The enduring influence of Clarence Jordan
By Sam Hodges, Managing Editor, United Methodist Reporter
What were the odds that a white Southern Baptist preacher would start an interracial Christian community in the rural South in 1942, long before federal court decisions and legislation began to dismantle legal segregation?
Throw in that this preacher would be openly pacifist, right in the middle of World War II, and the prospect seems even more far-fetched.
But this happened. The Rev. Clarence Jordan and his wife, Florence, and a Baptist missionary couple, Martin and Mabel England, established Koinonia Farm—named for a Greek word for “fellowship”—on eroded, red-dirt acreage near Americus, Ga.
The Englands would soon move on to other civil rights work, but the Jordans stuck it out for more than two decades, enduring frequent gunshots and a near-crushing economic boycott from local people who wanted them gone.
Clarence Jordan, who died of a heart attack at the farm in 1969, would become known for his sermons, his colloquial “Cotton Patch” translations of the New Testament and especially for an uncompromising faith, encompassing not only a life-threatening commitment to racial equality but also to pacifism and living simply in community, sharing meals and meager material goods.
“He took the Bible seriously,” said the Rev. James Howell of Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, N.C., one of the many United Methodists today who consider Jordan a hero of contemporary Christianity.
The 70th anniversary of the founding of Koinonia—which continues as a Christian community and pecan farm—will be observed through the fall, beginning with a Clarence Jordan Symposium on Sept. 28-29, in Americus.
Speakers will include former President Jimmy Carter and Shane Claiborne, author of the The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical, and one of the founders of The Simple Way, a Christian community in Philadelphia.
Jordan grew up in Talbotton, Ga., where even as a boy he began to question how church-going folks could square the gospel with segregation. He would go on to study agriculture at the University of Georgia. Then, feeling a call to ministry, he enrolled at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he earned a Ph.D. in New Testament Greek.
The chance to live out his deepening commitment to racial reconciliation—and to try his hand at farming—led to the Koinonia Farm experiment. It was never large, and financial problems were chronic after a local boycott made selling their products and buying supplies a serious challenge. (The farm’s mail-order pecan products business began as a strategy to thwart the boycott.)
As tensions in the region intensified during the civil rights movement, Koinonia became subject to random shootings that authorities did little to investigate or even discourage. The boycott, too, owed to the community’s commitment to integration. But Jordan, who argued that fear was the great obstacle to authentic Christian faith, persisted with Koinonia and with broader efforts to promote racial justice.
Among his Methodist friends in the cause was the Rev. Ashton Jones, who was jailed after attempting to integrate the First Baptist Church of Atlanta with an interracial group. Jordan drafted an open letter to the church, which is in the archives of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta.
“By so convicting him, you have put him in the company of the Galilean Disturber, whom you worship,” Jordan acidly wrote. “It is reported that he went into the Temple in the capital city, over-turned some church furniture and drove out those members who thought they had the right to worship Mammon in the house of God. Ashton Jones wasn’t quite that rude, but of course he got a lighter sentence.”
Jordan himself joined interracial groups trying to gain admission to local white churches. And on one occasion Methodists were the ones blocking the way.
“He had accompanied an integrated group from Koinonia to the First Methodist Church of Americus in August (1969), wrote Dallas Lee in his book The Cotton Patch Evidence. “They were blocked from entering the service, and for once Clarence was virtually mute with anger and disappointment.”
In a tiny frame shack at Koinonia, Clarence Jordan wrote sermons and did his Cotton Patch translations. He died there on Oct. 29, 1969, at age 57, a couple of months after the refusal at the Methodist church.
Jordan was a sought-after speaker for churches and other audiences with a social-justice focus, and his friends included King and Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. But Jordan was hardly a household name, and it was reasonable to assume that he would, after his death, become a footnote in Southern religious history.
But among those who came to Koinonia in Jordan’s last years was Millard Fuller. Fuller—a wunderkind businessman who gave away his wealth in committing to a life of Christian service—joined Jordan in establishing a housing ministry in their area. Fuller kept going with the idea after Jordan’s death. In 1976, he and his wife, Linda, founded Habitat for Humanity, and later would start the Fuller Center for Housing.
Habitat alone has built more than 500,000 houses, serving 2.5 million people.
The Jordan/Koinonia influence also has persisted through his writings (the Cotton Patch translations inspired a popular musical) and can be seen in the growth of intentional Christian communities, based on a commitment to simple living and community service.
“I regularly have students read Clarence Jordan’s work,” said Elaine Heath, a professor at Perkins School of Theology and director of its Center for Missional Wisdom. “He is part of our inspiration for New Day and the Epworth Project, the two networks of new monastic communities that I started in Dallas/Fort Worth.”
Though Koinonia itself has operated uninterrupted since Jordan’s era, it eventually wandered from his vision, becoming a more typical nonprofit. In recent years, though, under director Bren Dubay, it has again become an intentional Christian community.
That led Lenny Jordan, who grew up at Koinonia as one of the children of Clarence and Florence Jordan, to agree to chair the anniversary celebration.
“Koinonia is back on a course that would make Daddy feel right at home,” he wrote in the Koinonia Farm Chronicle newsletter.
Both Clarence and Florence Jordan would be 100 this year. There will no doubt be plenty of praise for them at the anniversary observance, but also some grappling with the challenge of Clarence Jordan’s message and example.
“The life, the crucifixion, and the resurrection of Jesus is one package,” he wrote in a sermon titled “The Substance of Faith.” “I think the weakness of liberalism today is that it accepts the life of Jesus, but shuns the inevitable consequences of the Jesus Life, which is crucifixion, and is thereby denied the power of the resurrection.
“When we are given assurance that this Jesus and the kind of life that he lived cannot be put out, that the light is still shining in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it, then we are freed from our fear. Then we can give ourselves to this God and say ‘Let all that we have go, even this mortal life also.’”
For information on Koinonia Farm and its 70th anniversary observance, see www.koinonia2012celebration.org.