In the beginning was the idea of a community of Christian believers who would hold and share all goods in common. Biblically described in Acts 2:44-45, this community (in Greek, a koinonia and pronounced “coy-no-knee-ah”) harnessed both the fecund imagination and the fiery zeal of Clarence Jordan—a Bible-toting, Bible-quoting Southern Baptist Minister. Despite his trenchant sermons, his delivery came in a Southern drawl with pungent humor. Moreover, his text often derived from a Greek-language New Testament, a portion of which he translated over several years into a “Cotton Patch” version couched in rural, earthy language. Holding a master’s degree in theology and a doctorate in New Testament Greek, this model farmer was intent on knowing directly and thoroughly the original meaning of the written word.
To this communistic idea of common ownership with distribution according to need, Jordan brought the concept of do no harm, which had come to him in a circuitous but nonetheless dramatic fashion. Upon entering the University of Georgia’s agricultural college in 1929, Jordan’s goal was to acquire the necessary scientific knowledge to heal the land. By graduation, he expected to be awarded not only his baccalaureate but also his Army commission as a reserve 2nd Lt. in the Cavalry. However, during field exercises the summer before graduation, Jordan experienced his own somersaulting epiphany. While on horseback, one hand gripping a pistol for plugging cardboard dummies with the other brandishing a saber for stabbing the straw ones, Jordan confronted the grave incompatibility of preparing to kill one’s enemies with his Lord’s teaching to love even one’s enemies.
Dismounting quickly, Jordan reported to the field commander that he no longer sought the military commission. When that officer suggested a chaplaincy as a palatable compromise, Jordan simply replied that he could not encourage anyone to do what he himself would not. Thus, the seeds of pacifism and non-violence were planted into his consciousness. (Their subsequent fruit blossomed into a welcome for conscientious objectors, opposition to the draft, and Jordan’s unwillingness to join the massive civil rights demonstrations because such protests in themselves incited violence.)
The idea of koinonia acquired form quickly when Clarence and his wife Florence were joined in 1941 by a like-minded couple—Martin and Mabel England. On leave from Burma, these American Baptist Missionaries shared the Jordans’ passion to establish a demonstration plot for godly, community living.
By the summer of 1942, the two couples had incorporated Koinonia Farm. Begun on 440 acres of poor red dirt near the plain city of Americus, nine miles from former President Carter’s hometown of Plains, Georgia, the community bravely espoused sharing, non-violence, and respect for all, including the land. That fervent respect for land has nourished Koinonia’s farming and borne its own fruit in the community’s organic and biological practices.
Despite its non-confrontational and quiet ways, Koinonia really was a witness to a different way to work and live. During the 1950’s, particularly after the U.S. Supreme Court’s repudiation of school segregation, its witness to this difference incited some neighbors and other opponents to systematic violence. Night-riders and the Ku Klux Klan sought to intimidate. Bullets and bombs were used routinely, all in the vehement yet vain attempt to persuade this community to leave. Although one promising alternative farm site was found in New Jersey (should Koinonia be forced to relocate), further exploration revealed that people there also opposed a community where black and white folks lived together.
By the mid 1950’s Koinonia routinely stationed its unarmed members and willing visitors in night-watch cars to discourage attacks by flares and fires. The Catholic Worker’s doughty editor, Dorothy Day, one night met the depth of hostility. That night, while seated in a watch car, a rifle bullet ripped through the car’s hood, ricocheted off its steering wheel, and fell flat at her feet. Although the air was cool, she refused the offer of a coat to quell her trembling chill, remarking “That ain’t cold, baby, that’s scared.” In the face of ostracism and brutality, Koinonia held steady to peace and patience, to forgiveness, and to a shared life in scorn of the consequences.
On one occasion, the hostile measures against Koinonia prompted a novel counter-measure that has proven successful, and nearly indispensable for economic stability, for more than 60 years. Following two bombings that destroyed its roadside markets, in 1957 local enemies began a business boycott that denied Koinonia agricultural supplies and sought to prevent the farm from selling any of its produce or products. In swift response, Koinonia inaugurated a mail-order campaign under Jordan’s appeal “to help us ship the nuts out of Georgia.” Its success in selling Georgia pecans and peanuts at that turning point was immediate and phenomenal. Even today, sales by mail, phone, and on-line provide the community’s main source of income.
When Koinonia counts its blessings, the list of long-term, faithful friends spans the decades. In the earliest years, egg production was important. Learning that Koinonia’s practices paralleled those of his own Mennonite community, one Virginia poultryman sent a brood of chicks. Later, filling the desperate need for experienced farm managers, Joe Maendel—a stout Hutterite with long beard, heavy German accent, and baggy pants—stayed on many occasions and kept in smooth operation both farm hands and farm equipment.
Koinonia’s requests for money to buy land and build affordable homes were answered by many on its 12,000 person mailing list. When its property insurance was cancelled, risking violation of its mortgage, 2,000 friends pledged to fund an insurance guarantee of $50 a donor.
Each outreach built upon some earlier, similar effort. In September of 1976, during a two-day meeting in the back end of Koinonia’s fruit cake and candy kitchen, Millard Fuller, Don Mosley (then Koinonia’s director), and other impromptu chefs “cooked up” the recipe for what was to become Habitat for Humanity. Its colossal success in providing decent housing to 22 million people was built upon Koinonia’s ventures into partnership housing and a Fund for Humanity. In turn, the Fuller Center for Housing (today active in the U.S.A. and in 16 other countries) held its 2005 inaugural meeting at Koinonia with a commitment to be “faith-driven and Christ-centered.”
Beyond institutions and organizations is the fragrant fruit of Koinonia’s fostering other communities of faith. In the spring of 1979, three Koinonia couples (the Karises, Mosleys, and Weirs) left Koinonia’s secure plot in South Georgia to journey to North Georgia’s frontier. There, near the small town of Comer, they pitched their tents and waited for God.
During nearly two years of seeking direction, these couples prayed and studied scripture. The themes of peace and justice, particularly those found in Isaiah, intrigued them. They recalled vividly Jesus’ endorsement of the ancient Jubilee as recorded in Luke 4:16-30. There, in Nazareth’s synagogue, the Christ read Isaiah’s passage and announced that the Spirit of the Lord had anointed him. He was to preach; to heal; and to set at liberty the oppressed. Upon reflection, the concept of a Jubilee—a time of recovery, renewal, and restoration—married wholesomely with Clarence’s own concept of partnering with God immediately and universally.
Possibly their temporary shelter, as well as its flies, mosquitoes, and heat waves, contributed to their recognition that many of God’s children were destitute and fearful. These children of our Spiritual Father were not simply bothered or inconvenienced. They had neither food, shelter, nor safety! So many were refugees, beset and beleaguered by gang violence, ethnic cleansings, and tribal warfare. Why not partner with God and help bring about a Jubilee to them?
They imagined the joy that would be their own as well as the joy they might share with them. Calling their community “Jubilee Partners,” they sought to welcome immigrants from war zones around the world; to teach them a language and urban skills. To date, Jubilee Partners has helped relocate more than 4,000 refugees.
Eight years later, Ed and Mary Ruth Weir answered a calling to provide hospitality to the families of death row prisoners as well as to protest the death penalty and executions. Leaving Northeast Georgia, they relocated in 1988 to an area south of Atlanta near the Georgia Diagnostic and Classification Prison and there planted their witness, naming it “New Hope House.” Because Ed had worked for the National Security Agency and Mary Ruth for the C.I.A., few observers doubted their hard-headed realism or their heart-pounding love for all creatures— black or white, big or small.
Koinonia was founded in 1942. Clarence Jordan died in 1969. How is it that his vision is alive one-half century after his death, and what’s the explanation for Koinonia’s achieving this year its 77th anniversary? In the early years, healing the eroded land led to the planting of pecan trees, next the harvesting and sales of their fruit. As Koinonia matured, it birthed partnerships for local and international housing, for refugees, and for the imprisoned. Today, Koinonia’s retreats, spiritual workshops, and internships invite all who wish to experience the vibrant and wholesome challenge of living together in one of God’s demonstration plots.
Once Jordan was asked whether he deemed Koinonia a success. He replied that, in his opinion, God was less concerned with success than with faithfulness.
Once the apostle Philip declared to Nathanael that he had found the Messiah. In reply, Nathanael warily asked whether anything good could come from Nazareth. Now, those who are acquainted only with the mean racism and bitter violence directed against Koinonia in past years also might wonder whether anything good could come out of Georgia.
A Messiah from Nazareth? His loyal, humble minister from Georgia? The first they crucified. The second they ignored even in his death.
Still, the proof of the truth announced by the Messiah and evinced by his minister is found in Koinonia’s fertile faithfulness. To erase Nathanael’s doubt, Philip merely replied, “Come and see.” And that remains Koinonia’s invite. Y’all, come! All of you. Come and witness the fertile fruit of faithfulness. Come partner with our community. Share with us God’s abundant, unending blessings.
For more information about Koinonia Farm, please visit the website (www.koinoniafarm.org).