© 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 smell 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.