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Habitat for Humanity. A matter of conscience. Founder Millar Fuller left personal wealth behind to eliminate poverty housing around the world

By Peter TongeStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 7, 1987

Charlotte, N.C.

MILLARD FULLER seems indifferent to the 96-degree weather as he nails sheathing under the eaves of a house that four hours earlier was nothing more than a slab of concrete on the ground. Mr. Fuller, a lanky Southern lawyer, is busy practicing what he calls the ``theology of the hammer,'' a type of practical Christianity that led to his founding Habitat for Humanity 11 years ago. The organization has one simple goal: the elimination of substandard, run-down housing everywhere.

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Some 300 other Habitat volunteers from every corner of the United States and two Canadian provinces joined Mr. Fuller last week in this latest venture - a race to build 14 houses in just five days for poor families in the neighborhood. They have called the Charlotte project the ``Miracle on 19th Street.''

Farther north, a ``Miracle on Blue Hill Avenue'' promised 11 town houses for the less fortunate of Boston during the same week. And in 150 other US cities and in several developing nations as well, more Habitat construction was taking place. Because of the intense effort, by week's end about 300 families for the first time would know the joy and dignity that come with home ownership.

Habitat for Humanity's worldwide home-raising programs go on all year long. But they are generally less orchestrated and publicity-oriented than the one last week.

Barbara Yates, founder of the Northeast chapter of Habitat, explains: ``We felt a need to get our message across to the general public in a dramatic way. We have to let people know that there is a practical solution to the housing problem.''

Habitat for Humanity is not a charitable organization. ``We give away nothing except a great opportunity,'' a Habitat volunteer says. The opportunity is a significant one, however: a new home at cost with an interest-free mortgage loan repayable over 20 years.

To qualify, families have to earn enough to make the small monthly payments, but not so much that a bank would deal with them. They are also required to put several hundred hours of ``sweat equity'' into their own homes. And they're often required to invest time in the construction of a neighbor's house.

Considerable praise is heaped on Mr. Fuller for his selfless ``no more shacks'' housing campaign. But Fuller, a crusader at all times, gives God the credit - as well as the family crisis that precipitated his dramatic change of direction.

Until his wife of several years temporarily left him, Fuller was headed down the fast lane for the ``good life,'' as he then saw it. He brought the Midas touch to every business venture he undertook and became a millionaire shortly after his 29th birthday.

With farms, cattle, stocks and bonds, and a very fertile business sense, it seemed only a matter of time before he multiplied his wealth many-fold. Then his wife, Linda, left, charging that in his pursuit of wealth, their marriage had become meaningless.

In fact, Fuller couldn't bear the thought of losing her. If money had come between them, he would get rid of it.

The transformation was as complete as it was dramatic. Literally obeying the biblical command to sell all and give to the poor, Fuller divested himself of his properties and gave his millions to charity.