In one of those human interest stories you can’t quite believe, The New York Times recently reported on a low income Scranton, Pennsylvania family of 17 children that had been evicted from their condemned rental house, temporarily separated, and threatened with permanent dislocation. The American Red Cross declared them a disaster case.
Seventeen kids? Minimal income? Who in God’s name could help this family stay together?
Their salvation, and that of thousands more needy families like them, came in the form of Habitat for Humanity International. The local affiliate of the international charity coordinated hundreds of volunteers to renovate an old ten-bedroom house and donate 16 rooms of furniture. Throughout the United States and more than 60 foreign countries, the Americus, Georgia-based organization is helping eradicate homelessness and inferior housing. And they’re doing it in the name of God.
Millard Fuller documented Habitat’s story and articulated its faith-based mission in his first six books. More Than Houses celebrates Habitat’s faith-oriented mission and programs within the context of a burgeoning social revolution. As Fuller writes, “For several years, I have believed that a new social and religious movement is forming to rid the world of substandard houses and homelessness. Habitat for Humanity is in the vanguard of launching and nurturing that movement.”
Unlike most homeless advocates, Fuller is relentlessly optimistic. And why not? This September, just 24 years after its founding, the organization will build its 100,000th house. With affiliates in more than 1,500 towns and cities across America and five to ten additional chapters forming monthly, Fuller estimates that the group’s 200,000th house should be built in just five years.
In much the same way that Alcoholics Anonymous preaches sobriety, Habitat resourcefully combines ecumenical and evangelical elements of the Christian tradition, helping the needy by continually integrating a Christian approach with practical results. Fuller writes, “Habitat for Humanity has always been and continues to be openly and unashamedly a Christian ministry while remaining just as steadfastly open to all who want to participate in this faith-and-love venture. Homeowners are chosen without regard to race and religion, and volunteers and donors are invited to be a part of the work regardless of their faith commitment.” Fuller is also a believer in “sweat equity,” and requires homeowners to spend hundreds of hours helping to construct their new homes.
There are two ways this book could have been strengthened. The author could have related more about the trials and tribulations associated with Habitat’s everyday operations. The organization obviously helps truly needy people, but surely not every case is a success story. Fuller makes it look easy, but easy it clearly isn’t, and explaining some of the particularly difficult aspects of the work would be helpful to others who want to follow in his footsteps.
Fuller also says little about the superiority of private charity and volunteerism, especially when it comes to providing housing. Habitat’s experience amply demonstrates the superiority of voluntary community action over government provision of social services, yet the author takes a warm and fuzzy approach to government, interpreting the word “happiness” in the Declaration of Independence as a mandate for government to be beneficent.
In this regard he is nothing if not straightforward, stating that “Every potential ally from whatever realm, governmental or otherwise, should be encouraged to make the maximum contribution possible to help alleviate the suffering of our fellow human beings who are languishing in miserable living conditions.”
On balance, More Than Houses is an inspiring book. It is also a resounding testament to the power of faith and love to motivate private initiative and voluntary service. It tells a story of successful social service that ought to be trumpeted as loudly and widely as possible.
Carl Helstrom is senior program officer at the JM Foundation in New York City.