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Habitat founder addresses crowd

Amanda Michaels | Monday, May 1, 2006

Though Saturday night’s rain couldn’t sway South Quad’s Shack City dwellers from their purpose, it did drive them inside for an hour to hear the founder of Habitat for Humanity International, Millard Fuller, speak.

Pangborn’s chapel was full of interested listeners, the walls and stairs lined with those the seats couldn’t accommodate. The group welcomed Fuller with long and resounding applause.

With his Southern accent and humor, Fuller opened the speech by asking those in the back to try to move forward or else, he said, he “might think you’re Baptist.”

He also apologized for his manner of dress.

“You must excuse me for being terribly overdressed,” Fuller said, indicating the suit he had on.

Fuller greeted the audience, saying he was honored to be on Notre Dame’s campus for the weekend. He said he met with alumni Friday who were sponsoring a house in Shreveport, La. through his newest organization, the Fuller Center for Housing. He also broke ground for the 99th and 100th houses built through the South Bend chapter of Habitat for Humanity – 12 of which were built exclusively by Notre Dame students.

“Out of the 800 college chapters of Habitat for Humanity, Notre Dame stands way high on the list,” Fuller said. “I don’t know of another campus chapter that has built more than 12 houses.”

He said while he was at the groundbreaking, he related the story of 25 Matthew, which teaches service to the needy, for “inasmuch as you do it to one of the least, you do it to me.”

“Well, the father of the family receiving the 100th house just happened to be named Jesus, and his son was Jesus, junior. So that was pretty appropriate, being able to provide Jesus with a home,” Fuller joked.

He went on to applaud those who were participating in Shack City and sleeping outside in boxes, especially in the rain.

“It’s wonderful that you’re willing to get in a box and bear some discomfort to raise awareness,” he said. “In years past, one of the greatest problems Habitat had was making people aware of the problem, and what we were doing to help fix it.”

In his organization’s seventh year, Fuller decided to walk from Americus, Ga. to Indianapolis – a journey of 700 miles – to help raise awareness, he said.

“Needless to say, my wife was very skeptical,” he said.

He related the story of what happened when the group of walkers made it to Dunlap, Tenn., where the pastor they asked for shelter was reluctant to let them sleep in his church’s basement, because Habitat for Humanity “sounds like some kind of cult,” Fuller said.

The pastor let them sleep in his backyard and use the hose to clean themselves off – “It’s amazing, but you really can shower with your clothes on,” Fuller joked – and the next day invited them to service at his church. At the end of the service, while everyone was waiting to sing the closing hymn, the pastor turned to Fuller and said if he wanted to address the congregation, now was the time.

“The pastor said, ‘You got five minutes,’ but all I had was my standard 30 minute speech,” Fuller said. “But I stood up there, everyone standing with their hymnbooks in their hands waiting to get out of there, and gave my 30 minute speech in five minutes and walked out of Dunlap.”

Fuller said five or six years went by before he got a call from a man named Charles Henry in Dunlap, who had heard Fuller speak that day. Henry said he couldn’t forget what Fuller had said, and wanted to donate all the money he was making in a job he took on post-retirement to Habitat for Humanity. Fuller said Henry wanted to hear all the places Habitat was working, and stopped him when he spoke of their newest sites in Guatemala.

“He said, ‘Guatemala! I like the sound of that. Use my money in Guatemala,'” Fuller said.

Henry has been sending the organization checks since that day.

“I tell you this story because you never know when you do something what impact it will have. You don’t know, when you sleep out tonight, who you’ll impact,” Fuller said. “What you’re doing will certainly have an impact on you – it’ll be so uncomfortable, you won’t forget it.”

He told the audience that even though they could not fully understand the plight of the homeless, they could be witnesses.

He related a letter he received from a woman in rural West Virginia, who said she wanted to help Habitat for Humanity but had no money to do so. She had no legs, was losing her fingers, had a disabled husband and a brother with cerebral palsy and lived in a house with no running water.

“That’s her reality,” Fuller said. “And this is not in a Third World country – this is in America, one of the richest nations in the world.”

Fuller said he wanted to continue to expand his work and take it new places, as the problem of poverty was widespread and growing. He explained that even by building 30,000 homes per year, it would take 7,500 years to meet the current needs of the homeless in the world.

“So we need to up the ante, we need to sleep out more, we need to speak up now,” he said. “Everyone in this room lived in a nice home, but so many of our fellow humans don’t have that chance. It’s clear in the Bible – we are our brothers’ and our sisters’ keepers.”

Fuller then bid farewell to the group, reiterating his praise for Notre Dame’s involvement in Habitat for Humanity and issuing audience members a challenge.

“You are wonderful representatives of your University and my organization,” Fuller said. “But remember – to whom much is given, much is required.”