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Jimmy Carter helps build homes and hope in the Twin Cities

Some people look awkward when they strap on their tool belt or pound a hammer. Former President Jimmy Carter is not one of them.

Homeowner partner Melo Lawson (left) holds siding in place while former Vice President Walter Mondale and former President Jimmy Carter drive in nails. Metro Lutheran photos: Korla Masters.

The 27th Annual Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Work Project rolled through the Twin Cities on Wednesday and Thursday as part of a massive campaign sponsored by Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity. The local house-building affiliate will be adding 12 houses in the Hawthorne neighborhood of Minneapolis and 14 more in the Payne-Phalen neighborhood on the eastside of St. Paul, according to Susan Haigh, president of Twin Cities Habitat. Washington, D.C.; Baltimore and Annapolis, Maryland; and Birmingham, Alabama, will also benefit from the rush of interest in home reconstruction that the Carters involvement generates.

Jimmy Carter was joined by his vice president, Walter Mondale, as well as Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) and mayors R.T. Rybak and Chris Coleman of Minneapolis and St. Paul respectively, in a project putting siding on a house in north Minneapolis. Melo Lawson, the homebuyer partner, helped the former and current politicians nail in the boards on her new house.

“Every morning I prayed, and I believed,” said Lawson, holding a copy of a Bible presented to her by Rosalynn Carter. “Before my children and I were in a two-bedroom apartment. We are so excited about this new place.”

After a morning of construction, some old friends discuss the benefits of Habitat on a beautiful Minnesota fall day. From left, Susan Haigh, president, Twin Cities Habitat for Humanity, Mayor Chris Coleman, St. Paul; T. Williams, Minneapolis School Board (and member of Redeemer Lutheran Church, ELCA, Minneapolis); Mayor R.T. Rybak; President Jimmy Carter; and Vice President Walter Mondale.

“These neighborhoods deteriorate when homeowners think they are in it by themselves,” explained Rybak.

“These neighborhoods deteriorate when homeowners think they are in it by themselves,” explained Rybak. “The neighborhoods flourish when neighbors see other people investing in their property.”

“This neighborhood [Hawthorne] had the highest foreclosure and crime rates in the city,” the mayor continued. “Now this community is ground zero for what can work.” Rybak cited the investments made by neighbors, public, and private entities working together.

“And the homebuyer partner buys the house; there is a misconception that they are given away,” explained President Carter. “But, because they aren’t charged interest, the payments are affordable, even to people with modest incomes.”

“And the Bible states ‘don’t charge interest to poor people,” Carter, a Bible study teacher at his Baptist church told the assembled press. “And Islam agrees with Christianity on this.” He pointed out that even a person of moderate means can afford a $100,000 house with a 30-mortgage if there is no interest. “It would be $286 per month,” he quoted from memory.

Making a difference one nail at a time

According to Carter, Habitat is nearing the completion of 400,000 homes worldwide, with about 20 percent of those in the U.S. The Carters themselves have helped build houses in Mexico, Hungary, South Africa, South Korea, India, the Philippines, Thailand, Cambodia, Chin, Laos, and Vietnam.

Acknowledging that the participation of a former president brings increased visibility, Carter lavished his praise on the more-than-1,000 volunteers who were taking time to do very tangible work that transforms those people without the basic right of housing into homeowners. He talked of the volunteers’ holy work: “Habitat is doing God’s will in a very practical, down-to-earth, effective way” in struggling communities, he claimed.

Ron Schuerkamp, a Habitat volunteer and member of Calvary Lutheran Church, Golden Valley, Minnesota, worked in the house that was backdrop to the press conference with the dignitaries. He explained that Calvary participates in a Habitat project every summer. On this day his assignment was building up scaffolding and putting exterior walls up to the second floor. He anticipated that the roof trusses would be put on overnight.

Of the experience he said, “Habitat projects are extremely well organized, and it was fantastic being a part of today’s exciting activities. … The feeling of really making a difference [in peoples’ lives] is so rewarding. While working one day on one job might seem small, being part of a team can make so much difference in such a short time.”

President Carter, looking comfortable with a drill, while Mondale, Lawson, and others hang siding.

One reporter present noted that Carter was involved in the fine work of drilling guide holes while Mondale was busy with the more manual labor of nailing the siding, asking of that was reflective of their shared time in the White House. Carter smiled and replied, “But we were working nearer the ground. Once we get higher on the scaffolding, we’ll bring in the Republicans.”

Mondale reflected on his time with Carter in Washington, D.C., as well. “We worked together in the White House for four years, and today we are again working on a house.” Having met and worked with the homeowner partner, the former vice president reflected that she would always be able to say that this is “the house that the president built.”

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