February 26 2010

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.”