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December 17, 2021

Advent Reflections on Habitat for Humanity

By Phil Prince

Birthed by the faith community, sustained by the faith community

There are two prevailing notions about Habitat for Humanity that are widely held by the public at large, neither of which is true. One is that the nonprofit housing ministry gives away houses; the other is that former President Jimmy Carter started the organization.

Habitat’s genesis began in 1976 in rural Americus, GA, founded and fueled by visionary entrepreneur Millard Fuller. Coincidentally, that was the year Jimmy Carter, from nearby Plains, GA, was elected President of the United States. But he doesn’t figure into Habitat’s history until his term in the White House ended. He would soon become the ministry’s best-known volunteer and ambassador, and remains so to this day.

Jimmy Carter, 1987

Jimmy Carter building in Charlotte, 1987.

Jimmy Carter Work Project, 1987

Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter (center) with volunteers in Charlotte, 1987.

Building houses, building a reputation

In the history of Habitat, every step taken was a step of faith inspired by the words of Jesus, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40).

If the faith community could marshal enough goodwill and volunteer labor, raise the funds for materials, and build a house for and with a family needing a decent place to live, then that would surely be a way to serve the least among them with lasting impact. The cost for land and materials was, essentially, the purchase price of the house. No markups, no profit. Habitat became the mortgage holder of a no-interest loan that would be paid back over time. It was an opportunity for a family to build equity through homeownership and break the cycle of generational poverty.

By the early 1980’s, leaders in Charlotte’s faith, business, and nonprofit communities were intrigued with the Habitat concept and made a pilgrimage to Americus to find out how they were able to do what they were doing.

When they returned and shared Habitat’s vision of a world where everyone has a decent place to live, seven churches united across the denominational divide to make it happen. On October 1, 1983 Habitat for Humanity of Charlotte was established. This radical ecumenical legacy continues to inspire Habitat to bring in communities of all faiths to our shared mission.

To one degree or another those seven churches—Christ Episcopal, Myers Park Presbyterian, Myers Park United Methodist, Myers Park Baptist, Covenant Presbyterian, St. Mark’s Lutheran, and the Little Church on the Lane—have continued to nurture and sustain the ministry ever since.

And because those seven founding churches coalesced around the words of Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city . . . Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper” (Jeremiah 29:7), they are affectionately referred to still as the Jeremiah Seven.

Charlotte, indeed, prospered as an emerging banking center in those days, but the rising tide of prosperity didn’t lift all boats. Thousands of families then—like today—were living either in substandard housing or were cost-burdened with rent that exceeded a third of their household income. Beneath the veneer of prosperity far too many families did not have a decent place to call home.

A HOOT was heard in North Mecklenburg

Five years later in 1988, a handful of members from Davidson College Presbyterian Church shared a similar vision for the town of Davidson. Included among them were Davidson mayor Randy Kincaid, Bill Giduz and Jane Cain, the church’s music director. They came up with the acronym HOOT, which stood for Housing Opportunities for Our Town and, in 1988, built their first of three houses for low-income families. Jane Cain remembers, “We’d meet for breakfast at the Anchor Grill on Tuesdays to decide who would pick up the materials for Saturday’s work. It was that simple.”

The following year they affiliated with Habitat for Humanity International as Davidson Habitat, and in 1991 broadened the ministry’s reach in North Mecklenburg County by joining forces with Lake Norman Habitat. That brought Mooresville, Huntersville, and Cornelius together with Davidson. The combined entity took on the friendly, folksy name of Our Towns Habitat.

And like their slightly older sister affiliate in Charlotte, Our Towns began raising funds, building houses and opening ReStores to help support them.

Fast forward to 2020 when Habitat Charlotte and Our Towns merged to form Habitat of the Charlotte Region. The combining of resources enabled the larger affiliate greater capacity to serve more families than ever.

Laura Belcher and Pastor Knox

Then came COVID

When the COVID-19 pandemic swept over the country, Habitat’s pool of community volunteers dried up. And the cost of building materials skyrocketed overnight. Churches could no longer provide the abundant labor force necessary to build houses, but their support for the affordable housing ministry didn’t waver.

Of the original Jeremiah Seven, Myers Park United Methodist made a significant contribution for the development of the Meadows at Plato Price, a soon-to-be 39-home community in West Charlotte; Myers Park Presbyterian made a major contribution to Habitat’s Mortgage Relief Fund. Covenant Presbyterian donated funds for Habitat to purchase a nine-acre tract of land from Greater Bethel AME Church.

Pastor Knox of Greater Bethel (pictured on the right with Habitat Charlotte Region’s President and CEO, Laura Belcher) explained that his congregation chose to offer the property to Habitat for less than half its current market value. “We would rather see our land become an affordable housing community than make a big profit by selling to a developer to build big, expensive houses there.”  The site will support up to 30 Habitat homes, one of which the church will own as transitional housing for families in need.

And then there’s Providence United Methodist, who stepped forward with additional funding for Habitat’s Mortgage Relief Fund to ensure that homeowners who lost income during the pandemic could remain current with their monthly mortgages. Brandon Dirks, Associate Minister at Providence discovered an undesignated sum in the church’s COVID relief fund that could be used by Habitat for mortgage relief. He called it “a God thing.” We call it Providential.

Enedina and Jane

The Hope of Advent

After nearly 40 years of Habitat work in the greater Charlotte region, one can see a beautiful and continuous thread running through the fabric of Habitat’s history. It’s the ever-constant presence of the faith community. Serving and supporting the least of these brothers and sisters among us.

Now, this Advent season of 2021 brings us to a special Christmas celebration that connects the dots from the HOOT faithful of Davidson to a mom with four sons in Huntersville. Remember Jane Cain? She recently retired from 41 years as the music director of Davidson College Presbyterian. In recognition of her service to the church and the community, DCPC made a large donation to Habitat to sponsor a house in her honor. That house was purchased several months ago by Enedina (pictured on the left with Jane*), a delightful, hardworking mom who was able to move her family from a cramped mobile home into the stability of a permanent home. This will be her family’s first-ever Christmas in a home that she owns.

And by the way, her affordable Habitat mortgage is so much less each month than rent in the mobile home park, it’s like a Christmas bonus for someone who never had the benefit of receiving one.

*Photo courtesy of Davidson College Presbyterian Church

Merry Christmas to all, and thank you for continuing to support the life-changing work of Habitat for Humanity!

Enedina and family

Enedina and her boys celebrating their home dedication earlier this year.

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