Saturday, November 14, 2009

Not the Same River

Like most people, I suffer from mild travel anxiety. So when I woke up this morning at about four o’clock, knowing that I had a twenty-four-hour flight to Chiang Mai ahead of me, I had a little trouble getting back to sleep. As I flipped and flopped, I got to thinking about something I had read on the Internet the night before.

A Google News Alert had tipped me off to a blog post relating to my new book, If I Had a Hammer. Its author wondered why I hadn’t recounted any negative experiences people have had with Habitat for Humanity. Surely I must have heard of some.

The truth is, I heard fewer complaints than one might think; and of those I did hear, nearly all went like this: I called up the local affiliate several times to volunteer and never got a call back. Whether the snub was due to ineptness or cliquishness—I’ve heard stories of both—or whether it was simply the result of a lack of follow-through on the part of overworked volutneers, the experience was, I’m sure, unpleasant and frustrating. I’ve made several offers myself over the years to local nonprofits, only to be similarly rebuffed, so I know how it feels.

But are such complaints a fair criticism of Habitat for Humanity International? And, more importantly to me, should I have included those stories in my book? I had, of course, thought about these questions before; but the blog post made me think about them again.

The most important thing to understand about the way Habitat works is that it’s highly decentralized. With few exceptions, volunteers have little direct contact with the international headquarters in Americus, Georgia. Instead, they work with locally chartered affiliates that raise and control their own money, make their own decisions, and create their own group cultures. Some of these cultures are, regrettably, less welcoming than others.

I chose not to include the occasional griping about local affiliates in my book because I think there is a distinction to be made between the ideas espoused by Habitat and the ways in which those ideas are sometimes applied (or ignored). Human nature being what it is—imperfect—there can hardly be good without blemishes. Is this a reality worth noting? I didn’t think so.

What I really wanted to write about was the wisdom and cleverness of the mechanism—what President Carter calls a bridge—that Millard Fuller and Clarence Jordan created four decades ago. Fuller and Jordan actually figured out a way to channel people’s natural aspirations into productive activity—and I’m not merely speaking of the partner families here. Fuller and Jordan believed—with good reason, I think—that the path to personal redemption for all people lies in making some meaningful connection to other humans.

So what if a few of the twenty-three hundred Habitat affiliates aren’t run as well as they could be? It seems to me that the important lesson to teach our children isn’t that great ideas don’t always produce great results; rather, it’s that great ideas sometimes do transform people’s lives—a lot of people’s lives.

Among my favorite Bob Dylan lyrics is the last verse of “Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again.” (That’s the song with the chorus, “Aw, mama, can this really be the end?”) It goes, “And here I sit so patiently, waiting to find out what price you have to pay to get out of going through all these things twice.” Yes, it’s a cynical refrain. But now as I sit here on this Korean Air Lines 777 atop the world on my way to my first Habitat build, Mr. Zimmerman isn’t speaking to me quite so strongly. Instead, I hear Mao Zedong talking about rivers. You never step in the same one twice, he said.

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