Habitat’s 30 years of delivering ‘sermons you can see’

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DURHAM HERALD SUN - By Editor Bob Ashley. In 1985, Joe Harvard was only a few years into what would be a distinguished three-decade tenure leading Durham’s First Presbyterian Church.

The young pastor already was deeply involved in social ministry, and was part of the Durham Congregations in Action group who with others in the would join an effort spanning the globe to help people high on hope but low on assets become homeowners.

“"The Habitat train is leaving the station. If you want to join us, you better get on board,” Harvard said then – a remark recalled this past Tuesday when Habitat for Humanity Durham celebrated its 30th year.

It has much to celebrate.

In those 30 years, Durham Habitat has built more than 330 houses. That has meant, as Mel Williams, another retired pastor who has made an indelible mark in this community, told hundreds of Habitat volunteers, homeowners and supporters gathered at America Tobacco’s Bay 7, “affordable, decent housing for hundreds of families.”

I’m pleased that in recent months, we’ve been able to help Durham Habitat share parts of their story every month through an article in The Durham Herald section that appears on Sundays. As it happens, you can read in today’s section about some dedicated volunteers who help drive Habitat’s mission.

It is, Tuesday’s high-energy presentation made clear, an organization entering its fourth decade with a full head of steam. The audience heard heart-tugging stories from children whose young lives have been transformed by having a home of their own. Proud homeowners told of their thrill at being accepted for a Habitat home, and the excitement and sense of community and accomplishment that came from helping build it. “Sweat equity,” the contribution of 200-plus hours of labor by the homeowners-to-be, is a key part of the Habitat model.

And volunteers told of being touched by their involvement, of experiencing their own gratitude at being part of the mission to, as Executive Director Blake Strayhorn put it, “build houses, hope and community.”

As an aside, as someone who has been involved with historic preservation efforts here, I’ve found it encouraging to see Durham’s Habitat embrace, as Strayhorn said, “rehabbing older homes and preserving Durham’s rich history.”

Habitat has put particular focus on North East Central Durham, where a host of groups are trying to bring new hope to a long-challenged portion of the city. Strayhorn recalled hearing a resident say, “When Habitat comes into a neighborhood, you know it’s going to change.”

Since DCIA helped birth Habitat here in 1985, the faith community has been an integral part of the organization’s work. It is a true manifestation of any church’s, any denomination’s commitment to social stewardship.

Williams, who retired after decades as pastor of Watts Street Baptist Church and who still brings the passion of the pulpit to a podium, made that point neatly Tuesday. Williams recalled a remark from his mother, who once said “I’ve listened to sermons all my life and don’t remember one of them.”

He’d set the stage for that recollection by telling the audience, “A Habitat house is a sermon you can see.”

Habitat has helped us see hundreds of those sermons, and the enthusiasm and generosity on display Tuesday morning assures us we’ll see hundreds more. It is quite a sight.

(Joe Harvard is co-author of a guest column on our editorial page today, by the way.)

Habitat Success Stories

Martha partnered with North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church to build and purchase a Habitat home for her and her two sons in East Durham. "God's got a plan," Martha said. "His timing is perfect."