Washington Post article
April 4, 1992

Carter Returns to D.C. Armed With Tools to Battle Homelessness

by Carey Kinsolving

Former president Jimmy Carter returned to Washington last week to talk about a house. Not the one he lived in for four years on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, but a house he will build this summer as part of the Habitat for Humanity Jimmy Carter Work Project.

“The greatest discrimination on Earth today is the discrimination of rich people against the poor,” Carter told the congregation at First Rock Baptist Church in Southeast Washington. “Who are the rich?” he asked. Then he answered. “Most of us in this congregation are rich.”

Carter equated the rich with those who have a home, a decent diet, health care, education, a chance for a job and some form of security in their neighborhood.

He said that when he left the White House 11 years ago there were 1,200 homeless people in Atlanta, and “now there are 15,000.” He also said there has been a 92 percent reduction in federal financing to build and repair housing for the poor.

Carter told the congregation about a former carpenter who got a job clipping trees. The carpenter lives among seven homeless families who stay within a “stone’s throw” of the 30-acre Carter Center in Atlanta. The man helps his neighbors build shelters, carries water from a stream and builds a fire to boil it so his neighbors can have clean water to drink, Carter said. Through the door to one of the shacks, Carter said, he saw a wall of orange crates filled with books. The carpenter teaches his neighbors to read.

“Do our hearts go out to these people?” Carter asked. “Do we look at them as equals? Are they the center of our prayers? We look at them as somehow beyond the scope of our responsibility.”

Carter noted the plight of many caring Christians, who want to help the poor but don’t know how or where to start. He said Habitat for Humanity offers a rare opportunity to help the poor help themselves.

Habitat is not a charitable organization because each homeowner must invest “sweat equity” – 500 hours of labor in building the Washington houses – and pay off an interest-free loan, Carter said.

After Carter spoke, the Rev. Beecher Hicks, of Metropolitan Baptist Church in Northwest Washington, spoke of another carpenter who was homeless – Jesus of Nazareth. “Jesus knew what it was to be in need of housing,” Hicks said, referring to Jesus’s statement in the Gospel of Luke: “The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.”

Hicks said Jesus had some practical advice for home builders: “No man builds a house unless he first count the cost.” Hicks quipped, “That means there is a cash problem in relationship to the building process.”

Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter are scheduled to work June 14-20 on the Habitat site here. They will be joined by volunteers and families earning sweat equity to build 10 houses in the 4600 block of Benning Road.

The D.C. Habitat project is the result of a partnership between Carter and Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly. The D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development is selling the government land for the project.

The Carters first heard about Habitat for Humanity when two neighbors volunteered for one of its overseas projects. In 1984, the Carters went to New York to convert a dilapidated six-story building into homes for residents in Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Since then, the Carters have led thousands of volunteer builders on “blitz-building” work camps. Almost 150 houses have been built by Carter-led teams in the United States and Mexico.

“I’ve learned more about the needy than I ever did as a governor, as a candidate or as a president,” Carter said. “The sacrifice I thought I would be making turned out to be one of the greatest blessings of my life. We have become small players in an exciting global effort to alleviate the curse of homelessness.”

One volunteer following Carter who plans to pound nails in Washington’s June heat is Julianne Crane, of Americus, Ga. Last June she started attending Carter’s Sunday school class in Plains, Ga.

“I’m not real knowledgeable about the Bible,” Crane said. “But when I attend his classes, he makes the Bible live…

“What he says is that the Bible isn’t useful unless we can use it in our everyday life in the way we live. He is truly inspired when he does his Bible class.”

Crane recalled the lesson Carter taught on Jesus’s first miracle, turning water into wine at a wedding feast. Carter taught that Jesus seemed to do the miracle reluctantly so that only a few had knowledge of it. And the lesson, according to Crane: “We don’t do good things for the attention we will get from it, and that even the small things we do in our life are meaningful. So it’s all God’s work.”

The Times Union article
June 20, 1992

He Has a Hammer

Carter helps build housing in Washington slum

by Carey Kinsolving

Former President Jimmy Carter is promoting a new form of Christian theology – “the theology of the hammer.”

“Hammer theology” is a code word used at Habitat for Humanity that describes a sweaty, compassionate Christianity that makes a difference on the street as well as in the pew.

In April 1991 Habitat dedicated house No. 10,000. Today Habitat founder Millard Fuller will dedicate house No. 15,000. Hammer theology has constructed 5,000 houses for poor people in 14 months.

“Seeking out the poor, the hungry, the deprived, the scorned, the friendless and the needy” is where Christ cast his lot and did his ministry, said Carter, after a morning of sawing and hammering in Southeast Washington.

Clad in soiled jeans, work boots and a red bandanna, Carter hammered, sawed and lifted along with the designated homeowner, grandmother Elsie Jones, who is raising three grandchildren, Felicia, 13; LaShaun, 10; and Robert, 2.

Six hundred volunteers joined the Carters to build 10 houses in one of Washington’s most poverty-stricken neighborhoods. The houses represent the 10th Jimmy Carter Work Project, which has become an annual event scheduled for the third week in June.

As governor and president, Carter said he had tried to write laws that addressed the poor. But Habitat has taken him beyond the legislative into the practical aspects of helping the poor.

Carter said Habitat has provided an opportunity for him “to get to know families that are genuinely in need, and to see the worth of them, the dignity, the ambition, the motivation, the hard work and the dedication,” which he added, “equals mine.”

This sometimes shocks the affluent, Carter said, who often do not know a poor person. As he talked, he seemed almost more at ease as a laborer brushing shoulders with the poor than he did as chief executive addressing members of Congress.

Carter, a long-time Sunday School teacher at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Ga., said that often congregations talk about ministering to the poor, but rarely are they aware of their needs.

“All of us are inclined to feel more comfortable in a homogeneous group,” Carter said.

An Atlanta minister recently expressed frustration to Carter over his inability to get people living in housing projects to attend church. Carter’s advice: “Get out of church. Go where they are and see what their needs are.”

Habitat started officially in 1976, but unofficially when founder Millard Fuller went to Zaire with a church group to build not-for-profit houses in 1968. With a beginning undergirded with little except prayer and vision for what God could do, Habitat has grown into one of the nation’s largest home builders.

The National Association of Home Builders ranked Habitat No. 62 among all home builders for 1990 and last year, No. 27. Fuller expects this year’s ranking to place Habitat in the top 10 and by 1994, “I expect Habitat to be the No. 1 home builder in the United States,” Fuller said.

“The primary importance of Habitat is not how many houses we build, but it is the witness that we make,” Fuller said.

And that witness is being distorted, Fuller said.

He expressed disgust toward some media who omit the Christian motivations undergirding his organization and the way it operates. A Washington-area television station, Fuller said, reported that Habitat is giving away houses. Habitat sells houses at cost to applicants who qualify and charges no interest on loans to comply with a mandate in the Hebrew scriptures that forbids charging interest to poor people.

Fuller’s message? Christians are recipients of the grace of God through Christ. “Because of no good deeds on our part, Christ came to this earth and died for our sins. That’s called grace – God’s unmerited love,” he said.

“The other side of the coin of grace is disgrace. It is a disgraceful situation for people who are the recipients of God’s grace to allow fellow human beings to languish in the pitiful conditions such as the inner city of Washington.”

Every morning before Habitat volunteers – including the Carters – leave Gallaudet University, where they are being housed for the week, they can attend a service consisting of a Bible lesson and prayer.

Fuller describes Habitat as an “alive, dynamic, Christ-centered movement” that welcomes Christians and non-Christians to participate in building houses for the poor.

Fuller takes special delight when people listen to the message behind the sweat, nails and saws. Recently, Fuller returned to the site of a Jimmy Carter Work Project in Charlotte, N.C. He spotted a 5-year-old boy playing in the yard of the house that Carter had helped build.

After complimenting the boy on his beautiful home, he asked him who built it, expecting to hear the boy say, “Jimmy Carter.”

Instead, the boy said, “Jesus built my house.”