue while helping both black and white sharecroppers.

In 1942, their idea led them to Sumter County, Georgia, and the tiny town of Americus.  (Americus is just down the road from Plains, Georgia, known as the hometown of former president Jimmy Carter.) Jordan, England, and their wives eventually founded Koinonia Farm.  "Koinonia"is a word transliterated from Greek meaning "Christian fellowship or communion".  Koinonia Farm would be a Christian community where resources would be pooled into a common treasury and all persons would be treated as equals.

The Jordans and the Englands built this community around four core beliefs:

  • Treat all human beings with dignity and justice.
  • Choose love over violence (pacifism).
  • Share all possessions and live simply.
  • Be stewards of the land. 
One of Koinonia Farm's goals was to teach local farmers--both black and white--farming techniques that they hoped would increase production and profit. By doing this, they hoped to break the cycle of poverty that entrapped so many local families.  A handful of families joined the farm, and they began growing crops and producing products that they sold to the community around them. 

Koinonia's commitment to both pacifism and racial equality, unfortunately, earned them threats, ostracism, and violence.  During the late 1940's, the farm held interracial Bible studies for their neighbors.  Because of their views on race, in 1950, the Jordans and other members of Koinonia were expelled from their church, the Rehoboth Southern Baptist Church.  

In 1954, hostility started focusing on Koinonia, and over the next several years, the farm became the target of a community boycott.  Their produce stand was shot at.  The Ku Klux Klan threatened violence unless the farm was sold.  By 1963, only four adults were left at Koinonia.  

That was the year Clarence Jordan put his Greek New Testatment knowledge to use.  He wrote and eventually published the Cotton Patch Gospel, meant to communicate the New Testament into the language of the American South.  For example, Jesus is born in Gainesville, baptizes in the Chattahoochee River, and tells people, "Come to me, all of you who are frustrated and have had a bellyful, and I will give you zest." Atlanta actor Tom Key and stage director Russell Treyz wrote a musical based on Jordan's translation of the Gospels of Matthew and John, which ran successfully off-Broadway and has had other successful productions as well.

When a new couple, Millard and Linda Fuller, arrived at Koinonia, they and the Jordans changed their focus.  They incorporated as Koinonia Partners, and in 1968, they started the Fund for Humanity.  This fund would finance the construction of adequate housing for people in need.  

If the phrase "adequate housing for people in need" sounds familiar, it should.  This is the concept behind Habitat For Humanity.  

Clarence Jordan died on October 29, 1969.  Koinonia Farms still exists today, growing and selling their products, providing guided retreats and courses, and giving its guests a place of refreshment. 

When I picked up that paintbrush to paint a door, I had no idea that I was part of a movement that came from one man's committment to treating all with dignity, choosing love, caring for the land, and living simply.  

Sources used:

Chancey, Andrew S. "Clarence Jordan: 1912-1969." New Georgia Encyclopedia: Arts and Culture: Religion
"Koinonia Farm,"
"Koinonia History Timeline", Koinonia Farms website
Waskey, A.J.L, "Cotton Patch Gospel." New Georgia Encyclopedia: Arts and Culture: Theater
Hatfield, Edward A, "Habitat For Humanity International." New Georgia Encyclopedia: Business and Economy: Non-Profit Organizations.

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