Back in the mid-1990s I had the pleasure of picking up Millard Fuller at an airport and driving him about an hour away to a speaking engagement. He was accepting an award from the Georgia Association of Broadcasters in recognition of his life’s work at that time, which had culminated in Habitat for Humanity.
Fuller and Jimmy Carter shared a faith journey and cultural view in Southwest Georgia. When Carter left the presidency and took up Habitat as a cause, Fuller’s impact became local and global. Many of you have probably volunteered for a Habitat build over the years, some of you may have lived in a Habitat home.
Fuller turned his back on a lucrative life as a businessman in the go-go sixties to devote himself to Christian Service, simple kindnesses and social justice. He moved to Americus, Ga., to live near Koinonia Farm, an interracial farming commune outside of town.
Always a restless spirit and filled to the brim with ideas and ideals, he moved his family to Africa after that and did years of missionary work, later returning to create the organization for which he's remembered.
But back in the late sixties Fuller was the new attorney in Americus, an open "race mixer" and commune-ist, viewed suspiciously by the locals. He told me about how his home in town was on the opposite end of the same downtown street as his law office, and during his walk to work each morning he would stop along the way to pick up litter that had been thrown down.
He felt like litter represented the worst of the community and he did his small part each day to make things better by picking it up. It was in our power as an individual to change things. In due time his new neighbors came to appreciate the strange new neighbor even if they couldn’t understand his “race relations.”
The gangly lawyer on his walk to work stooping to pick up stray pieces of paper and other detritus left behind had made their street a better place in a small way.
Paraphrasing Fuller, if you will tolerate litter then you will let your neighborhood fall apart. I came home after meeting Fuller and time passed and my neighborhood started to go down a little bit. Our little street has always been a cheap and safe and friendly enough neighborhood.
But the very affordability and an uptick in the number of rentals and foreclosures means that there aren’t as many people around policing their stretch of the curb and the street, and litter is an ongoing problem.
Now I have my own direct action. I go out from time to time and bag up the fast food cups and bags, beer bottles and sales circulars and G*d knows what else that accumulates along the street, in the gutters and woven into the underbrush down the block.
It’s stoop labor and you have to watch out for broken glass and metal shards and rotten things and ant colonies and the other creepy crawlies that live in the ditch. Haul it back and dump it in my family’s garbage and pay to have it hauled away with the rest.
There is no pay, except my belief that I made my neighborhood was a little better today. I usually get at least one unsolicited smile from a neighbor as a tip.
Fuller was still building affordable houses when he passed away in 2009 and things didn’t end nicely with him and Habitat after a falling out with their board. Hopefully time has healed those wounds.
He touched me with a simple story about turbulent times and the power of personal action. He caused me to work just a little more for the common good, a concept that can get lost in self-absorbed times.