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[Chalice] Clarence Jordan[Chalice]
and the Left Hand of God

Presented October 15, 2006, by Judy Crocker

Bob Morwell, pastor of the Union United Methodist Church here in Quincy, is a person who lives his faith by doing good works. Always involved in some kind of humanitarian/social justice activity, he is currently spearheading efforts to provide two houses to Katrina victims through Habitat for Humanity and is encouraging local ministers to make their congregations aware of the work of Clarence Jordan - work that led to the founding of Habitat for Humanity. (To us, that looks like Jordan, but in rural Georgia where he lived it's pronounced Jerdan). Jordan founded an interracial Christian cooperative in the 1940's that he called Koinonia Farms, Koinonia being a Greek word that translates roughly into "community." As I read his story - that of a Southern Baptist working for social justice sixty years ago, I found implicit in his work many of the principles of Unitarianism, so I told Bob Morwell to count us as a yes to his request.

In the middle of my research into this topic, a book I'd had on hold at the Public Library became available. Now, Michael Lerner's book, The Left Hand of God, has absolutely nothing to do with Clarence Jorden, but, perhaps because I have difficulty carrying too many unrelated ideas in my head, it appeared to me as if Jordan, a Georgia-based mid-twentieth century preacher, pacifist, farmer was, in many respects, living the advice of Lerner, a Berkeley-based early twenty-first century psychologist/editor/ rabbi.

I don't know what Lerner and Jordan would make of each other. Lerner's book is basically a political one. Its complete title is The Left Hand of God: Taking Back Our Country from the Religious Right. Jordan was very apolitical. He was averse to using legal or political action to achieve his ends.

Lerner talks about the left hand of God vs. the right hand of God, the left hand being that force which makes possible a world based on love and generosity, nonviolence, peace, and social justice. The right hand of God is God as the avenger who will overthrow evil by superior power, punish his enemies, and suppress dissent. Believers in the right hand imagine that evil can be wiped out by one more war or by the imposition of rigid commandments enforced through violence and punishment. They imagine that people can be coerced into goodness. Lerner calls this dichotomy hope vs. fear.

I don't think Clarence Jordan would give much thought to the left hand of God or the right hand of God. His was a firm belief in the Bible as the guide as to how we should live our lives; his was lived in hope rather than in fear. He seemed to believe that most Christians had a less-than-perfect understanding of the Bible, but he had little patience for theological discussions.

After hearing Steve's talk last week, I wondered if I shouldn't forget the Clarence Jordan part of this talk and focus on Michael Lerner who decries the fact that the current marriage between the political right and the religious right has given us a government that is pro-rich, pro-war, anti-science, and anti-environment. He contends that many people who have voted for right-wing politicians don't like their policies, but, in a world becoming increasingly vulgar, selfish, and materialistic, they feel a loss of control and an absence of "meaning." In their alienation, they are lured by the religious right's invitation to become a part of an insular community, a community which offers protection from those evils for which they blame all moral crises - liberals, activist judges, homosexuals, independent women, and all secular people. He further states that progressives have not acknowledged that people have spiritual needs, that they're too quick to dismiss religious conservatives as "stupid," and that secular, religious, and "spiritual but not religious" groups need to form an alliance to look, not for a candidate or for a platform to win the next election, but for an agenda which can be defended over time, an agenda that embodies a compassionate, hope-oriented, Left-Hand-of-God worldview. He lays out in some detail what that agenda would include, but that's a topic for another day. He also speaks of the long arduous process of creating a culture which embraces that agenda, which brings us back to Clarence Jordan.

In 1941, Clarence Jordan, holder of a BA degree in agriculture, a master's in the ministry, and a doctorate in New Testament Greek, along with his wife and another couple bought a plot of land about eight miles from Americus, Georgia, in Sumter County in an area largely populated by black sharecroppers on depleted land and named it Koinonia. Their purpose was three-fold: (1) to teach better agricultural practices, (2) to minister to the spiritual needs of impoverished blacks, and (3) to live in a Christian interracial community in which all resources were shared and all participants were equal. They set out to build residences, to improve the land, and to recruit others to share in their endeavors and, in doing so, cultivated not only the land, but the good will of their neighbors, black and white. Jordan, a talented and charismatic speaker and story-teller, was dispatched to speak at local colleges and Christian youth groups to attract others to their cause. They conducted workshops and demonstrations on agricultural methods. They led gardening and machinery classes in town. They helped people on other farms bring in their crops. They introduced local farmers to new machinery, conservation techniques, fertilizers and hybrid seeds. They developed a poultry and egg cooperative that was, for several years, an economic boon to the entire area. On Monday evenings, both blacks and whites would attend their agricultural classes and talk together and share ideas. They served refreshments after these Monday night meetings in an effort to get blacks and whites to eat together. It didn't work. When refreshments were served, one group or the other would wander out. Those that lived within their community ate all of their meals together, but to most people in the American south of the 1940's, this was not an acceptable practice. Koinonia was not organized as a charity. Their objective was to develop economic independence , but sometimes they did provide for others. They distributed vegetables and meat to needy families and they developed a "cow library." If a family didn't have enough milk, they could check out a cow from Koinonia, use it till it went dry, then return it and get another one. The farm also hired a lot of African-Americans as field workers and day laborers, paying them about twice the going rate. They reasoned that, if parents could earn a living wage, they could keep the children out of the field and send them to school. They drove around the area, taking black children into town to school.

They operated Vacation Bible School, a good old Southern Baptist tradition, and a summer camp. They held literacy classes at the farm and sponsored recreational activities including volleyball, basketball, square dances, and community parties to bring the races together.

For the first several years of their existence Koinonia was reasonably well accepted in Sumter County. People from the white community came to the farm and helped with Vacation Bible School. Some white families sent their children. The wider southern Christian community also accepted them and Jordan was a popular speaker in churches and youth groups throughout the south. There were some isolated incidents of opposition to their pacifism, their race-mixing, their attempts to raise blacks' socio-economic levels, but as long as they concentrated on farming and ministry, things went well.

Of their three original goals, they achieved great success agriculturally. The farm was profitable. Their efforts to minister to blacks and to break down racial and social barriers were moderately successful. Their third - that of living communally - was more problematic. Throughout its existence, Koinonia struggled with the communal structure. How should authority be distributed? How are resources allotted? Who assigns chores? To what extent do our views of Christianity have to be alike? Interestingly enough, communal living seemed to appeal to middle-class whites in greater numbers than it did to poor blacks who had little interest in voluntary poverty. No African American ever became a full-fledged member of the commune. By choice, they worked for salaries. Many lived at the farm; others worked there and lived elsewhere. Despite their failure to accomplish all they attempted, Koinonia in its early years was successful There were shortcomings. They were somewhat paternalistic in their attitudes toward uplifting blacks; they were mistaken in their naïve assumption that blacks would want to join them in complete koinonia defined by white values. But they broke tradition by eating and socializing with blacks, by going to their churches, by having them in their homes, by welcoming them at their front doors, and by treating them as much like brothers and sisters as they knew how. This would eventually drive a wedge between Koinonia and the local white community.

The white Koinonians had become active in the local Baptist church, Rehobeth, Harry Atkinson, a Koinonian was a Sunday School teacher, and, one morning in 1948 when a member of the class arrived driven by a black chauffeur, Atkinson invited the driver to stay for class. Rehobeth's members considered this an outrage and pressured the Koinonians to withdraw from the church. Atkinson and his wife did eventually resign, but the rest of the community refused to do so and found themselves banned from being deacons or Sunday School teachers.. A year or so later, some of the Koinonians showed up at church one Sunday morning with a man from India who was visiting the farm. Because of his dark skin, he was mistaken by the Rehobeth congregation for an African American. Subsequently, a resolution was adopted by church members accusing the Koinonians of "visiting black churches, holding interracial services, and publicly disagreeing with doctrine and practices of the church." "Therefore," the resolution read, "after much prayer and consideration, the church would withdraw fellowship and strike from the church rolls the names of all Koinonians."

After this, the Koinonians pulled inward somewhat and, because of trouble outside, tried to better define themselves inside the community. They more clearly defined the meaning of koinonia and went from an amorphous group to an organized structure, and, in doing so, set up some barriers between the races. During the early 50's they confined their activities to the farm, they didn't agitate for change, and they lived a somewhat uneasy but more-or-less peaceful existence with the local people. Then came 1954 and Brown vs. the Board of Education. The people around Americus at first accepted the Supreme Court ruling with relative calm, believing the decision to be unenforceable, but as they read of demonstrations and crises elsewhere in the south, their attitudes began to harden.

In 1956, Clarence Jordan was asked by an old friend to help two African-American students apply to the University of Georgia Business School because the University required the signatures of two alumni on an application. He at first refused because he was opposed to a legal action instigated for its own sake. He was eventually convinced that the two sincerely hoped to further their education by taking classes that were unavailable at the "Negro colleges." He went with the two prospective students to meet with the president of the business school at the University and, after being shuffled from office to office, frustrated, tried to return quietly to Americus. Instead, he found himself surrounded by reporters. Before he reached home, the governor had called the local sheriff to find out "who this Jordan fellow was." The local newspaper printed an inflammatory account of the incident. Almost immediately, local people responded with violence against Koinonia beginning with threatening phone calls, vandalism, and random gunfire. A long siege and struggle for survival began. Their roadside stand was dynamited. They rebuilt it, and again, it was blown to bits as was their refrigerated meat case. There were attacks on the residential part of the farm. Shots were fired into rooms where people were sleeping. A passerby fired into a volleyball game in the yard and sprinkled children with buckshot. Neighbors who had befriended Koinonia had their barns burned. Not only was there no help from local law enforcement, but they were accused of doing the violence themselves. In fact, when one member of the group was beaten up on the streets of Americus, he was charged with beating himself up in order to gain sympathy from passers-by. After residents' houses were strafed with machine-gun fire, they appealed to the FBI who reportedly established a connection between the shootings and the local National Guard, but nothing was ever done about it. Koinonians' only defense was to have their members do guard duty outside at night armed only with flashlights, which earned them a reprimand from the sheriff for bothering drivers.

When the level of physical attacks waned somewhat, legal harassment began. The county got an injunction to prevent them from holding their summer camp. They were charged with illegally operating a business which lodged and fed travelers. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation opened a grand jury investigation into supposed subversive activities. Members were called before the House Un-American Activities Committee and before Senator James O. Eastland's Senate Internal Security Subcommittee. No formal charges were ever brought against the group, but the grand jury released a report that was sufficient to convince the local people that Koinonia was, in fact, a communist front. The community tried to publish a rebuttal to the grand jury report, but the local paper refused to print it, so they wrote a detailed defense and mailed it to everyone in the Americus phone book - to no avail. Americus High School refused to admit, not only black, but white Koinonians.

Despite the energy and expense of fighting these legal attacks, Koinonia might have survived them, but they were simultaneously hit by a near-complete boycott of the farm. People stopped buying their eggs. Local merchants would not sell them the supplies which were essential to farming - fuel, seeds, fertilizer, feed. They had to slaughter their chickens because they couldn't feed them. Banks would no longer accept their business. Insurance companies canceled their policies. In order to maintain a cash flow, they started a pecan-processing business which they marketed by mail order, using the slogan, "Ship the nuts out of Georgia." When an out-of-town owner of a local feedstore decided to resume doing business with Koinonia, dynamite was thrown onto the sidewalk in front of the store, damaging several buildings, including a bank and the courthouse. Shortly thereafter, a delegation of Americus' leading citizens met with Koinonia and asked them to leave the area because of "concern for the safety of the 25,000 people of Sumter County". Jordan replied that they were not the ones doing the violence but suggested that everyone should make common cause to stop it. He proposed that an impartial panel be organized comprised of three members from among the civic leaders, three from Koinonia, and three from some outside group. This panel would hear the facts and decide whether Koinonia should leave. That proposal was rejected; the dialogue was ended. The stress, the fear, the economic hardship took its toll on the community. In 1956, there were had been sixty people living at Koinonia, about one-fourth of them black. By 1959, there were three white families.

As the violence against the farm became known, outside supporters were attracted. Volunteers came to replace lost workers. Cash donations were received as were loans from alternate sources. Through the 60's, Koinonia became a kind of magnet for various civil rights activists. People came and went, but tended to stay for short periods of time. The greater civil rights movement was a source of moral support to the Koinonians, but there was always a tension because the external community didn't ever fully understand Koinonia's mission.

Jordan took to writing and, in the early 60's wrote what came to be known as the "Cotton Patch Gospels," a translation of parts of the New Testament into a Georgia dialect set in contemporary rural Georgia.

The program at Koinonia continued to deteriorate and by 1968, Jordan was ready to leave the farm and considered giving it away when, by chance a wealthy businessman looking to change his life stopped by to visit a visitor. A friendship developed and together Millard Fuller and Clarence Jordan devised a new program called Koinonia Partners, which was basically a group of cooperatives which preserved their beliefs in sharing, interracialism, and nonviolence. Among these endeavors was a plan in which homes were to be built for poor families who would pay for the homes with low monthly payments which would be put back into the housing fund for the construction of additional homes.

One afternoon in late October of 1969, Clarence Jordan, not feeling well, retired to a small shack on the property to do some writing. It was there that he died of a heart attack. When Millard Fuller called for the coroner, he could not get anyone from the city of Americus or from the county to come to the farm; he was told to call an ambulance to bring the body into town. Knowing that Jordan would consider that a ridiculously unnecessary expense, Fuller put him in the car and drove to town where he endured a scolding for having moved the body and a several-hour wait for the coroner to pronounce that Clarence Jordan, at the age of 57 was, in fact, dead. He was driven back to the farm, placed in a box in which a refrigerator had been delivered, and buried in an unmarked grave on the property.

What had he accomplished? He didn't even live to see the completion of the first house built under his Fund for Humanity program. In fact, if you read Habitat for Humanity literature, you're more likely to see Millard Fuller's name than Clarence Jordan's. He was never able to achieve the community he envisioned. He had probably never fully understood how difficult it would be to bring about racial harmony. His skill in agriculture became useless during the boycotts and later somewhat irrelevant because of a changing economy. Agriculture became less important than agribusiness. Jordan was a man ahead of his time, believing in the importance of interracial community and, at the same time, an anachronism, failing to see the importance of legal and political action in this effort. He was scorned, accused of dreaming impossible dreams, of tilting at windmills, and of not understanding the culture in which he lived. That seems to be the way things work in quests for social justice. But, on the other hand, sometimes windmills really are giants, and sometimes wrongs which seem unrightable can at least be rendered less wrong.

Last week, Steve challenged this congregation to become more seriously involved in social action. If we were to do so, we'd need to heed the advice of Michael Lerner and let go of our attachment to the notion that we are failing unless we have already won. We'd need, as he says, to learn a lesson taught by the Quakers and Buddhists, namely, to be less focused on immediate outcomes and more focused on maintaining the integrity of our vision and on the lives we live in attending to that vision. I think that Clarence Jordan would say, "Get busy!"

Sources:

©2006 Judy Crocker

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article:
Crocker, Judith. 2006. Clarence Jordan and the Left Hand of God, http://www.uuquincy.org /talks/20061015.shtml (accessed December 14, 2018).

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