What we saw when woke up at Koinonia Farms and the dew soaked our shoes.
A few weeks ago, we took a little trip that may have changed our lives. The kids and I drove down to Americus, Georgia in search of Koinonia Farm, an intentional Christian community started by Clarence Jordan way back in the 1940’s. We didn’t know what to expect of the experience- only that it had been on my list of hopes for a long time and calendars finally cleared to make it possible.
Since the king had to keep up appearances of having a “real job” during the week, he remained in Tuscaloosa then drove down on Friday and joined us for the weekend. This left me and the munchkin-heads driving alone at night along the winding backroads of Georgia looking for a tiny slice of history that managed to live its way into the present.
Koinonia first came to my attention a few years ago while planning and preparing the Local History Workshop for homeschoolers. Trying to find local notables for the kids to “reenact” at the final gathering, I discovered that Millard and Linda Fuller, founders of Habitat for Humanity, once lived in Tuscaloosa before they sold their fancy lives and moved to Koinonia in search of meaning over money.
Millard Fuller’s relationship with a former Baptist preacher by the name of Clarence Jordan played a significant role in the founding of Habitat. I caught a whiff of tantalizing details. The skeleton of story never left my mind, though the flesh of it needed filling. I vowed to learn more about this Baptist pacifist preacher who managed to anger ever respectable, success-craving social group in the town of Americus.
Finally, I learned…. through immersion. For almost a week, we wandered around Koinonia, chatting with members, interns, and volunteers, as well as reading every book I could find on the topic. When we weren’t gobbling down cinnamon pecans, we were asking questions and devouring answers. I wanted to understand why Clarence founded a separate community rather than work within the existing nearby town of Americus. I needed to see what sharing meant apart from cliches and abstractions. The kids, of course, spent the week roamschooling the history of civil rights movement and life on a permaculture-based farm.
In the early 1940’s, Clarence and his wife Florence Jordan set about to change their world alongside Martin England and his wife, two missionaries with a similar frame of reference. The Jordans and the Englands established Koinonia Farm as a communal, interracial farming community. Their model came from the verses of Acts 2:43-47 and Acts 4:32-36. The two couples envisioned a community whose members would eat and work together, sharing their property, their labor and their lives. The act of breaking bread together- communion- took on a special significance as they sought to develop a racially-integrated community based on love and fellowship. Soon, Sumter County residents began to criticize Koinonia residents for having been conscientious objectors during World War II.
From where we stand, it’s hard to grasp how radical Koinonia seemed to its fellow Georgians. At its founding, the civil rights movement hadn’t yet gained a threshold. For the first decade after 1942, Koinonia grew slowly. The hard work of racial reconciliation and building trust with local black neighbors took a fair share of time. After all, a black man or woman invited to share a meal with a white man or woman back in those days had every reason to suspect a ruse. Segregation was enforced through social conventions and norms- the force of the law wasn’t needed to keep whites from forming intimate, true relationships with blacks. But the Jordans and the Englands keep sowing their tiny seeds, nurturing buds where they blossomed and tending to the growing network of human beings in what was becoming a special part of “the beloved community”.
Soon, select Sumter County residents began to criticize Koinonia residents for having been conscientious objectors during World War II. In 1950, the Rehobeth Baptist Church, the place of worship for most members of Koinonia, voted to remove the names of six Koinonians from its membership roll because church members believed that the Koinonians were trying to integrate the church. The “integration” in question occurred when the Jordans brought a visiting Indian Hindu friend along to observe worship services. Perhaps having had so little exposure to members of other races led the church elders to confuse an Indian with a black American.
Meanwhile, in nearby Americus, the Ku Klux Klan was enjoying a cultural renaissance among the middle classes. For professionals and hoighty-toighty types, the formation of the national White Citizens’ Council in 1954 proved a boon. With the WCC, local segregationists and racists found a vehicle to act as a political and economic lobby for their darkest sentiments while maintaining their positions of leadership as Rotarians and citizens. Unlike the KKK, the WCC rejected violent tactics to maintain segregation. In the place of cross-burnings, Council members used economic boycotts and social stigmatization to maintain white privilege in towns across the South.
By 1956, Koinonia had 65 members, 15 of which were black. For the first decade, Koinonians managed live without much interest from the town of Americus. By the 1950’s, however, the rising power of the WCC and the beginning of the civil rights movement drew unwanted attention. A persistent campaign of drive-by shootings, bombings and other forms of terrorism and violence began. The work of farming was complicated by the daily fear of reprisal. Koinonia members worried about attacks on their children.
In 1956, Clarence’s unsuccessful endorsement of the applications of two African Americans to Georgia State University in Atlanta precipitated two years of vandalism, legal investigations, and violence, as well as a decade of economic boycott against Koinonia Farm. The successful farming enterprise halted.
Always on the look-out for a way in which to “serve” their fellow man, the Klan bombed Koinonia’s little roadside nut stand. Undeterred, the group rebuilt the stand only to have it blown up again. Having gotten the message, Koinonia switched to selling nuts by mail order, with the slogan: “Help us ship the nuts out of Georgia!” Thus Koinonians adapted by developing a mail-order pecan business, which depended on purchases from people across the United States who had learned of Koinonia’s plight from the national news media.
According to Cotton Patch for the Kingdom by Anne Louse Coble, a band of men from the popular Ku Klux Klan showed up one night with some news for the Jordans and the Englands. “We understand you been taking your meals with the nigger,” said their spokesman, “and we’re here to tell you we don’t allow the sun to set on anybody who eats with niggers.”
Clarence couldn’t resist. With a smile, he turned to the KKK spokesman and replied:
The Klansmen, one of whom had a Baptist preacher for a father, understood that Koinonia would be a thorn in the side of their attempts to keep Americus (and America) “racially pure” through segregation. Maybe the only thing Clarence could have done to further infuriate them would have been to start whistling “Jesus Loves the Little Children”, a Baptist Sunday School staple.
It was these little things, like the lyrics of “Jesus Loves the Little Children”, alongside obvious big things, like Clarence’s understanding of the New Testament after earning his doctorate in Greek, that made it impossible for him to play by the rules of his culture. And it was his unabiding commitment to love and fellowship that drew pilgrims and wanderers from all around the world to this small farm somewhere in Georgia. I found myself comforted at being just another pilgrim in a long line of names and faces drawn by the dream Clarence left behind.
Jubilee House, where we spent our days and nights in a cozy suite complete with kitchen and all the settings.
We arrived around 8 or 9 p.m. with restless little people and their excited, nervous mother. A young intern greeted me- there was a group of five or six reading aloud and chatting on the front porch of the Jubilee House when we arrived- and showed me to our apartment. A big part of me wanted to go jump into a chair and chat with the interns, learn their stories, but the other part of me knew the singing and dancing that follows me wherever I go might be disruptive. It was a peaceful scene- and we four were sounding anything but peaceful.
Koinonia was the birthplace of so many amazing social projects and nonprofits, including Habitat for Humanity, Jubilee Partners, Prison Jail Project, and Fuller Center for Housing, among others. I found myself wondering if those conversations had taken place around the table at Jubilee House. Walking through history demands the ability to inhabit the mystery of “place”- to see how even a wobbly nightstand offers signficance and inspiration. We whispered and hugged, happy to begin another adventure, this one in place imbued with unseen wonders and whys.
Max explores the playground castle across from Jubilee House.
So we settled into our apartment, slipped on some pajamas, and then ventured out the back door to sit in a field and stare at the amazing moon and her sister stars covering every square inch of the sky. Milla marveled over “all those stars” while Max and Micah invented new constellations from the myriad of twinkles.
The sign above the screened-in porch.
The easiest way to keep up with the latest at Koinonia is through the Facebook page. If you are in the Americus area this weekend, Koinonia is co-hosting an event with Tree of Life, an interfaith group that seeks to provide conferences and educational opportunities to help make this a more just and peaceful world in which to live. Four Koinonians traveled into the Holy Lands with Tree of Life- and they will share what they learned in their peacemaking efforts. Contact information is available at the FB link.
Stay tuned for the next installment of our Koinonia experience….