Persecuted from 1943 to 1957, in Georgia, United States
“Rev. Clarence L. Jordan Dead; Led Interracial Farm Project,” reads a brief obituary in the New York Times of October 31, 1969. The article lists the customary details of birth, marriage, family, and death. Less usual are the clipped mentions of his work, including the farm project alluded to in the title, with references to a Southern vernacular translation of the Bible and an agricultural religious community practicing Christian brotherhood.
Between those few lines lies a remarkable story of faith and persecution. Clarence was born July 29, 1912, to prominent white citizens of Talbotton, Georgia. The American South of his youth was one of racial segregation and prejudice. Even as a boy, Clarence was sensitive to the rampant hypocrisy evidenced by such injustices, particularly when they intersected religion in Bible-belt Georgia.
At age twelve, Clarence joined a local church after a summer revival. But during Sunday school he wondered why, if their song – “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight; Jesus loves the little children of the world” – was true, all the little black children in his neighborhood were treated so poorly.
As a boy, Clarence’s bedroom window looked out on the Talbot County Jail, only a hundred yards off. Coming home from school, he would stop by the prison yard, where he befriended the cook and the chain gang workers. From them, he learned about “the stretcher,” a frame used to fasten a man’s feet to the floor while his arms were pulled toward the ceiling by a block and tackle. It was a torture used almost exclusively on black men.
New at the church, Clarence listened one evening as the prison warden, a bass in the choir, regaled the congregation with “Love Lifted Me.” That night Clarence was woken by moans of suffering from the prison. “He knew not only who was on the stretcher,” commented a biographer, “but who was pulling the ropes – the same man who only hours before had sung his heart out to God. ‘That nearly tore me to pieces,’ Clarence reflected years later.”
Nonviolence and the radical sharing of resources were not likely to lead to an easy life for a Christian in the South.
In 1929, hoping to improve farming techniques for poor sharecroppers, Clarence enrolled at the University of Georgia’s College of Agriculture. He joined the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) and went through several years of military training. But in the summer of 1933, days away from earning his commission, he came to a crisis of conscience during a training event. With pistol and saber in hand, he charged on horseback through the Georgia forest, hacking and shooting at training dummies. As he rode, Christ’s words from the Sermon on the Mount, which Clarence had been memorizing, haunted him: “But I say to you, love your enemies . . .” He dismounted, approached the officer in charge, and resigned his commission.
By this time, Clarence had come to feel that spiritual poverty was as pressing an issue as economic poverty. He decided to enroll in the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kentucky. During his studies, he fell in love with his future wife, Florence. He warned her that she shouldn’t marry him if she “wanted to be the wife of an important preacher at a First Baptist Church.” The warning, which proved well warranted, did not dissuade her.
After Clarence’s graduation and the couple’s marriage in 1936, their concern for racial justice and radical Christian living continued to deepen. Clarence served inner-city congregations, began teaching New Testament at Simmons University (an African-American seminary in Louisville), served a Baptist mission association, and, with his flair for language, received a doctorate in New Testament Greek at the age of twenty-six. He was always ready to discuss his passions – especially nonviolence and the radical sharing of resources – none of which were likely to lead to an easy life for a Christian in the South.
In 1941 Clarence met former missionary Martin England, a man who shared many of his convictions. They began dreaming together, combining deep concern over the agricultural crisis following the Great Depression with the belief that the Sermon on the Mount could be a guide for practical life, not merely an unattainable ideal. With a great deal of faith, though few resources, the two began searching for land. A few miles southwest of Americus, Georgia, they found the acreage that was to become Koinonia Farm, koinonia being the Greek word used in Acts to refer to the earliest gatherings of Christians. The property consisted of 440 acres of bleak land, eroded and ugly. The farmhouse was uninhabitable. “This is it,” Clarence announced after a thorough inspection.
After acquiring funds for the down payment for Koinonia, through a well-timed gift of the precise amount they lacked, the Jordan and England families began the backbreaking process of building their vision. The farm’s outbuildings sagged and the fences were down. The dilapidated farmhouse was in such disrepair that after a new chicken coop was built, Florence expressed her desire to move into it rather than the house.
While Clarence and Martin did the much-needed repairs, their families stayed elsewhere until the farmhouse was, in Florence’s words, “at least campable.” During this time they carefully observed neighbors to pick up on local farming techniques, and, in one of the first in a series of bold moves against the entrenched segregation of the area, brought in a local sharecropper as hired help. They ate their meals together, white and black – a practice which didn’t escape the notice of the locals.
“White men could disappear, just like black men. It scared us, but the alternative was not to do it, and that scared us more.”
News got around. One evening, the farm was visited by the Ku Klux Klan. “We don’t allow the sun to set on anybody who eats with niggers,” their leader said. Sunset was approaching. Clarence looked at it and thought fast. Then, with the humor that diffused so many other tense interactions throughout his ministry, he shook the man’s hand vigorously. “Why, I’m a Baptist preacher,” he said. “I’ve heard about people who had power over the sun, but I never hoped to meet one.” The man began laughing. The sun set without incident.
Speaking years later of the dangers he faced at this time, Clarence didn’t downplay the risks involved. “We knew white men could disappear, just like black men. It scared us, but the alternative was not to do it, and that scared us more.”
The farm was beginning to be successful. Poultry and eggs became a profitable venture for Koinonia, and Clarence shared his knowledge of production with other farmers eager to establish thriving flocks. He put his innovator’s mind to work designing the first mobile peanut harvester. A lending “cow library” ensured that locals in need of milk could borrow an animal at no cost.
The once-bare acreage was becoming fruitful, and the farm grew. But Koinonia quickly became known for much more than produce. It became a haven for diverse people – from conscientious objectors seeking a positive alternative to war as World War II dragged on, to local black neighbors who found not just sympathetic white people running the farm, but people willing to shake their hand, share a table, and live with them as family.
As the months passed by, the farm’s radical values of peacemaking, shared resources, and love for all people proved to have founded an effective working community. But the growth – and the fact that the farm wasn’t merely drying up and blowing away, as some had hoped it would – brought even fiercer opposition.
Rehoboth Baptist Church, home to several members of Koinonia, made it clear (after the Koinonia folks brought a dark-skinned student from India to a worship service) that farm members were no longer welcome. Clarence handed a Bible to a deacon in the church delegation sent to inform him of this decision, and offered to apologize to the church if the deacon could point out the offense. The deacon flung it down. “Don’t give me any of this Bible stuff!”
“I’m asking you to give it to me,” Clarence said. The meeting didn’t end pleasantly. Later, an old Rehoboth deacon asked Clarence to forgive him for his vote to ban Koinonia’s members from their church. Clarence forgave him, urged him to stay at Rehoboth, and exulted later that the man was a “divine irritant” in the church until he died.
“We knew we wouldn’t be the first Christians to die,” said Florence, “and we wouldn’t be the last.”
By 1952 the farm was supporting forty-one people, twenty-two of them children. In 1954, the desegregation of schools caused profound turmoil in the South, heightening already simmering racial tensions and bringing overt persecution from white groups toward the little community, starting with threatening phone calls and letters. By 1956 Koinonia’s enemies had turned to destruction of key machinery and crops, and eventually outright violence. At the county level, officials used political leverage to put a stop to the farm’s summer camp for black and white inner-city children. The solicitor general called for “the right kind of Klan to start up again and use a buggy whip on some of these race mixers.” Koinonia was the clear target of his hatred.
Koinonia’s roadside market was dynamited. A few days after the bombing, Koinonia Farm published an open letter in the newspaper, outlining their principles of nonviolence and inviting visitors to come to the farm. By way of reply, the local community boycotted them, refusing to buy any products or sell them goods. It was a tremendous blow. Then, the night after Christmas, a bullet shattered the farm’s gas pump. On New Year’s Day the perpetrators shot directly at the houses. For a week and a half the community wrestled with the question of whether to leave or stay. In spite of the danger and the urging of friends to abandon the operation, they decided to stay. “We knew we wouldn’t be the first Christians to die,” said Florence, “and we wouldn’t be the last.”
The deep faith reflected in this decision did not come without struggle. In a letter written in 1959, Clarence outlined the battle to love in spite of the tremendous opposition. He told a friend what he had felt on seeing the bombed roadside market:
We could see the fiery glow, and this ignited a burning in my heart. I was scorched with anger, and I’m sure if I had known who had committed the act, there would have been considerable hatred in my heart. . . . The culprits have destroyed our property, I thought. And I hated their guts. Later I had the same reaction when various ones, including myself and my children, were shot at. The so-and-so’s were trying to take our lives from us! The solution to this soul-destroying condition came only upon the recognition that neither property nor lives were ours but God’s. They had never really been ours in any sense of the word. . . . And if this was how he wanted to spend his property and his people in order to accomplish his purposes, why should we pitch a tantrum?
There were other reasons to stay. Clarence spoke of the redemptive power of nursing health back into abused soil, and the pleasures of working the ground in community. His ideal of love for enemies flared brightly once again. “Shall we go off and leave them without hope?” he said in one interview. “We have too many enemies to leave them. The redemptive love of God must somehow break through. If it costs us our lives, if we must be hung on a cross to redeem our brothers and sisters in the flesh, so let it be. It will be well worth it.”
“We have too many enemies to leave them. The redemptive love of God must somehow break through.”
This conviction continued to be tested, with ambushes by shotgun-toting vigilantes on remote roads, and a second bombing of the farm’s market that left it completely destroyed. As the building and nearby farmland burned after the explosion, over forty spectators, including police, stood idly by.
Appeals to federal authorities fell on hard hearts. Clarence wrote directly to President Eisenhower, pleading for help; the president replied that Koinonia’s protection was the responsibility of local authorities – the same ones who were subjecting the farm to investigations for “subversive activities” and “conspiracy to overthrow the government.” A later investigation of Koinonia brought no indictment, but produced a sixteen-page report accusing the farm of being a communist operation and destroying its own property in a plot to get attention.
Meanwhile, the threats and violence grew. One night, machine guns peppered a car in which two members were keeping watch with flashlights. Tracer bullets fired into a home ignited a house curtain. A visitor’s hat on a bedside stand was torn by a bullet. Koinonia’s enemies even fired shots at the children as they played on the volleyball court, and at Clarence as he drove his tractor. The Ku Klux Klan converged on the farm and burned crosses. An arsonist threw a pillow soaked in gasoline into the home of longtime black farmhand Alma Jackson’s mother, burning down the house. And all this time, the crippling boycott continued. Prompted by conscience, the owner of a feed store chain ordered his Americus store to serve Koinonia. The storefront was bombed within the week, with such explosive power that four neighboring buildings were damaged.
In spite of the opposition, people around the country expressed solidarity. A prominent Baptist pastor, Will D. Campbell, visited in support, as did a key leader of the Southern Baptist Convention. Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker movement, came to the farm, took a midnight turn on watch duty, and was shot at for the first time in her life. After the insurance company would no longer cover the farm, people around the country pledged support. An idea to ship produce out via mail led to a popular movement to purchase Koinonia pecans around the country, with the slogan, “Help us ship the nuts out of Georgia.”
Millard Fuller, a successful businessman and millionaire, visited Clarence and declared that conversations with him were like “a year, or two years, in seminary.” Fuller decided to give away his wealth to the poor and move to Koinonia. His collaboration with Clarence to provide low-income housing eventually evolved into Habitat for Humanity, a global organization.
“Faith is not belief in spite of the evidence, but a life in scorn of the consequences.”
All the while, the Sermon on the Mount continued to fuel Clarence’s message. From those chapters of the Gospel of Matthew, which he referred to as “the platform of the God Movement,” he drew a profound critique of materialism, ecclesiasticism, and militarism, which he saw as the most powerful forces competing for people’s minds and hearts. He had no respect for ostentatious Christianity or the self-righteous religiosity so rampant in Southern Christian culture. “That cross alone cost us ten thousand dollars,” bragged a pastor as he gave Clarence a tour of his church.
“Time was, you could get them for nothing,” Clarence shot back.
A sharp scholar who would read to congregations directly from his Greek New Testament, translating as he went, Clarence began to tell the gospel stories in images from the South, delighting his hearers with what would eventually become The Cotton Patch Gospel. The newborn Jesus was laid in an apple box, Simon Bar-Jonah became “Rock Johnson,” and the prejudiced Jews and Gentiles of St. Paul’s time became white and black neighbors of his own. “Well, the Idea became a man and moved in with us,” he translated John 1. “Moving in” had become, in spite of all opposition, his own way of following Jesus.
In October of 1969, Clarence died of a heart attack in his writing shed at Koinonia Farm. The coroner refused to come to the farm, so Millard Fuller put his body in a station wagon and drove him into town. He was buried in a simple cedar box on a hill near the community he had founded on the gospel and a few acres of barren land.
Clarence’s legacy, which lives on in Koinonia Farm, in Habitat for Humanity, and in his writings, can be summed up with one of his best-known statements: “Faith is not belief in spite of the evidence, but a life in scorn of the consequences.”
Primarily based on Joyce Hollyday’s biographical essay in Clarence Jordan: Essential Writings (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2003). Additional details came from news articles published during Jordan’s life and at the time of his death.