Happy Birthday, Clarence!

July 29, 2012

One hundred years ago today, Clarence Jordan entered the world. A white Southern Baptist minister-farmer, Jordan founded an interracial farming community in 1942 in southwest Georgia--the very type of act that could get someone lynched in the Jim Crow Deep South. The Ku Klux Klan and other segregationists nearly responded that way. In the late 1950s, the community found its itself besieged by violence, including machine-gun fire, dynamite blasts, arson, vandalism, and burning crosses. Martin Luther King, Jr., who called Jordan "my friend, my mentor, and my inspiration," invited Jordan to speak at his church. Similarly, former President Jimmy Carter, who grew up just seven miles from Koinonia Farm, praised Jordan's "compassionate, strong, and unwaveringly prophetic voice." Jordan also inspired the likes of former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Catholic activist Dorothy Day, folk rock singer Harry Chapin, and Habitat for Humanity founder Millard Fuller. Fuller based the home-building organization on a pilot program Jordan and Fuller started at Koinonia before Jordan's death. That's quite an impressive ensemble for a Baptist preacher excommunicated from his own church and who spent his life on his hands and feet in the dirt instead of safely behind a pulpit. In addition to leading the besieged community to withstand the bone-rattling attacks and nearly-crippling economic boycotts, Jordan used his Ph.D. in Greek to translate nearly the entire New Testament into what he called the Cotton Patch Gospel. The story recasts the biblical tale of Jesus, situating him as a white preacher in Georgia during the middle of the 20th Century, thus transforming the biblical tales into something less distant and safe. No national memorial celebrates his work--and even his grave is unmarked as he wished to humbly exit the world--but his legacy and words remain timely and needed in our society. Habitat for Humanity released a video to celebrate the centennial of Jordan's birth. Koinonia's July newsletter offers some thoughts on the occasion (including a particularly fun piece by Jordan's son, Lenny), as does activist Shane Claiborne on the "Red Letter Christians" site. Claiborne, Carter, and many others will speak at an event celebrating Jordan in September. Hopefully all of the celebrations will lead more people to consider the work and words of Jordan.