Leah Gernetzke
Re-visiting the birthplace of Habitat for Humanity and the affordable housing movement

Written for The Fuller Center for Housing

Travel plans and a fair-trade coffee fundraiser are now underway for an upcoming Southeast Conference of the United Church of Christ-sponsored trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where Millard and Linda Fuller first put legs on the affordable housing movement and founded Habitat for Humanity in the 1970s.

By revisiting the area, the UCC-delegation hopes to retell how the Fullers put into practice the concept of a revolving loan fund they called “fund for humanity.” They originally implemented this concept on a small scale in Americus, Ga., on Koinonia Farm with their mentor, Clarence Jordan.

Millard Fuller first visited Mbandaka, a settlement located deep in the Congo, in 1966. He was intrigued by the potential of a “Block and Sand” project, which was used to create building blocks for houses, that the UCC had inherited from unsuccessful missionaries. Though the operation was in disrepair, when the Fullers received a grant from the United Church Board of World Ministries, they turned it into a successful, working project.

They worked on donated land that was a dividing property separating the Africans and Whites in colonial days. Called “Bokotola,” which meant “man who does not care for others,” it was there they built the first 114 Habitat for Humanity homes, transformed the local community and kicked off a global affordable housing movement.

“The houses were completed, they were well-kept, and they provided more funds for additional houses,” said Kirk Lyman-Barner, a member of the UCC delegation and the director of covenant partner development for The Fuller Center for Housing. “The original community is one of the nicest sections in Mbandaka to this day.”

On the trip, the delegation will be uncovering this history and bringing it to light for the public.

“To see first-hand that it was a success story helps remind us of our heritage, of the value of the original concept – of the basic tenants of no-profit, no-interest, volunteer labor, sweat equity, and this fund for humanity, which was designed to provide dignity to the recipients so it wasn’t straight charity,” Lyman-Barner said.

That the housing project wasn’t straight charity was a key element of its success, Lyman-Barner said.

“When they asked for sweat equity or repayment of some sort to help their neighbors, that was a new concept,” he said. “It also changed the way churches did missions. No longer did they just send money or send Americans over to convert people – that was the old style of things. What Millard and Linda did was say, ‘We can actually participate in this mission work physically. Come to the project, pick up a hammer.’”

“We want to teach those basic principles, go back to the original roots and celebrate how successful those original principles were. The next generation of volunteers might not remember this history if we don’t get it recorded and share it.”

The delegation is also trying to raise money for a portable saw mill, which will generate more material for roofing systems in Mbandaka.

“We’re trying to help them fund that, to keep the housing projects going,” Lyman-Barner said. “That saw mill will also create job opportunities because there will be needs for lumber beyond just the houses that we’re building.”

To help support the trip, Café Campesino, an Americus-based, fair trade coffee-importing cooperative is partnering with The Fuller Center by selling a special fair trade organic coffee blend as a fundraiser.

“I think there’s a great relationship between The Fuller Center and Cafe Campesino,” Nema Etheridge, marketing and sales manager, said. “Cafe Campesino was born out of Millard Fuller’s Habitat for Humanity creation. So certainly we want to help support The Fuller Center when we can. In that respect, there’s certainly a close-to-home meaning for this fundraiser.”

In fact, the whole Café Campesino enterprise started when Bill Harris, co-founder of the café, was on a Global Village Habitat for Humanity trip to Guatemala and one of the team members accidentally dumped soil on a coffee bush while working.

When the farmer got so upset that he made the team quit their construction work, Harris began to investigate the whole coffee-producing business. In the process of his research, he learned that most coffee farmers were exploited.

Harris began to work on establishing long-term relationships with farmer cooperatives, buying and importing their green coffee, paying them a fair wage and selling it to roasters in the U.S. who cared about the people behind the coffee.

Lyman-Barner said the fundraising partnership highlights an important part of The Fuller Center’s overarching philosophy that housing is just one aspect of creating better lives for people.

He points to a sewing factory in El Salvador that The Fuller Center helped facilitate in conjunction with the housing program there.

“Because we helped build that relationship, people now have jobs and they can pay back their homes,” he said. “We’re interested not just in housing, but also in creating relationships and partnerships to create fair trade jobs … So we want to help spread the word about Café Campesino’s story.”

“And as we come back from this trip we want people primed and caffeinated, and ready to hear our story.”