Confessions of a Jew in a Christian Ministry

Harriet Hasenfest

Confessions of a Jew in a Christian Ministry

By Harriet Hasenfest*

Many people are familiar with Habitat for Humanity International, HfHI. They know it is a non-profit organization that makes homeowners of people who would more than likely never be. That they utilize donations -- money, gifts in kind, and volunteer labor -- to keep costs for building homes at a minimum. And that the loans offered to prospective owners are repaid at no interest, with mortgage payments going to source funds for future loans.

Many people also know that while Habitat's International offices are headquartered in Americus, Georgia, much of the work Habitat does towards eliminating poverty housing in the United States is done by its affiliate members (about 1500) affiliates.

What many do not know, however, is that the policies and principles of their local affiliate may vary dramatically from the International's.

Habitat for Humanity International is "overtly and unashamedly Christian," as its founder and CEO Millard Fuller likes to say. Nothing wrong with that. Nor with the fact that each Habitat affiliate signs a covenant with International headquarters to "associate with other organizations functioning with purposes consistent with those of Habitat in witnessing to the Gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the world". That is clearly their right and they guard it. They receive no direct government funding, specifically because they want to maintain their independence and not be restricted from their ability to have religious dedication services or from presenting Christian Bibles to new Habitat home owners.

But most local Habitat affiliate directors and staff are quick to point out that even though they are a Christian ministry, they work in "partnership with God and people everywhere, from all walks of life." Indeed, Article 1 of Habitat Principles (signed by each new affiliate member) stipulates "the leadership of Habitat for Humanity be balanced to reflect the broad diversity of the population of the community and/or country the affiliate is located in without regard to race, religious beliefs, national origin, gender or political affiliation."

Yet broad representation is desired "so long as they, the invited leadership, are in agreement with the official mission and purpose of Habitat for Humanity" which is, once again, to witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the world.

These mixed messages are confusing at best.

They result from the tension between being a champion of the Christian witness on the one hand (which Habitat for Humanity International definitely is about) and a feel-good, inter-faith housing organization on the other (which most of Habitat metropolitan affiliate directors would like it to be about).

Ask your local affiliate if there are any Jews, Muslims, Buddhists etc. on their board of directors and they will probably say yes.

Ask founder Fuller if there are any representatives of different faith traditions on the International board of directors and he will tell you no. And that is because they are not relevant to Habitat International's work which is, to witness to the Gospel of Jesus -- be that in the building of homes or otherwise. No one other than a Christian, in Fulller's opinion, would do that and he is probably right. So the questions to ask ourselves are:

What is the real 'work' of Habitat for Humanity International?

Why and how can that work be so diversely interpreted and portrayed?"

During my tenure as Millard Fuller's scheduling coordinator, it was not unusual for me to get letters from affiliate directors scheduled to receive him on one of his speaking tours, asking that he "tone it down a bit". He was known to speak about the gospel of Jesus and Habitat in a style not unlike a Southern Baptist country preacher, and was happiest when souls were worked in passionate support for both his true loves.

Affiliate directors knew that their local supporters, particularly in larger urban communities, were comprised of many different and indifferent faiths and while some God talk would be accepted, even appreciated, they also knew that big God talk, literal-interpretation God talk, "no one comes to the Father but by me" God talk, was definitely less appealing.

They knew that getting support for their local affiliate was hard enough without Fuller's offending whatever religious sensibilities prospective donors and volunteers might have. But Fuller is not one to tone down that message for anyone, so the savvy affiliate director does not request a visit from him, unless s/he wants to take a chance on offending constituents.

In the office one day, Fuller, the evangelical Christian, told me, the Jewish woman, that he did not feel a need to proselytize me because he had been assured by his mentor Clarence Jordan (founder of the Christian community Koinonia) that all those who do not accept Christ as their savior in this world would have another chance when they die. If they did not accept him then, well . . . At the time I felt only mildly discomforted by the comment --yet disregarded it, believing much worse had been done in the name of religious faith and, as always, there was Habitat's good work to bounce it off.

In my first year of employment, I generally accepted Habitat's commitment to its Christian witness in a spirit of respectful tolerance. I thought ,"Hey, if they do it out of a commitment to their faith, more power to them. I don't have to go along with it but I can still support their work."

During my second year at HfHI, I started going to morning devotions. I became interested in broadening my own spiritual life and started attending the half hour Habitat sets aside each morning for prayer and inspiration. It was in these devotions that the "otherness" of my world and experiences became painfully obvious to me. I was uncomfortable in their prayers, uncomfortable in their traditions but mostly uncomfortable with the mild to overtly offensive representation that was often cast on my own traditions.

Even though I knew the horrors Jews had endured during the Holocaust (my father having survived Aushwitz), I did not hang on to stereotypes. So as I sat in devotions, there were no prejudgments, only confusions that surfaced as everyone spoke of the "Christian ethic." I did not wonder what had happened to the Christian ethic during the Holocaust but rather, simply, longed to speak of my own.

Millard and Linda Fuller supported my attempts at devotions. My first was on Yom Kippur as I spoke of the Torah Portion wherein Isaiah mandates we become the rebuilder of broken walls. I was nervous but proud to be rediscovering and defending, if you will, my own tradition.

I began from an academic and moral stance, but in the process I discovered a wonderful truth and healing. I discovered I could be both a humanist and a spiritually informed Jew. I discovered that I could interpret wonderful stories and traditions in ways that did not restrict my growth as a modern woman in a modern and confusing society. In fact, I discovered that the stories and traditions could guide me, and that I did not have to abandon my doubt or my resistance to Jewish "law" in the process.

More significantly, slowly and amazingly I discovered the foundational significance my own faith tradition played in the "Christian message" and therefore to Habitat. Clearly the initiative to tithe, to not charge interest to the poor, to love they neighbor as thyself, was all to be found in my own tradition. The more I discovered, the more I spoke and the greater my commitment to have my own faith tradition represented in the work of Habitat.

Even more important, I realized Habitat could, with its world-wide relations and support from people of different faiths, play a vital role in healing the divisions and pain too often inflicted by traditional faith interpretations. What better forum to embrace different faith traditions, to acknowledge God's voice through many faiths and many languages, to celebrate the multi-dimensional partnership God offers in a mandate to repair what is broken, than on the work-site building homes side by side?

So I began to imagine a program within Habitat that would allow for true interfaith partnership . Because I am a Jew, I first considered a Jewish program that would serve as the template to developing other inter-faith partnerships. There had always been Jewish support in the past: individual donations, congregational support and even a Jewish executive director in an affiliate in Philadelphia. But I imagined that a formal partnership, one that embraced the heart of the Jewish tradition, would pave the way for greater participation. This partnership would uphold much of the same methodology as Habitat but from the Jewish faith perspective.

Millard told me that a few years back there had been a Memorandum of Understanding between Habitat International and the National Federation of Temple Youth to build homes. The Memorandum had been endorsed by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations but had fallen by the wayside during NFTY's many transitions. He suggested I look into it.

I discovered that the Habitat/NFTY Memorandum had been met with reservations among Reform Jewish field workers. There were concerns about Habitat's overtly Christian stance and concerns that funds normally directed toward "Jewish" issues might be funneled into Habitat instead. Still, I found that Atlanta Rabbi Harvey Winnokur was interested in re-igniting the Memorandum of Understanding NFTY had forged with Habitat.

I suggested creating a fund, similar to Habitat's Fund for Humanity, that would support all Jewish building efforts. This fund would reach out to educate the individual affiliates about the partnership; support summer programs for senior congregants interested in participating in Tikkun Olam; help create college campus chapters in partnership with Hillel groups; sponsor efforts of NFTY groups interested in building homes (as outlined in the Memorandum of Understanding); support the building of homes in Israel; and, generally, create an atmosphere conducive to prayer and tradition at all these building sites. More Habitat homes would be built and the Jewish community could do so within the context of their own faith.

Even though I longed for this program, I knew the Habitat staff could not design it without serious involvement of the Jewish faith community. In conversations with Rabbi Winnokur of Atlanta, Rabbi Arthur Waskow of The Shalom Center, NFTY president Joel Cohen, and Leonard Fein, Director of the Commission on Social Action of the UAHC and creator of Mazon, the Jewish Response to Hunger, I kept hearing the same message. They felt that while the concept behind the fund seemed structurally sound, any authentic relation between the Jewish community and Habitat for Humanity could only be forged if there was a true and unwavering commitment on Habitat's part to respect the tenets of Jewish tradition.

Habitat's former director of church relations, Rick Beech, and Millard Fuller wanted to further the fund concept. But they had no interest in involving religiously informed Jews in the drafting of the fund. My urging was ignored. I imagined I was simply being impatient, that somehow I was not conveying the issue properly, that there was some good reason they were not listening. The problem, I later realized, was that someone else had their ear.

Early on, Millard introduced me to Martin Freedland, friend of Habitat and an Atlanta Jew. Martin and I were both interested in seeing greater Jewish involvement. But where I had a growing interest in involvement based on a commitment to Jewish faith traditions, Freedland did not. He wanted Habitat to get more money, and acknowledged not really caring whether it spoke to his faith or not.

Freedland knew a number of Jewish CEO's whom both Millard and he could personally approach if Habitat had a formal program directed at the Jewish community -- many of them among the top twenty of US builders.

In June 1997, Habitat for Humanity's International Board of Directors approved the Shalom Fund, as it was named. A task force was formed to develop the concept but other than Freedland, no Jew was ever invited into the crafting of the program. From the onset, it was intended to be a program that could make Jews comfortable to give money to Habitat and Habitat comfortable in their desire to evangelize.

Fuller remained ambivalent. He wrote yet another affiliate director who "leaned toward interfaith promotion: "In addition to the philosophical side of this whole issue, there is a practical side, too. The more we 'water down' our Christian witness, the more we may attract Jewish support or Buddhist support or Atheist support. but, we begin to lose support from dedicated Christians. . . . I mentioned that I was coming out to speak to the Women's Missionary Union of the Southern Baptist Church. We are in process of entering into a partnership with those folks . . . I can assure you these folks are involved in Habitat for Humanity precisely because we are a Christian ministry. If we were 'inter-faith' or secular, some of them will still be supportive, but we would lose a great number of these partners."

But beneath the financial questions remained the religious ones.

A Jewish woman wrote to Millard, "Since coming to the United States as a German Jewish Refugee in 1939 I have often found myself a defender of the righteous Christians who helped save the lives of my family and others who would otherwise have perished in the holocaust". She comments on the good heart of the Christians she had known despite stereotyping and--

"Then came the jolt of the scripture you selected for your Rochester keynote speech. From Corinthians you chose to read: 'Jews want miracles for proof, and Greeks look for wisdom. As for us (Christians), we proclaim Christ on the Cross, a message that is offensive to the Jews and nonsense to the Gentiles'". And lshe adds, "Either there was a lack of sensitivity in your choice of text or there is an inconsistency between your philosophy and that of the local chapter."

Millard responded: "Frankly, I find it incredible that you would criticize me for using any Christian scripture in a Christian church. Are you suggesting that certain portions of the Bible should be deleted? I know that it is also offensive to many people that Jesus is reported as having said that 'I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life and no one comes to the Father but by me.' That is very definitely a strong statement and it is one that many people, Jews and otherwise find offensive, and they strongly disagree with that statement. Still, it is in the Bible."

And then he added, "I am distressed that you would consider discontinuing your support of (your local affiliate) because of something I read out of the New Testament. It reminds me of an African proverb, 'When the elephants fight, it's the grass that gets trampled.' What you are saying, if I understand you correctly, is that you will withdraw your support for helping the poor through Habitat for Humanity because you don't like some scripture I read out of the New Testament. Is that really what you want to do? Is that a good reason for doing it?"

He went on to say that "I can assure you that many Jewish people are very much involved in Habitat for Humanity and we are trying to find ways right now to involve more. Still, Habitat for Humanity is a Christian organization and we are not willing to abandon our faith and our motivation to attract anyone. It is a matter of principle, and it is a matter of faith commitment. I hope you understand."

I have that letter because I was copied on it. In fact, I was referenced in it as the "fine Jewish woman whose father, miraculously, survived Auschwitz." I was very upset that he referenced me without my permission. That he used me, as I saw it, as a token Jew. That I, a second generation Holocaust survivor, would be used to heap guilt upon this woman and singled out as proof of his support of Jews in general.

For the first time in two years, Millard and I argued. He suggested that it might be time for me to reconsider whether I could continue working at Habitat. I agreed, but told him I felt obligated to write this woman directly in comradeship and in defense of my own work at Habitat.

I told this woman that, for my part, I would go on hoping for a healing Midrash that reinterprets the New Testament for Christians like Fuller -- a Midrash and interpretation that no longer hurt us and kept us divided by acts and values that no longer apply. But I said that while I yet hope, I had begun to doubt that Fuller or Habitat International would ever be inclined to offer such a Midrash.

I did leave Habitat-- not because I finally understood how unlikely it would be that a healing Midrash would be offered, nor because I felt "duped" into helping usher in a frail "Shalom Fund" that would be nothing more then a sound bite created to attract and appease the resistant but well-healed Jew. Nor because being Jewish in a Christian Ministry had worn out what little possibility it ever offered for expanding interfaith dialogue. Nor because -- though I felt it strongly -- that only in leaving would I be able to learn more about the beauty of my own faith tradition.

I left because I was painfully dismayed with the reality of HfHI intentions towards partnering with the Jewish community. Since building houses takes money, ultimately Habitat and Millard Fuller must bet on the leading spurces of money. To date, many more homes have been built in partnership with Christian churches than any other religious group and so it is wise not to offend their sensibilities. And so appears a Catch 22. Jewish funding will not increase unless there is a true and respectful partnership, and there will be no such partnership unless Jewish funding is seen as pivotal to their operation.

Perhaps in its attempt to eliminate poverty housing world wide, Habitat will finally recognize that becoming interfaith may be the only way to attract the type of money and support they need. If that does happen, it will be a back door approach for something that deserves greater respect. Oddly enough, Habitat's part in encouraging interfaith relations could be its greatest contribution to the Christian witness. At least that is what I mean when I suggest Habitat International falls short of what it can truly be and why local affiliate end runs do more to sabotage their interfaith efforts than promote them. That they do more to support the status quo than challenge it.

It has been a year and a half since I left Habitat. I called Martin Freeland, who told me that he did finally draft a proposal for Shalom Fund by-laws, along with another board member, the current director of Habitat's church relations, and members of Habitat's legal department. Yet, after months of work, the Shalom Fund was pronounced dead on arrival at the desk of the new Vice President of Programs.

Freedland said he had no idea why, except to assume it would threaten the more fundamental Christian supporters of Habitat. Freedland has not heard from Fuller since, and he was clearly disappointed. Both Freedland and Paul Leonard, the board member, resigned their role in the Task force. From Freedland's perspective, all he wanted to do was have more homes built. Ever inclined to give Millard the benefit of the doubt he simply remarked, "I'm not one to assume how Millard should run Habitat."

When I talked with Fuller, he told me that he killed the proposal. That Freedland and Leonard had drafted by-laws for "their own corporation". That he never wanted the Shalom Fund to be its own corporation. That Habitat was, is and will always be a Christian organization and that the concept behind the proposed partnership was too aggressive. That he wanted the Shalom Fund to operate as a program within Habitat, not as a separate entity.

That Jews had always given money to Habitat before and that he did not see why they needed their own corporation.

I told him I did not know whether they needed their own corporation, but that it would be inauthentic to develop a formal initiative to raise Jewish money without creating a respectful Jewish program or, at the very least, to have religiously informed Jews function as an advisory committee in the drafting of a program.

Paul Leonard told me he had hoped the Shalom Fund would be a template for partnering respectfully with members of different faiths, because he sensed Habitat would have to reconcile the issue one way or the other if they were serious in their commitment to eliminate poverty housing world wide.

And so it is that today I call the possibility laid before Habitat a missed opportunity. But who knows what tomorrow might offer? I yet hope for a healing midrash.


* Hasenfest is a free-lance writer and social activist in Portland, Oregon, joining the arts with activism in addressing social issues. More information: