By GRETCHEN KEISER, Staff Writer | Published August 30, 2012
At a Habitat build, the person in jeans hammering next to you on Saturday could be a CEO, a single mother who helped construct her own Habitat home years ago and now is helping the next person, or the family who will soon live there, putting in their sweat equity.
Last Saturday, it could have been Father Larry Snyder.
Wearing a hard hat, the president of Catholic Charities USA spent Aug. 25 with volunteers from metro Catholic and Presbyterian churches, raising the first wall for a new Habitat house being built in southwest Atlanta. The Cathedral of Christ the King, Our Lady of Lourdes and St. Anthony of Padua parishes, along with Decatur Presbyterian Church, are sponsoring the build, providing the funds and dozens of volunteers. Funds are also coming from two foundations.
Against this backdrop, which marked the start of Habitat Atlanta’s 27th home this year, Father Snyder presented the international Christian nonprofit home-building group with one of the Centennial Awards of Catholic Charities USA, recognizing the impact of Habitat in reducing poverty and homelessness. Catholic Charities USA marked its 100th anniversary in 2010.
“When we started planning how we could celebrate our centennial … we came up with this idea of presenting 100 Centennial Medals to people and organizations who have really labored to improve the lot of so many people who are marginalized. One we felt certainly had to be recognized was Habitat for Humanity,” Father Snyder said Aug. 24.
“When you look at the poor … housing and education are two things without which the poor cannot get out of poverty,” he said.
Based in Americus, Ga., Habitat has built over 500,000 homes worldwide for the working poor.
“That is an amazing number. It is not just in the United States, it is global,” he said.
The award also salutes Habitat’s model of operation, which draws on community volunteers to help build affordable homes for the working poor and thereby makes possible Habitat’s no-interest mortgages to families selected for the homes, who also help build their home and receive mentoring and support to succeed in home ownership.
The Atlanta build “is a very appropriate time to give (the medal),” Father Snyder said.
“Four or more organizations … are coming together to build a house. What a great time to recognize (Habitat). They really engage and mobilize local parishes to be a part of the solution here. That is wonderful to recognize and salute,” he said.
Andrew Johnson, who coordinates faith-based Habitat builds in Atlanta, said religious congregations make a significant contribution to how many homes Habitat constructs.
“The faith-based builds are huge,” Johnson said. “Probably 30 percent of our builds are faith-based builds.”
If congregations sponsor a build, they raise $55,000, as well as bring the workers. Many faiths do this, Johnson said.
“It takes a lot more congregations than it does corporations to fund a build. We have a little over 50 congregations right now that are helping to sponsor this year and we have a ton that come and volunteer. That’s Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu,” he said.
The four churches on this build cooperated to raise the funds among their congregations. They commit to sending 10 or more volunteers for seven Saturdays in a row. The parishes each see Habitat as a dynamic opportunity to serve others, their neighbors needing a hand. They also point out ways the congregations themselves are enriched, too.
Father Morrow Is Chaplain For Cathedral Builders
Bernadette Flowers, of the Cathedral of Christ the King, said Habitat “is probably our most popular ministry. … We get a lot of people who volunteer at every build.”
This is their 10th build, and regulars include 83-year-old Father Richard Morrow, who “blesses those who come out” every Saturday morning over seven weeks, has coffee and doughnuts for them, and usually is the priest who offers the house blessing on dedication day.
“He is almost like a chaplain in a sense to the whole process for us. He really loves it,” she said.
One aspect she’s noticed is how Habitat projects appeal to people new to the church or returning to their faith.
“It gives people an opportunity to ease back in. Father Morrow … makes it possible for people to feel comfortable with the parish and with the church, especially if they have been away. From there they may go to reconciliation or adoration. … We’ve seen that happen time and time again,” Flowers said.
One parish group, the Sweet Saints, brings homemade desserts, and the Hispanic ministry brings lunches to the job site. Colleen Joyce coordinates the ministry, and Joanne Love organizes the lunches.
The parish used to do a house alone but now coordinates and builds with other churches, Flowers said.
“I love the fact that we have had some folks who have gotten so involved in Habitat that they are now skilled supervisors for Habitat. Not only have they given to our parish, but they are helping to spread it out there,” Flowers said, because they can supervise builds done by other groups.
“You can give outside of the four walls of your parish. … It makes Christ truly present,” Flowers said. “We are known for Eucharistic adoration and for belief in the true presence of Christ. His presence in his people who are out there serving is true testimony to the belief we have.”
Mary Jane Cooper, a realtor in metro Atlanta for the last 20 years, coordinates the Habitat ministry at Our Lady of Lourdes Church. The parish has built approximately 15 Habitat homes over the years, she said, while she became involved more recently.
“This project is so close to my industry. I am totally committed to it,” Cooper said. “You get to work side by side with the future homeowner as they put in their sweat equity. It can be a challenge pulling all the volunteers together, raising the money. … It is a great project and we at Lourdes are totally committed to it.”
It’s a ministry where older teenagers, 16 and up, can help build, Cooper said. She’s also engaged younger preteens in making and bringing lunch to the site. “It gets them involved. It gives them something to look forward to” when they are older and can work in construction, she said.
She Received A Home, Now She Builds
Alphonsine Mfwamba, her ministry co-chair, knows the value of a Habitat home firsthand. She is a Habitat recipient since 2003 when, newly arrived in Atlanta from the Congo, and speaking French, she came to Lourdes for church and heard about the Habitat program. A mother, with six children, she applied and was chosen.
“For me, the program is really a very, very good program,” she said. “It is a very good thing for the community to build a home for someone else for free. It gives something very important.”
Now she organizes and attends Habitat builds.
“I do the best I can to help people join the program,” she said. “We finish this house, we begin another.”
She describes how the family themselves make the Habitat house their home. When she first moved in and it rained, the yard was “like a lake.”
“I began to put the dirt, the wood chips, every day, slow, step by step. I covered all the yard. I plant the flowers, I plant the grass and now my yard is one of the best,” she said.
“Even the people of Habitat say that it is really extraordinary, a big change,” she said.
“It is a gift of God,” she said.
Over 40 St. Anthony of Padua parishioners have signed up to participate in the build, according to Candis Hunter, parish coordinator. This is their first Habitat project since the early 1990s when, under the leadership of Doug and Melba Paschal, St. Anthony’s partnered with other parishes to build six Habitat homes. Msgr. Hugh Marren was pastor then.
Being involved in Habitat has come out of parish social justice study and reflection, Hunter said.
In 2009, the parish outreach ministry chair, Sybil Robinson, received a Catholic Campaign for Human Development parish grant to engage parishioners in the “JustFaith” program.
In 2011, the graduates brainstormed about more parish outreach opportunities to serve, using the principle of solidarity as the primary focus and found Habitat’s build project an opportunity “to carry out our baptismal call,” Robinson said.
“There’s so many different ways to utilize our gifts to serve others—financially through donations, physically by helping build the house, cooking lunches for volunteers, praying for the homeowners,” Hunter said by email.
“It was through God’s grace that my husband and I became homeowners about a year ago, and we’re so excited to help another family achieve their dream of homeownership,” Hunter said.