It was just hotel chitchat, the kind that happens when a bigwig swoops into Dallas and the mayor and business leaders flock to his reception. They shook hands, swilled bottled water and bantered about goals.
In this case, the honoree was a tall, lanky fellow with a Jed Clampett drawl and enthusiasm so contagious that the world's poor and the world's rich, and a lot of people in between, champion his cause.
U.S. presidents pound nails for him. Celebrities paint walls. Corporations flex their bank accounts. He even stirs Republicans and Democrats to work together without a hint of political strife.
|"Building homes is not just good religion...It's just plain good common sense."|
Even so, it's not Millard Fuller's name, but that of his organization that the public recognizes.
"Most people in this country think that Jimmy Carter started Habitat for Humanity," said the 66-year-old housing visionary from Americus, Ga. Then he laughed and shook another hand.
Ever since founding Habitat 25 years ago, Mr. Fuller and his wife, Linda, have worked at putting their cause -- rather than themselves -- in the spotlight. Their nonprofit Christian ministry has built more than 100,000 homes in 76 nations.
Now in their 60s and balking at retirement, the Fullers said it will take just five years to build the next 100,000 homes. With a worldwide budget of $450 million, Habitat builds homes for low-income families, primarily using volunteers, including former President Carter.
"Building homes is not just good religion," said Mr. Fuller, the son of a Alabama sharecropper. "It's good politics, it's good sociology, it's good economics. It's just plain good common sense."
Although trained as a lawyer, Mr. Fuller sounds more like an evangelist when he gives speeches. He's more down-home friendly than flamboyant, and while unabashedly Christian, he draws people of every faith and of no faith to the table.
"That's the theology of the hammer," Mr. Fuller said. "People who may not agree on a whole lot else will agree that everybody deserves a simple, decent place to live."
A Habitat banquet with Mr. Fuller drew the mayor and corporate leaders, but also prison inmates, teens and retirees -- all volunteers on Habitat homes.
"I hear you're going to build 50 houses in Dallas this year," Mr. Fuller told them. "Why not 52? You don't want to build 50 houses and leave the other two weeks of the year out. That's just unheard of."
His words hung as a friendly challenge, not a criticism. The crowd responded with applause and with laughter because of Mr. Fuller's humble manner, yet unyielding zeal to build more and more homes.
"This man inspires you to do more," said Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, who's pounded many a nail at Habitat projects. "Thousands of people have a roof over their heads because of him. I don't know how other folks define saint, but he's my kind of saint."
Rita Smith, a 46-year-old housewife from DeSoto, turned out to see Mr. Fuller. She'd heard about Habitat a few years ago while watching The Oprah Winfrey Show and now she works on a building crew every Thursday.
"It's the most rewarding thing I've ever done," she said. "You trim a door, do some roofing and before long you have a house. And there's nothing like seeing the moment when a person is finally able to get a home of their own."
During a recent three-day stop in the Dallas area, the Fullers did what they do best: rally the volunteers, thank the donors, schmooze the city's top brass. They also dedicated another new Habitat house which, after 25 years, still brings tears to Mr. Fuller's eyes.
The Fullers have received numerous honors for their work. In 1996, Mr. Fuller was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor.
But for many years, the Fullers lived a no-frills life -- rarely eating out, wearing homemade clothes, existing on a meager salary -- while raising millions of dollars to put roofs over others' heads.
They even refused to have air conditioning, despite Georgia's sweltering heat, to set an example for the people they were trying to help.
"Summers were horrible," said Faith Fuller, 33, one of the couple's daughters. "But when you're building houses for poor people, you can't install air conditioning or suddenly they have these huge electric bills that they can't pay for."
Her father, who became a millionaire at age 29 and then gave the money to charity, is Habitat's president and CEO. He travels the world setting new goals, then stirring the volunteers and sponsors needed to get them accomplished.
This year, he's gotten every U.S. senator to pledge to build a Habitat home. Hundreds of college students are spending spring break building. And he'll celebrate Habitat's 25th anniversary in September in Indianapolis, where 25 homes will be built in 25 days.
Mr. Fuller applauded the Dallas group's success in building more than 200 homes but challenged them to get more Catholics and Baptists involved. "If you can get your two largest religious groups on board, then you'll really have something," he said.
Mrs. Fuller, 60, a shy, background figure when Habitat first started, has also blossomed into leadership. She's organized women-only builds, inspiring governor's wives and women governors to pick up hammers.
She's also turned personal battles with depression into a new Habitat cause: helping people with mental illness secure homes. The first will be built in Fort Worth in May.
Unlike her husband, Mrs. Fuller had a middle-class upbringing in Alabama. She said she was self-conscious about her height as a teen, until Mr. Fuller called her one night looking for another girl with the same last name.
"When he told me that he was 6'4", I never gave him that girl's number," Mrs. Fuller, who's 5'10", told a Sunday school class in Fort Worth.
The Fullers eventually married and settled in Mobile, Ala., where he ran a law firm and direct-marketing business, selling everything from cookbooks to tractor cushions. The couple had four children, though Mr. Fuller was so busy making money that he seldom saw them.
"When he came home for dinner, he'd bring his business partner," she said. "They'd sit and talk business and the kids and me would sit in the corner and watch. Then they'd go back to the office."
The Fullers had a big car, fancy clothes and plans to build a swanky house. But money wasn't buying them happiness, and the marriage was crumbling. When she fled to New York for soul-searching, he wasn't far behind.
After much prayer, they sold the businesses and gave all of the money to charity. With their faith renewed, they set out on a life of service to others, not knowing where it would lead.
"The tendency when you are very wealthy is to spend all of your time dealing with your wealth," Mr. Fuller said. "That's why the Bible says you cannot serve God and money. You have to make a choice."
The early years
In time, the Fullers landed at Koinonia Farm, a Christian community in Americus, Ga., devoted to finding practical ways to apply Jesus' teachings. It was the farm's founder, the late Clarence Jordan, who offered a life-changing perspective on the Gospels.
"He said, 'You've got to go down into the highways and byways, and the nooks and crannies of life and find people who are having a rough time and lift them up,'" Mr. Fuller said.
The seeds for Habitat were planted at Koinonia, which started a program to build homes for the poor. The Fullers tested the idea for three years in Africa before returning to Americus to start Habitat.
"If the only place we make Jesus' love visible is church, a lot of people won't ever see it," Mr. Fuller told a Fort Worth congregation. "One way of proclaiming God's word, of making God's love evident, is with hammers."
At first, Habitat was just a ma-and-pa operation. He did the organizing, she kept the books. They didn't draw salaries, so he ran a law office on the side to keep the family afloat.
"We didn't have much, but we were happy," Mrs. Fuller said. "I made all of our clothes, even Millard's suits. I never ever considered buying a bag of potato chips."
In 1983, when Habitat was seven years old, the Fullers and 400 volunteers walked 700 miles from Americus to Indianapolis. In the process, they raised $100,000 in donations and captured much-needed attention for their cause.
The campaign caught the eye of former President Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, who lived in Plains, Ga., a few miles from Americus. The Carters donated money to Habitat, which prompted Mr. Fuller to pay a visit.
"I said, 'Mr. President, I'm here as a neighbor,' " he said. "You have expressed some interest in Habitat. I want to know if you are interested or if you are very interested."
Mr. Carter was very interested. The following year, he headed a weeklong Habitat project in New York City -- raising Habitat's profile substantially. He's since led a project every year.
"He's our Sunday school teacher, too" said the Fullers, who, along with the Carters, are members of Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains.
By the mid-1980s, Habitat had grown so large it was impossible for Mr. Fuller to maintain his law practice. He was on Habitat's payroll by then, but for several years kept his salary under $20,000.
Habitat seemed unstoppable until 1990, when Mr. Fuller stepped down from the ministry at the board's request. Female workers had accused him of harassment, a matter that was resolved internally a year later.
During the year Mr. Fuller was away, Habitat lost a $2 million line of credit and laid off 43 workers. Mr. Carter threatened to withdraw his backing if Mr. Fuller wasn't reinstated, which happened soon after.
Today, board members say the accusations were overblown, as does Mr. Fuller. In one instance, he said he'd come up behind a woman and, without touching her, yelled, "Boo." In another, a woman said she didn't like his hugs.
"It was one of the lowest points in my life," Mr. Fuller said about his time away from Habitat.
Americus is a city of 17,000 in southwest Georgia, about 130 miles southeast of Atlanta. It's a town of antebellum homes and wide porches with rocking chairs.
The Fullers created a stir with the very first home they built in the county. People came to watch, then warned them that they wouldn't make money building homes for poor folks.
"We're not doing it to make money," Mr. Fuller said.
"Then why are you doing it?" they asked.
"Because we've been reading the Bible," he said.
"What's the Bible got to do with it?" they said. "This is the middle of the week."
The Fullers were accused of being religious fanatics, un-American and possibly Communists. The suspicion only began to die down in the late 1990s.
"We used to be total outcasts, and now the town loves Habitat," said Faith Fuller, who produces Habitat documentaries.
Today, Habitat's headquarters is at a prime spot downtown and the ministry's presence is visible across the county, where tumbledown shacks have been replaced by hundreds of new homes. The Fullers like to say the homes are a visible way of hammering out God's love.
"The first family we built a house for, all the kids went to college," Mrs. Fuller said. "But when they bought the house, the father had to sign a deed with an 'X.' He hadn't gone past third grade."
Habitat's goal is to eliminate substandard housing entirely -- an obtainable goal in the Fullers' minds. They point to countries such as Norway, Japan and Sweden, where substandard housing is minimal.
"The United States, the richest country in the world, has got millions of people living in poverty housing," Mr. Fuller said. "This is a solvable problem. We have the money. We have the know-how. All that's lacking is the will to do something about it."
The Fullers' approach to helping low-income people is vastly different from the government's. Instead of a handout, they said, Habitat offers a hand up. When a Dallas businessman asked why Habitat works, Mr. Fuller looked him in the eye and smiled.
"Because it's not charity," he said. "We don't have clients, we have partners. People who want a Habitat house must pitch in and paint and hammer and work alongside our volunteers. We call it sweat equity."
They must also buy the house, and keep up with the mortgage. Habitat makes that possible through what Mr. Fuller calls the Bible finance plan: No interest. No profit.
"It says in the Bible that if you loan money to a poor man you shouldn't charge him interest," he said, referring to Exodus 22:25.
Habitat takes it a step further. After helping people build homes, they teach them to maintain them. Family nurturing is key to turning lives around, Mrs. Fuller said.
"When a family is living in substandard housing, housing usually isn't the only problem," she said. "We've had to teach people how to flush toilets."
Habitat doesn't accept government money to build houses. But it has accepted in excess of $70 million in government funding to buy land and to put in streets, sidewalks and utilities, Mr. Fuller said.
Still, don't expect Habitat to get involved with President Bush's new White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Mr. Fuller said he never wants the government so involved that Habitat loses either its grassroots or Christian character.
"I don't want Habitat to become a government program because then you're dependent on the whims of politics," he said.
The Fullers hustled out of Dallas as quickly as they came. Between them, they'd made five speeches in three days, and still managed to visit their daughter Kim, who lives in Colleyville.
Then they were off to California.
This is the Fullers' life -- a full calendar of speaking engagements, book projects and Habitat events. Mr. Fuller, a workaholic, also stays close to Habitat's daily affairs -- and shows no signs of slowing down.
"Millard is very quick to say that the word 'retire' appears nowhere in the Bible," said David Williams, Habitat's executive vice president and chief operating officer.
The Fullers are living more comfortably these days, though friends say that their lifestyle is far from extravagant and that they give significant amounts of their earnings to charity. Mr. Fuller now draws a salary of $75,000; Mrs. Fuller makes $36,000.
Mr. Fuller, a gifted storyteller, also makes as much as $100,000 for his speeches but turns every bit of the money over to Habitat. "He could be a millionaire many times over if he wanted," said Faith, the only Fuller child working at Habitat.
For 23 years, the Fullers lived in an old house they bought for $12,500 on a busy street in Americus. They moved last year after one daughter refused to bring her children there for safety reasons.
Their new, three-bedroom home is 2,300 square feet and cost just over $200,000. They turned one bedroom into an office so Mr. Fuller could write books there.
Instead of working late at the office as they did in the old days, the Fullers now head to their rural home before dark. They're even taking time for walks in the woods and yard work.
"I've never seen them better or happier," Faith Fuller said.
"The new house has air conditioning, which makes us happy, too."