True saints never dwell in splendid isolation; they inevitably give birth to other saints, who influence still others – and it might eventually land on you and me. Everybody has heard of Habitat for Humanity, in virtually every city in America, and now worldwide in scope. Saints you know have hammered on houses – and perhaps even lived in a Habitat house too. It started because a wealthy man, trying to fix his flailing marriage, went on vacation with his family, and had been encouraged to stop by a place in the middle of nowhere in Georgia to meet a saint. Instead of staying for lunch, he stayed for a month, and then came back for a lifetime. Millard Fuller wound up giving away his wealth – a bit like St. Francis – and launching Habitat, which has built nearly a million homes.
The saint he met who changed everything? A quirky, smart, smart-alecky farmer-preacher named Clarence Jordan. Clarence grew up Baptist – and as a child proved to be one of those souls with a natural sensitivity to hypocrisy. After singing “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight,” he wondered why black children were dressed so shabbily. He saw deacons who could dreamily sing hymns about their love for Jesus, but then turn around and harass and even torture blacks on the rack.
In college, he studied agriculture, pursuing his vision of improving the plight of poor farmers. His ROTC commitment didn’t cozy up well to what he read in the Bible: how could he be a soldier and follow Jesus, who said to love your enemies? His struggle of conscience eventually led him to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, where he managed yet another degree, this one a doctorate in Greek New Testament!
Jordan became famous for his homespun translation of the New Testament, the clever and humorous Cotton Patch Version (with the subtitle, “Jesus’ Doings and Happenings, a Modern Translation with a Southern Accent, fervent, earthy, rich in humor”) – and perhaps you have seen the musical it inspired. When he translated the Good Samaritan story, he imagined that a man was robbed, somewhere between Atlanta and Albany. A white preacher and a Gospel song leader passed by before a black man stopped to help. The Pharisees always were cast as “Sunday School teachers.” Cotton Patch became a delightful musical.
Jordan’s most brilliant translation of the New Testament did not appear in print, but in his real work on the red earth of Georgia, and in the lives of people he worked, ate, and argued with. In 1942, Jordan started Koinonia Farm outside the county seat town of Americus. He wanted blacks and whites to live together, to embody the kind of community life described in the book of Acts (2:42-45, 4:32-36), where fellowship (koinonia in Greek) meant communal sharing of all goods. Georgia of the forties and fifties was not exactly ready for this kind of real-life implementation of the Gospel. Jordan and the Farm were ridiculed and attacked at every turn. The Ku Klux Klan repeatedly terrorized, bombed, and vandalized Koinonia.
In 1948, Jordan brought a dark-skinned man (actually an Indian) to the local Baptist church. The deacons demanded he meet with them, and desist from this kind of troublemaking. Jordan handed one of them a Bible and said, “Show me where it says in the Book that if a man is dark-skinned, he should not enter the house of the Lord. Brethren, if I have violated any teaching of this book in my beliefs or conduct, I will withdraw quietly from this church. Point to the text or teaching I have failed to try to live up to!” The deacon silently handed the Book to another deacon, who handed it to yet another – who slammed the Book on the table and shouted, “Brother Jordan, don’t pull that Bible stuff on us!” Jordan got the last word: “I’m asking you to give it to me.” That day, Jordan and his friends became “ex-Baptists.”
Jordan’s saucy yet hauntingly true remarks are legendary. A Klan delegation visited Koinonia and announced to Jordan “We don’t allow the sun to set on any white man who eats with a nigger.” He smiled, and replied, “I’m a Baptist preacher, and I’ve heard of men with power over the sun. But until today I never hoped to meet one.”
After preaching at a gilded, cathedral-like church in Atlanta, Jordan was asked for some advice by the pastor. Their custodian had eight children, and worked seven days a week, for a mere $80 per week. The concerned minister claimed he tried to get the man a raise, but with no success. Jordan considered this for a minute, and then said, “Why don’t you just swap salaries with the janitor? That wouldn’t require any extra money in the budget.”
To another pastor, proudly pointing to the fancy new $10,000 cross adorning his sanctuary, Jordan said, “Time was when Christians could get those crosses for free.” Jordan’s preaching featured splendid phrasings, like: “God is not ‘in his heaven with all well on the earth.’ He is on this earth, and all hell’s broke loose.” Or, “The good news of the resurrection is not that we shall die and go home with him, but that he has risen and comes home with us, bringing all his hungry, naked, thirsty, sick, prisoner brothers with him.” And again, “The trouble with God’s bride (the church) today is that she either has passed the menopause or she’s on the pill. Or perhaps even worse, she’s gone a-whoring.”
After one of many visits from KKK intimidators, Jordan said, “It was not a question of whether or not we were to be scared, but whether or not we would be obedient.” Another obedient saint we've studied, Dorothy Day, visited Koinonia - and got herself shot at!
Koinonia perched itself on the American landscape as a mundane call to obedience – and the church responded poorly. Jordan once asked his brother, Robert (who became a state senator and a justice on the state Supreme Court), to be Koinonia’s attorney. “I can’t do that. You know my aspirations. I might lose my job, my house, everything I’ve got.” Clarence said, “We might lose everything, too.” “It’s different for you,” Robert responded. “Why? You and I joined the church the same Sunday as boys. The preacher asked, ‘Do you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior?’ What did you say?” Robert replied, “I follow Jesus – up to a point.” Clarence: “Could that point by any chance be the cross?” “I follow him to the cross, but not on the cross. I’m not getting myself crucified.” “Then I don’t believe you are a disciple. You’re an admirer of Jesus. You ought to go back to that church you belong to, and tell them you’re an admirer, not a disciple.” Robert: “Well now, if everyone like me did that, we wouldn’t have a church would we?” To which Clarence applied the coup de grace: “The question is, Do you have a church?” Later, Robert saw the light, became a disciple himself, and boasted that his brother was “the greatest Christian I have ever known.”
Clarence’s daughter Jan was hassled and ostracized at school. One especially vicious boy, Bob Speck, called her names and threw her books down repeatedly. After a few weeks, Clarence decided he had heard enough of this harassment, and told his daughter, “I’m coming to school tomorrow. I’ve tried to be a follower of Jesus, and he taught me to love my enemies and all that, but I’m going to ask Jesus to excuse me for about fifteen minutes while I beat the hell out of Bob Speck.” Jan said, “Daddy, you can’t be excused from being a Christian for fifteen minutes.” So Clarence suggested: “Maybe you could let your fingernails grow about three inches, and if he calls you a name, throw your books at him and scratch his eyes out; that would do him a lot of good.” Again she said, “You’re not serious.”
Two weeks passed, and Clarence had not heard a word about Bob Speck. When he asked Jan about it, she reported, “He doesn’t bother me any more.” Dad was stunned: “Did he move?” “No, he’s still there.” “Has he been converted?” “No,” she answered. “Does he call you names?” “No, never.” “Well what happened?” Jan told her story: “Well, I got to figuring that I’m a little taller than Bob, so I could see him coming before he could see me. When I’d see him, I’d begin smiling and waving and gushing at him like I was just head over heels in love with him, like I was going to eat him up. The other kids got to teasing him about me having a crush on him, and now, the only time I see him is when he peeps around the corner to see if I’m coming. If I am, he goes all the way round the outside.”
Clarence Jordan died suddenly and prematurely of heart failure on October 29, 1969, a mere fifty seven years old. He was buried wearing old blue jeans out in the field at Koinonia, not far from the shack he called his office. Some time later, his wife Florence was asked the whereabouts of his grave. “We planted him out there somewhere.”