Geraldine (Jeri) Abbott speaks briefly at devotions about Florence Jordan and Koinonia, March 2006
“We arrived in ’76 and spent eight years here. We had two daughters; they took care of the goats. My youngest daughter misses Koinonia. My son had a house in Koinonia village, and my grandson still lives there. From 2001 onwards, I took on the Koinonia archives, and I work there when I’m in town. I enjoy that work.
“When we came to Koinonia, it was very open. There was only one commitment that you made at the time: that you believed in Jesus as Lord. Once Koinonia got to having a handbook and all, it was too structured for my husband, so when that happened we left. But regardless, there is a spirit here: the spirit of Clarence and Florence, or of others. We worshipped together as a church, and there’s a great spirit in that.
“Florence [Jordan] was a very fine woman. She didn’t ever say “I’ve got to leave,” like so many others; she stayed on at Koinonia until she died. She had all of the history within her. So in a meeting, somebody would suggest something and she’d say, “We tried that and it didn’t work.”
“She was a wonderful hostess. She’d sit in the corner of the dining hall and invite all the guests over for coffee. She liked to talk with the parents of the younger people because, as she said, she was “just a regular lady,” and would calm their fears.
Recorded/transcribed by Ann Karp
Joe Jones visited Koinonia as a pre-teen and youth, often with his cousin, Collins McGee. Collins McGee was an African-American friend of Koinonia. You may recognize his name as the man who, along with Clarence Jordan and five others, accepted an open invitation to attend a mass meeting at the white Baptist church of Americus in 1965. Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, their integrated group was unceremoniously tossed out of that church, but not before Clarence “put in a parting shot: ‘Well, everything in Americus is integrated now except the churches and the jails. And I have hope for the jails.’ (Dallas Lee, The Cotton Patch Evidence, p. 202).
As an African-American, Joe had to take the back roads to ensure that he would not be persecuted by hostile whites for his trips to Koinonia. “I had to get back before sundown or I’d be in trouble. I was about 15 years old at the time.” He also became involved in the civil rights movement in Americus. He spoke of various places the Americus movement attempted to integrate. “There was a redneck restaurant called B & B, and we tried to integrate it. A lot of people got beaten doing that.
“We prayed before those marches that nobody would have a penknife in their pocket, because if the police found anybody with any kind of knife, you were finished. They beat you some in the street, but that was nothing compared to what would happen once they got you back to the jail where nobody was watching.
“They [segregationists and law enforcement] wanted you to retaliate. Retaliation would feed the fire. There were no laws to protect or help you. People would not openly help you. There was a lawyer, Frank J. Meyers, who ran Americus. He sat and talked with Clarence Jordan—he wanted them to move. In later years, he saw things differently. He repented; several other powerful ones did. But the damage was done.
“The ones in power were the most prejudiced, and the others followed them. The White Citizens Council and the KKK were organized and dangerous, they created a lot of fear. Once the KKK had a cavalcade on Highway 30, over 70 cars long. They rode all the way to Koinonia in plain sight, but no law enforcement stopped them. Anything to drive these people away, they figured. A lady [Margaret Wittkamper] at Koinonia was watching them drive up and she asked, “Whose funeral is this?” They made some remark like, “It may be yours.”
“Now it’s no big thing to eat together, walk together. But then, it was unheard of. You could really get in trouble for it.”
as told to Ann Karp
I met Ms. Georgia Solomon one rainy day when I was working in the Koinonia welcome center and gift store. The phone wasn’t ringing, and nobody was coming by—I was bored! Then Georgia walked in, took a seat in one of the chairs and, almost unbidden, began telling me about her life. She blew me away—I certainly wasn’t bored anymore. I tried to remember all that I could, and later wrote it down. Since then, I’ve had the privilege of conversing with Georgia several times more. She is a warm-hearted woman with a strong faith, and when we talk about the past, I get the feeling that she is trying to express to me the spirit of love that she felt in the eyes, words, and deeds of the Koinonians she knew in those days, and the necessity of continuing to act in that spirit.
For many, many years, Georgia has been our neighbor and, at times, has worked at Koinonia. Sometimes she still likes to come help cook lunch and share the noon meal. “It gives me something to do to get out of the house, and I wanted to eat some more healthy food,” she told me. Georgia still lives just a ten-minute walk away, in a house built by the Koinonia Housing Ministry in the early 1970s.
I was born in 1942, just like Koinonia. But we couldn’t go to Koinonia. Black people were threatened by mean white people who said, ‘You can’t go around there.’ One man got to the point where he said, ‘I don’t care, they need a worker and I can do it so I’m going to apply.’ [And he was OK.]
My mother said to my sister, ‘Don’t you go up there to Koinonia, they [the mean white people] will kill you.’ My sister said, ‘They’re not going to catch me to kill me,’ and she went in on the back road. And she’d come back and tell us how nice it was there. Oh, we wanted to go! Well, we did go sometimes, to get pecans. Clarence would give us pecans. Such a sweet man, he was sweet. It was a pleasure just to look at him, because he looked at you different than other people did.
Debra Mosley and Jan [Jordan–two Koinonia community members] found me and my kids alone [in a state of need]. They slept in the bed with me to keep me company. ‘Why didn’t you tell us?’ they asked. I said, ‘I was trying to do on my own.’ I was ashamed to show what I had. I had no food, no diapers… ‘You’ve got three babies and one in the belly, you can’t do on your own!’ they said. And they brought diapers, slips, dresses, sweaters… And I stayed right there in that house.
They [Koinonia] asked me, ‘Do you want a house built?’ I said, ‘Are you crazy? I have six children.’ But they built me a house.
[I worked twenty years in the Koinonia kitchen and with the pecans.] They didn’t work you like a slave. They treated you like an equal.
Me and two other people, we still pray for Koinonia. That Koinonia will reach out and help people, help neighbors. But the work is slow! Clarence—I would call him Brother Clarence—he was here a long time. His work was hard, and slow. You have to walk and not stop, you have to run and not faint. And his work spoke for him.
All of my seven children are still living, all grown. Worrying about your children doesn’t ever end, but I made it through my trials and tribulations, and now I’m striving for eternal life. I know my work will speak for me.
Recorded/transcribed by Ann Karp
One day after lunch, Con shared a childhood experience that influenced his future pacifism. “One day as a boy I was out playing with other kids, and we decided we would play war. So everybody started loading up their wagons with stones and sticks and other weapons. I decided to make mine into a tank. I went into the house and told my mother, ‘We’re playing war, and I’m going to make my wagon into a tank.’ She looked at me and said [pause], ‘Well… if that’s what you’re going to do, you’d better do it.’ So I went out to the tool shed and sawed the handles off a few of my dad’s shovels, so I could use them as guns.
“In a few minutes, my mother came out. She was carrying some white sheets and red fabric. She covered my wagon, like a Conestoga wagon, and with the fabric made a big red cross. ‘Now you are an ambulance,’ she said, and suggested I not saw off the handles of any more of my dad’s tools [laughter]. I ran back out to the kids and pulled my medical wagon in, and within a few minutes everybody wanted to have an ambulance! How quickly we can change from seeking to destroy lives to seeking to save them. And it took only one ambulance to do it.”
Mostly, though, Con shared what life was like for him and his family while they lived at Koinonia from 1949-1963. A pacifist, he found Koinonia a wonderful place to raise children, even though by night they were threatened with bullets and threatening phone calls, and by day harassed as they went to the all-white public schools. But at home they could run free, take dips in the pond, listen to Clarence tell spell-binding stories, and be themselves in a very loving and faithful community. Con also shared many stories of what it was like to farm, work and live here, of historical incidents and interesting visitors, and of the reason behind Koinonia. In his own words, rearranged by topic:
On the formation of Koinonia
“We were a group of people trying to live the spirit of the early church. The four commitments that people joining Koinonia would make were:
- To hold Jesus in a special place in your life and heart
- To accept all people as your brother or your sister
- To share everything equally, according to need, not greed
- To value nonviolence as a way of life, not just a technique. All of us were conscientious objectors or more.
“We built all the houses ourselves, as best we could, but we were dumb about house-building. The mansion house burned after catching fire because the chick brooders were leaking kerosene… We had to schedule our showers at the beginning, because at first, there was only one bathroom. 18 of us shared that bathroom!
“We decided that any adult member of the community had the right to discipline a child right away [so you didn’t have to wait for the child’s parent].
“We did pay taxes. We felt that churches ought to be taxed like anybody for their property.”
“Clarence’s brother George, who was proud of him in retrospect, and was a lawyer and a Unitarian, said something about committing Clarence to a mental hospital [when Clarence started preparing to open Koinonia]. You see, Clarence was something of a bother to the family. They loved him dearly, but they didn’t like the trouble he brought. They felt he was out of bounds. So the family gathered and they talked for hours. They decided to commit him. But Clarence’s sister Cornelia said, “The first one of you who files that form, I’ll do the same to you too.” So they never did.
“Most people really loved Clarence. He and I were like brothers, with little to no jealousy. We were very different theologically, however. I was into process theology, where you learn as you go from your experiences, and he was more radical, into the social gospel. My dad studied with Rauschenbush, who taught about using the social gospel with the poverty issue.
“People think that Koinonia Farm was all Clarence, but there were a lot of skilled farmers here. Clarence raised chickens. Howard did row crops and irrigation, pigs and animal husbandry. We sold honey. And we were good! We were good at farming and ran a successful business. We shared flocks of chickens, graded and marketed eggs until 1960. We had between 1,000-4,000 chickens in four chicken houses. We took between 125-150 cases of eggs to market each week. We had cattle, and the bulls were gentle—it would scare the mothers, but the children would walk right under the bulls and they wouldn’t be harmed. That dairy bull was mean, though—900 pounds of hamburger and other cuts when we finally slaughtered him. And Clarence also started the grape vineyards. When he died there were two jugs of scuppernong wine under his desk.
“Clarence was probably on the road 25% of the time. People would follow him around the farm, sometimes he couldn’t get much peace. Then they would leave right before it was their time to join the community. As much as possible, Koinonia tried to return people’s property when they left.”
When asked to describe a typical day
“We’d do 5:30 am Bible study. At 6 am, we sent our trucks out to the labor pools. The going rate was $1 or $1.50 a day, but we paid about $4 a day, which annoyed the other farmers. At 10 am we’d have water and a snack. At noon Willie Pugh would drive the tractor out with lunch. We did lunch potluck-style: the woman from each family sent a dish. Then we worked until 4, when there was a gathering for everyone. We’d do different things: Quaker meeting, songs, worship. Then at 8 pm we’d have a business meeting. In the early days, everybody came to this. Nobody wanted to chair those meetings! Sometimes they weren’t very effective meetings. Visitors participated, but they had no precedent to understand and wouldn’t have to live with the consequences of the decisions. We had 8-10,000 visitors yearly. In addition, we had novices, provisional members, and full members. Eventually, visitors didn’t come to these meetings anymore.
“For fun we had game nights, picnics, and went looking for Indian artifacts along Muckaluchee Creek. Billy Wittkamper and Johnny Eustis especially were into collecting: one had four bulletin boards full of arrowheads, plus ax heads.”
When asked about the Koinonians’ search for a local home church
“After we were kicked out of Rehoboth Baptist Church for bringing P. L. Joseph, an Indian man, to the services, we tried several other churches. The Disciples of Christ feared that we’d bring blacks with us, and their building was also wooden, so they feared they’d be burned. The Presbyterian Church people wanted to get to know us better first, although we thought that it’s hard to get to know somebody if you can’t go to church with them. The Catholic church was wooden too, so again they feared they’d be burned down if Koinonians attended. And we tried three or four more before going to the Episcopal Church. “They won’t even know you’re there,” someone said. We went for about one year. They had a great priest, Paul Rich (Ridge?), but the congregation was less enthusiastic and eventually the bishop interceded. He told us it might make trouble for Paul. All along, we went to black churches, but there it was different. We were treated differently because we were white. They sat us in the choir loft and passed a special basket for us. We didn’t really get to know the black culture.
“After we got back from church on Sundays, there were often two or three alcoholics stretched out on the tables in the dining room. Two were from wealthy Americus families. This was their place to recover, and sometimes they brought their friends.”
On the boycott, bullets, & bombing years
“The KKK burned a house on the pasture by the creek. People cut fences and let our cows and pigs out. For one summer, no night passed without shots being fired nearby. We figured out that the bullets that were fired from machine guns were GI ammunition, and that that shooting was happening on National Guard night. Apparently they gave the men ammo for target practice, and they figured that this would be a good place to practice. That kind of shooting stopped once word got to Washington, DC.
“Elizabeth Morgan, a Quaker, was the woman who was with Dorothy Day (who came here several times) during her hours of “night watch.” They were sitting in an old green Plymouth parked off the road. A bullet was fired through the radiator, flew through the engine, hit the instrument panel and dropped at Dorothy’s feet.
“During the boycott, our egg market dropped to just 12 cases per week (from 125-150), and we had to send the rest to Clarence’s brother who had a Piggly Wiggly. Only some of the black families and stores would still buy our eggs. The A&P was the only big store that sold to us even through the boycott. But most wouldn’t, so our four chicken barns were soon empty buildings, and we wondered what to do with them. When I was taking eggs to a family, I found that they had a pecan plant to sell. They showed us how to run it and sold it to us, and we put it in an empty chicken barn and began cracking and sorting our own nuts. This was good because nobody nearby would help us with our pecans. We got boycotted out of the farming business. But a peace group from Cincinnati suggested we sell our peanuts and other goods through mail order, because the Post Office is a federal office, under federal protection.
“Clarence developed a fruitcake recipe, and we prepared some hams to sell. We got them all good and moldy so that they would cure. People sometimes call us up to complain that the ham was moldy and they’d thrown it away—they didn’t know about curing hams, and that inside there was the most delicious meat!
“And I was no longer an egg marketer, but a package shipper. Once I was taking mail order packages to the Railway Express office, and a man asked me what I was doing. I told him, and he took off my glasses. He had brass knuckles, and he beat me up. The guy inside the office took me to the doctor’s, and Paul Rich, the rector of the Episcopalian Church, picked me up and took me home afterwards. The sheriff arrested me for knocking my own head on the curb to attract publicity!
“When the store in town was bombed for trading with Koinonia, it rattled the county courthouse and blew out windows in the Windsor Hotel and other buildings nearby. That store was right in the center of town.
On population change at Koinonia
“During the 1960s, when Koinonia got down to the Wittkampers, Jordans and Brownes, one family had to go. We couldn’t support all three. It was decided that we [the Brownes] had the best chance of making it in the outside world, so we went.
“Then in the early 70s, the Koinonia population peaked! They were able to support many more people because the farming was OK, they had some good farmers, and the pecan industry was growing.”
“I met Peace Pilgrim twice, although I don’t remember much of what she said, and a guy traveling in a bus he’d painted with the world and some hands clasped around it. We had a lot of travelers through here.
“The black school had only about two kids during the harvest season, but as many as 80 at other times of the year. All the parents pulled their kids out to work during the busy seasons. There were no busses. The only requirement to become a teacher in one of those schools was that you had to be able to write your name. But many of those teachers were very good.”
© Sojourners, December 1979, Vol 8, no 12
by Joyce Hollyday
This month we celebrate Christmas. The birth that transformed the world came quietly upon us in the barren chill of a stable, and its meaning was not fully realized until the violent death-event on a cross 33 years later.
Life and death are inextricably interwoven. In this issue, we commemorate the tenth anniversary of Clarence Jordan’s death by celebration his life and the enduring evidence of his vision.
It is a Sojourners tradition to focus our December issue on the lives of Christians who have taught us the meaning of the incarnation. Clarence was such a Christian.
Born in the deep South near the beginning of this century, Clarence gained a reputation first as a preacher. In 1942, he began an experiment in racial reconciliation on a farm near Americus, Georgia, which became the target of local white hostility. Called Koinonia, the community thrives today, steeped in the legacy of Clarence’s commitment to the partnership of black and white, poor and rich.
Clarence’s most widely known contribution is his unique “Cotton Patch” version of the New Testament Scriptures. In his translation, he brought the biblical characters home and set them in the towns, on the roads, and between the cotton and peanut rows of southern Georgia.
In the introduction to his Cotton Patch Version of Luke and Acts, Clarence states: “Jesus has been so zealously worshipped, his deity so vehemently affirmed, his halo so brightly illumined, and his cross so beautifully polished that in the minds of many he no longer exists as a man. He has become an exquisite celestial being who momentarily and mistakenly lapsed into a painful involvement in the human scene, and then quite properly returned to his heavenly habitat. By thus glorifying him we more effectively rid ourselves of him than did those who tried to do so by crudely crucifying him.”
Clarence lived in contradiction to the tendency of those around him to make Christ less than a man by making him more than one. Bringing home the incarnation was the motivation for Clarence’s writing, his preaching, and his living.
He believed that the incarnation was the only method of evangelization, that “We haven’t gotten anywhere until we see the word become flesh.” This was true in his own life. His words about justice were applauded by the local whites around him, until they discovered that he meant to live out what he preached from the pulpit.
Clarence learned that reconciliation at the lunch table, where black and white shared together, was as scandalous to his neighbors as reconciliation on a cross.
Yet he was a man who conquered the fear that paralyzed other of his time. He spoke about fear as “the polio of the soul which prevents our walking by faith.” Its purpose in self-preservation. Only by living with the assurance of the victory over death can faithful witness shine forth.
Clarence had given up his life to God, and thus lived with the knowledge that no one could take his life from him. He understood deeply the connection between life and death, the impossibility of sharing resurrection without participating in crucifixion. And so he endured excommunication from his church and gunfire from nightriders, living as a man who knew that local hatred and the Ku Klux Klan had no more power over his life than Pilate did over Christ’s.
He lived the incarnation in his fervent love for the poor. He saw that it was a suffering and disinherited Christ who shows us the way to love the same among us now.
And believing that it is a spirit-filled fellowship rather than the empty tomb that is proof of Christ’s presence with us, Clarence pointed Koinonia as evidence of the continuation of the incarnation.
Clarence spent many hours in his writing shack , located about 300 yards from the main buildings at Koinonia. It was here that he wrote his Cotton Patch versions, and here that he died.
In the last hour of my visit at Koinonia, I walked through the fields and past the pecan groves to the shack. It was a holy experience for me, this pilgrimage. I wished, like many who have come to the community since Clarence’s death, that I had met and known this man.
As I approached the small building, I made my way through the patch of small trees that has grown up around it. I stepped inside.
The shack has been used little since Clarence’s death. Marked original manuscripts of speeches and Cotton Patch writings are on the shelves. A copy of a 1959 Encyclopedia of Candy and Ice Cream Making sits next to Clarence’s Greek New Testament. As rain fell softly on the roof, I was struck with the gentleness and strength that were a part of the life of Clarence Jordan.
A blade of wheat, dried with age, lay on Clarence’s desk. I picked it up, wondering how it came to be there and how long it had lain in its place. It seemed appropriate to find it there. I can think of no better symbol for Clarence’s life. “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
Later I went in search of a Cotton Patch version of John to find this verse from the twelfth chapter, hoping to draw some kernel of wisdom from Clarence’s unique translation of it. I discovered that it was the manuscript of John that was on his desk when he died; he had completed only the first eight chapters of the book
I felt cheated by the discovery. And I began to understand even more deeply what a loss it is to us all that Clarence died at the age of 57. But on the heels of that feeling of loss came a sense of gratitude that for those 57 years he lived in such a way that his spirit is with us still.
Clarence understood that he needed to die before he could live. The fruit of his faith continues now in the spirit of the people who loved him and in the life of Koinonia.
We are lucky to have the legacy of such a man. For those of us who are hesitant to embrace Christ’s suffering, we have an example. Fore those of us who struggle as part of a young community of Christ to see our place in history, we have encouragement. His vision has endured.
As Clarence’s body was lowered into the earth and the red Georgia clay was shoveled over it, Millard Fuller’s 2 year-old daughter stepped up to the grave, looked down at the coffin of her friend Clarence, and sang a complete verse of “Happy Birthday, Dear Clarence” to him.
I am tempted to wonder what prompted her. I want to say that perhaps she had an understanding of the situation which escaped the adults around her. Maybe God himself placed the song in her heart. We cannot know. But it is significant that her name was Faith.
© Sojourners, December 1979, Vol 8, no 12
by Joyce Hollyday
Koinonia members and workers take a mid-morning break each day, gathering for hymn singing and prayer. As they approach the last verse of “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah,” a tide of grins sweeps the room at the phrase, “When I tread the verge of Jordan, bid my anxious fears subside.” Once of the members, drawing out the pronunciation of their community’s founder’s last name, announces, “I heard somebody say, ‘When I tread the verge of Jurden.” Everyone laughs.
Being at Koinonia brings one’s sense of s mell alive. The sweetness of spiced pecans from the candy kitchen and fruitcakes baking in the huge, partially solar-heated oven pervades the damp air. The door to the smokehouse, when opened, sends a pungent aroma into the air around it. The smell of fresh ink fills up the corners of the room where newsletters and mail order lists are printed. Outside, sweet grapes are ripe in the fields.
The singsong rhythms of the machines which print the newsletters rapid-fire and those that shell the pecans make their own hymn, but “treading the verge of Jordan” still echoes in the air.
This man Jordan seems to linger in the hearts of many, like the smell of sweet grapes lingers in the Georgia air. A rich history of the man and the community that was his dream can be drawn from those who knew him.
Perhaps the best picture of the history of the community comes from Jordan’s wife, Florence. A warm and dynamic woman, she talks jokingly of all the people who come to the community and ask, “Can Mrs. Jordan still get around?” When asked to talk about the early days of Koinonia, she responds with a laugh, “I can talk thirty-seven years’ worth…I never have lost my enthusiasm for Koinonia.”
Florence and Clarence Jordan met at Southern Baptist Seminary in 1933, where he was a student and she the assistant librarian. When they began to consider marriage, Clarence said to her, “If you want to be the wife of a pastor of a First Baptist Church, you don’t want to marry me.” And he shared with her his plans to go back to the deep South, which was his home, to use his undergraduate agricultural training and “do something for the poor.”
Clarence and Martin England, a former American Baptist missionary, found 440 acres of land in Sumter County, near Americus Georgia. Beginning to formulate a vision for a Christian farming community that could be a resource for the rural poor, Clarence and the England family moved there in the fall of 1942. The Jordans’ first son was born in September, so Florence stayed with her parents in Louisville and then with Clarence’s parents until April, 1943, when the house that Clarence and Martin were building was, in Florence’s words, “at least campable.”
Florence remembers that the switch from big-city living to “days of cooking on a wood stove, washing in the old iron pot, and carrying water were not easy. The land was a rather desolate-looking place, with some sagging barns, outbuildings, and sheds, one large, unpainted house , and two rundown tenant houses. But we were young and it was an adventure wit the Lord.”
They called this adventure Koinonia, from the Greek word which was used to identify the early church in Acts, which pooled its resources and shared the life of Jesus Christ in an atmosphere of reconciliation. This was the model for the fledgling farm. The particular reconciliation that was so desperately needed at this time and place was between black and white. The Koinonians hired a black man, a former sharecropper, to help with the farm. They all ate their meals together, and this breach of Southern tradition brought on the first hostility toward the community.
In a story that has been told many times, Clarence showed the courage and quick wit that became his trademark. A group of men came to the farm. Their spokesman said to Clarence, “We’re from the Ku Klux Klan and we don’t allow the sun to set on people who eat with niggers.”
Clarence glanced over at the western sky and noticed that the sun was creeping low. He thought a bit, swallowed a few times, and suddenly reached out, grabbed the man’s hand, and started pumping away, saying , “Why, I just graduated from Southern Baptist Seminary, and they told us there about folks who had power over the sun, but I never hoped to meet one here in Sumter County.” They all laughed, and nobody noticed that the sun had slipped down below the horizon.
Despite the hostility of white neighbors, the farm soon became a success. Clarence invented a mobile peanut harvester and established a “cow library,” through which poor neighbors could check out a cow for a period of time so that they could have milk. He built a deluxe chicken house that was the envy of the Koinonia wives, whose own houses were austere by comparison. The luxurious chicken quarters were the target of many jokes from the neighbors, but when Clarence began getting more eggs than anybody else, those same neighbors were soon asking him for advice.
Meanwhile, Clarence’s reputation as a powerful, uncompromising preacher was growing. As he traveled the country preaching pacifism, social justice, and community, he drew young people to the experiment at Koinonia.
Florence remembers that people who came to visit the farm were always surprised to meet Clarence. They always expected to see an “older, intellectual-type person,” rather than this large man who had earned his doctorate when he was 26 years old.
A distinguished professor once came to the farm while Clarence was working on a tractor. The man said, “I wish to speak to Dr. Jordan.” Clarence wiped off a greasy hand, extended it, and said, “I am he.” The man responded, “No, I wish to speak to Dr. Clarence Jordan.” Clarence insisted that he was the one the man was looking for. After repeating his request, the professor finally got in his car and left. A few days later Clarence received a letter from the man, expressing that he was infuriated with the impudent help that Dr. Jordan managed to keep around.
Florence believes that Clarence “was one of those rare persons in whom dreams and practicality came together. He could do everything. He was not only a good farmer, he was a mechanic and an intellectual; he could lay bricks and do electrical work, whatever needed to be done. And he was as good in the kitchen and with the children as I was.”
Some of the people who came to visit on the farm stayed. By 1950 the community included 14 adults. They embarked on year of struggle, marked by tension, mixed expectations, and disillusionment. Things moved slowly, every decision was labored, and community living was difficult. The infant community was beginning its arduous growth into tumultuous youth.
In August, the small Rehoboth Baptist Church, where Florence had taught Sunday school and Clarence had led the singing and preached occasionally in the previous eight years, made a move to withdraw fellowship from the Koinonian’s because of their racial view.
Florence faced the congregation alone while the others were out of town. She sat quietly in the pew as the recommendation to reject them was read. There was a tense pause. Then Florence got to her feet and moved that the recommendation be accepted as read. The congregation responded with stunned silence, supporting the motion, but unwilling to side with Florence. The Koinonians were eventually excommunicated, but Florence had shown the rare courage that was part of Koinonia from the beginning.
The group at the farm turned to its internal struggles. Clarence stated at a community meeting that he felt he had been committed to the principles of the community, but what was needed was a personal commitment from the members to one another, a sharing of their lives that went beyond possessions and included sharing in the Spirit. He defined community not as a structure, but as a family. Ten adults signed a written pledge of commitment to each other, with a promise to deal more openly and honestly with their feelings.
In 1953, the community had 19 adults and 22 children. But 1954 struck with a severe drought and heavy economic losses for the farm. At the same time, many at Koinonia were feeling a dissatisfaction, an emptiness, a sense that the unity that they so strongly desired was not among them. Although they were working on more confession and admonishment, the sense of family continued to elude them. Some members left to find this unity elsewhere, leaving Clarence disappointed that the community still had not made its way through troubled youth to stable adulthood.
External threats again forced the community to focus away from its internal wounds. In 1956, the malice was dramatic and consuming. Florence relates, “In ’54 came the Supreme Court decision on desegregation. And then the White Citizens’ Council started up. They told us later that the one in Sumter County was formed with the express purpose of getting Koinonia out. In ’56 the violence really erupted. We had four children then.”
Clarence’s aid to two black students in their application to a formerly segregated college in Atlanta was the spark that ignited the hostility. It began with threatening phone calls, grew to vandalism, and finally escalated into life-threatening violence.
Fences were cut, crops stolen from the fields, and garbage dumped on the property. A truck’s engine was ruined by sugar placed in its gas tank, and nearly 300 fruit trees were chopped to the ground.
The children faced hostility and abuse in school, and the Jordan family was finally forced to send 14-year old Jim Jordan away to private school.
The farm’s roadside market was bombed several times and eventually destroyed. Nightriders sprayed machine-gun bullets at the houses. Fires were set on the property, and crosses were burned on the lawns of black friends.
Several members of the community were called before a grand jury in the spring of 1957, the outcome of which was a report accusing Koinonia of maintaining Communist ties and of self-inflicting the violence for attention and profit. The community was asked to leave the county.
The violence forced the community members to ask difficult questions. Should they leave for the sake of the children? Friends counseled them that their fellowship was of primary importance and needed to be protected at all costs — they should relocate. But if their call was to be a witness to racial equality, shouldn’t they stay in spite of the consequences?
Florence reflects on those difficult days: “When violence first started, we said this place is ours, and we’re going to stay! And then we thought, now wait a minute, we’ve never said that this is our place: we’ve always said that Koinonia belongs to the Lord. Well, maybe this was the Lord’s way of getting us out. But we couldn’t say that either. So we got together and prayed and talked about it from the time the school buses left in the morning until dinner. And as soon as we got the children to bed at night, we started in again. For a week to ten days we did this and felt no leading to leave.”
“Sometimes there was shooting two and three times a week, and we knew there was a chance that somebody might be killed…But we said, ‘Well, that’s okay too. We’re not the first Christians who will have died for what we believe, and we won’t be the last.'”
“The strange thing was that once we had made that decision, that it really didn’t matter whether we lived or died because as Christians we’re bought with a price, we’re not our own, there was a peace. I think that is what Jesus meant when he said, ‘I give you the peace that passes understanding.’ It’s the kind of thing that all Christians ought to face. But I’m glad they don’t have to. But it did do something for us, and so we survived. And no one was seriously injured.”
Sumter County residents bolstered their attack with the weapon of economics, hoping to choke the farm’s livelihood, since they seemed unable to scare the Koinonians away.
“They formed a real solid boycott. One businessman told us that he was forced to sign at the point of a gun not to sell to us. We couldn’t buy gas, fertilizer, or feed. We couldn’t sell an egg. For about a year there we didn’t make a living. If it had not been for our friends, who voluntarily gave to us, we couldn’t have done it.”
It was necessity that forced the community into the mail-order pecan business during the boycott. The mail and the open pecan market were two things the local people could not control.
The adolescent community was saved from a premature death by the pecan business, but its membership and spirit were low. Clarence was gaining an ever-widening audience in the nation, yet back home the community seemed to lack spiritual leadership and unity. Finally only the Jordans and one other family remained, and they agreed that the experiment was over.
It was at this point, when the diagnosis seemed terminal, that new life grew out of the old scars. It came bursting forth in Clarence, in a unique and lasting gift to the Christian world, the “Cotton Patch” version of the New Testament Scriptures.
Clarence stated in the introduction to his first Cotton Patch book, “We want to be participants in the faith, not merely spectators.” And so he wrote a version of the New Testament that would bring its messages home to the people of his time.
Called “a colloquial translation with a Southern accent,” the Cotton Patch version states that Jesus was wrapped in a blanket and laid in an apple box at his birth; he was killed by lynching; and when he came out of the vault on Easter morning, he came to his disciples and said, “Howdy.”
The humanity of Christ is central in this version. It is Christ who brings reconciliation between white and black, just as he brought reconciliation between Jew and Gentile in the traditional versions.
In Florence’s words, “Clarence read his Greek New Testament always. He could read it like we read English. It was the Greek of the everyday people, the koine Greek, not the classical. And so he translated just as he read it, using modern equivalents.”
The incarnational theme so important in the Cotton Patch versions was also a powerful concept in Clarence’s preaching. He saw the resurrection not as an invitation to heaven when we die, but as a declaration from God that he has established permanent residence on the earth and comes home with us, bringing all his suffering sisters and brothers with him: “And we say, ‘Jesus, we’d be glad to have you, but all these motley brothers of yours, you had better send them home. You come in and we’ll have some fried chicken. But you get your sick, naked, cold brothers out of here. We don’t want them getting our rug all messed up.'”
As Clarence clarified his thoughts on the incarnation, his desire to work out his beliefs was renewed. In 1968, a man who brought boundless energy and a practical business sense arrived to help Clarence establish a new direction for Koinonia. Millard Fuller was a millionaire. But in 1966, he and his family turned their backs on their fortune and decided to listen to the Lord’s leading. Without a solid direction, hoping to find some old friends in Georgia, they stumbled across Koinonia.
As Millard describes it, “We intended to stay two hours. Then I met Clarence. When we started talking, I knew that guy was somebody special. So we stayed a month. Clarence and I milked cows together, and we packed pecans together, and day and night we talked about how to be a Christian. I was like a year, or two years, of seminary crammed into one month…
“Clarence said that if we are to be reborn, we must completely change our ways, our style of life as well as our thinking. When I left Koinonia I felt a real strength surging throughout my body. I was positive that I had been in the company of one of God’s truly great servants.”
Two years later, Millard and Clarence came together again to talk. “We arrived at a feeling that modern man’s problems stem almost entirely from his loss of any sense of partnership with God in his purposes for mankind. We had also lost our sense of partnership with each other.”
The Fullers moved back to Koinonia in July of 1968. Calling those around him to return to the Old Testament idea that the earth is the Lord’s and to live out Jesus’ proclamation that a new order had arrived — to live out in a permanent way the spirit of the Jubilee year when slaves were freed, debts forgiven, and land returned to its original owners — Clarence announced his plan, called the Fund for Humanity. His vision was to have one million acres of land for the poor. The land was to be farmed and occupied by those who had no resources to but land.
Millard reflects that “Clarence was first and foremost a dreamer. And it was a thrill for me to be with him, because he always dreamed in a biblical way. “
Clarence’s plan was a way for the rich to share their resources and for the poor to find new hope and security in their lives. His idea was that the farmers would work together as partners, providing for one another and returning any excess back to the fund so that more land could be purchased for others.
The idea of partnership was carried out in the farming, the pecan industry, and in housing. With Clarence and Millard working together on the fund raising, money poured in from friends and churches. By this time the farm covered 1,400 acres. Plots of land were sold to area residents at whatever price they could pay. By 1969, the first house had been built. Koinonia Partners was in business.
Clarence lived to see the first house almost completed. On October 29, 1969, at the age of 57, he died.
Millard was unable to convince the coroner or county medical examiner to come to the farm to pronounce Clarence dead: “Even in death, Clarence Jordan was rejected by the high and mighty, by those in authority, in the area in which he lived. But this was not surprising to me, as it never had been to him, because the Bible promises that a prophet is never with honor in his home area.”
The medical examiner insisted that Millard rent an ambulance and bring Clarence’s body to the hospital. But Millard felt that Clarence would have objected strongly to having money spent on a dead body. “So we loaded the body in the car…I smiled as I went through town with Clarence sitting down. I knew he would have gotten a terrific charge out of that.”
Clarence’s spirit lives on in the work. Millard Fuller directs Habitat for Humanity, a project founded on the same principles as the Fund for Humanity. Based in Americus, the project sponsors housing efforts in Africa, Central America, and seven U.S. locations.
Ted Swisher, the coordinator of the community at Koinonia, says that “we have a solid legacy. When we get embroiled in problems and controversies, as well as trying to think of what Jesus would have thought or said, we try to think of how Clarence would have handled it. We have the theological rootedness that he has provided.”
The 86th Koinonia house will be completed this month. The houses have been built in three locations on the farm and most recently in the town of Americus. Each year a hundred applications come in for the dozen new houses available. A drive down Beale Street, past the drafty, run-down shacks that Clarence despised so much, contrasted with a drive past the new Koinonia homes being built on Price Street, shows dramatically the impact that the Fund for Humanity continues to have on the area.
Ethel Dunning is the kind of woman who reaches out to give you a handshake and pulls you into a hug. She and her husband, Tom, have lived in Sumter County all their lives, working 26 difficult years as sharecroppers: “We were struggling and never owned anything. Each year we’d talk about land, about building a house, but it never happened.”
When a friend suggested that they move to Koinonia, Ethel was fearful. But the more she prayed, the more “Try Koinonia” kept coming back.
“I told the white woman at the plantation that I was moving to Koinonia. When I got back to our shack, the water had been cut off. For four months I hauled water four miles and hitchhiked to Americus every Friday evening to do laundry, until our house was done. Here I have met some of the best folks God has chosen. There is no dividing line in heaven, and God doesn’t want us to be divided here. We are one big family, black and white.”
The spirit of Clarence lives on in those who knew him. Will Wittkamper, his wife, Margaret, and their three children were the one family who stayed with the Jordans after the violence of the 1950s. Before Will arrived at Koinonia in 1953, he had served many churches as a minister, but was asked to leave them because of his pacifist stance.
“Clarence was a voice crying in the wilderness. Even before I met him, I wrote to him. He answered my letter, ‘Perhaps you’d like to join us.’ Well, that made me bring tears because I had been looking for a people who were living like they did in the early church. Clarence touched me deeply because he was a man who felt that the kingdom was here now. Clarence filled out the dream I had about the New Testament.”
Today Will is 87 years old, a short, wiry man with exceptional strength. He rises at 4:30 or 5 each morning, spends his day reading Scripture, meandering around the farm with his wheelbarrow keeping things in order, and sharing his love of Jesus Christ, the world, and the people around him.
Will Mae Champion was born in Americus and has been at Koinonia since 1961. She works as the supervisor of the candy kitchen. She reflects lovingly on the days she and Clarence worked side by side in the kitchen: “Day after day just the two of us worked together. He was so humorous, he always kept you wondering. He used to have me sit down and listen to a story, and I’d say, ‘If you’ll pay me for sitting, I’ll do it.’ Some blacks have never had that kind of friendship from whites.”
“I used to ask Clarence what he gained, being shot at and boycotted. He said, ‘They haven’t hung me up on a tree yet. I haven’t done near as much as that barefoot Nazarene.’
“I still miss him. He had a recipe he called ‘Pecandy’ that we were going to try. He died before we did, and I’ve always wanted to do it for him. Whenever we tried something that didn’t work, he’d say, ‘Clean out the pot and let’s try again.’ That sticks with me now.”
When asked if Clarence’s spirit is still with Koinonia now, Willa Mae says as she wipes a tear from her eye, “Seems like I can even hear the echo of it when I go out to Picnic Hill, where he’s buried.”
Some of the local people that Koinonia has influenced most strongly have left Sumter County. Otis Reynolds works with the Peace Corps office in Washington D.C.: “As a child, I used to visit Koinonia farm, much to my folks’ displeasure because of local white disapproval. Being too young to understand their fears, I used to sneak over and had no problems because I was always made welcome by the people at the farm…”
“I began working at the farm in high school…A good friend of mine from Koinonia arranged it so that I could get away for a summer to greet the world outside of my local milieu…Prior to this I had no idea what I wanted to do, but one thing I was sure of was I was not going to be anyone’s field hand for the rest of my life. I had seen too many of my childhood friends march off to the field to make substantial profits for the local white landowners…
“I am grateful to Koinonia for the opportunity it afforded me during those years of uncertainty. It provided me with some continuity, some sense of hope and direction, and presented the world at large to me. When I think back, I shudder, because had not Koinonia been in my local surrounding, I probably would today be on someone’s tractor in Sumter County.”
The community has also left its impact on the local white community, especially the young people whose parents were participants in the boycott. Florence reports that on three different occasions, she has had a visit from former students who were among those who harassed her children in school. They have come to apologize and to express their admiration for the courage of the people of Koinonia.
The work goes on at Koinonia for those who have stayed. The first house built by Koinonia Partners was for Bo Johnson and his wife Emma. Today Bo continues to do farming at the community, sharing responsibility for the 550 acres of peanuts, corn, soybeans, pecans and grapes.
While the pecan business, the farming, and housing construction are the major industries, handcrafts, pottery, solar-energy work, and a food co-op also consume the time of some of the local people and the community’s 25 adults. A strong volunteer program keeps a stream of about 50 new people flowing through the community each year.
The community’s 10 children are a major concern. The youngest ones attend the Koinonia Child Development Center, which also serves local children. A group called the Sumter County Organization for Public Education, organized by two Koinonians, is working to improve the largely black public education system and organized a successful school boycott this past fall.
Community members and workers come together over lunch and share their joys and concerns while they pass around the homemade peanut butter, honey, and blueberry pie that come from their land and labor. They share lunch together in the dining hall, in the same way that was such a scandal to their early neighbors. The hall stands next to houses that still bear bullet holes.
Clarence’s body was lowered into the red Georgia clay in a simple pine box, a create that was used to carry a fancier coffin. His grave remains unmarked. It is a fitting memorial for a man who, though thunderous in his preaching and exhortation, was gentle and humble in his living. He was a man who never made himself the center of the community that was his dream, and thus the dream has endured his death.
Just a few weeks before Clarence died, a reporter asked him, “When you get up to heaven and the Lord meets you and says, ‘Clarence, I wonder if you could tell me in the next five minutes what you did down on earth?’ What would you tell the Lord?”
Clarence’s reply was, “I’d tell the Lord to come back when he had more time.” This was the answer of a man who dreamed much, loved much, endured much.
Koinonia still “treads the verge of Jordan.” The last phrase of the same verse from “Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah” says, “songs of praises, songs of praises, I will ever give to thee.” That praise belongs rightfully to God.
But it is also true that praises for Clarence Jordan will continue to be sung. They will pour forth from the hearts of those at Koinonia and from all those who have ever been affected by this gently preacher’s powerful voice, his compassionate touch, or a well-read copy of a Cotton Patch Gospel.