A Discussion with Andrew Johnson, Habitat for Humanity of Atlanta
November 12, 2012
Background: This discussion took place on November 12, 2012 between Andrew Johnson, Katherine Marshall, Michael Bodakowski, and Ariel Gleicher via conference call, as part of a joint effort between Habit for Humanity International (HFHI) and the World Faiths Development Dialogue. It is a component of a larger evaluation of the HFH Interfaith Toolkit Pilot Project—a guide for HFH affiliates to implement interfaith approaches into organizational strategy and outreach. Tom Jones, ambassador-at-large and senior leadership team member of HFHI, spearheaded the initiative following a 2008 workshop on faith and shelter at Georgetown University. In this interview, Andrew Johnson introduces his work as Faith Relations Associate at the Atlanta Habitat affiliate. In addition to highlighting his work to bring together diverse faith groups around the common cause of affordable housing, he discusses the importance of addressing racial tensions that sometimes exist alongside interfaith dynamics. He identifies partnerships with key organizations in the area, such as the Faith Alliance of Metro Atlanta, that have served as strong foundations towards building a core interfaith housing support base. The interfaith pilot in Atlanta builds on several years of experience with interfaith builds, so that interfaith approaches have a solid foundation. He foresees that the advocacy component will present the most significant challenges. The intention is to build upon established interfaith alliances as a starting point. Johnson has found Habitat’s Interfaith Toolkit a useful tool to start the conversation on interfaith approaches to housing, particularly among groups with no prior interfaith experience.
What is your own history that has brought you to this area of work?
My interest began long ago! I was interested in religion and interfaith work in junior high, and then through high school. I liked to read and talk about theology. I was a Christian education major in college. I had planned to go to seminary right after getting my undergraduate degree, but decided to hold off and do some of the wonderful things that are not school related. After a break from school, which included marrying my wife, Kara, I went back to Emory University where I got my master's in theological studies.
I am Christian and grew up Christian, but I have always been intrigued by different faiths and see very strong ties between faith traditions.
I had always wanted to work for a faith-based non-profit. When I graduated from my theology master’s program, I looked for jobs but had the wonderful opportunity to join AmeriCorps VISTA and to apply for the faith relations position that was available at Atlanta Habitat.
I started that position in 2010. Atlanta Habitat was really interested in interfaith work and had been doing it since 2002. They had just reached a point where they really wanted to focus on faith-based groups and expand the group base that we were working with. They decided to bring me on as an AmeriCorps VISTA and see how it worked out. It worked out pretty well because they hired me full time after that and I have been doing this same type of work with them for the last two years.
What is the history of your Habitat affiliate? Its size?
We started in 1983. Our office is currently located near downtown. We have a staff of 44 people. We build 40 to 50 homes a year and have built over 1,200 homes. I am the only faith relations person and I am in the development department. Specifically my role is raising money from faith-based groups. We have two people involved in sponsorship—a civic and education position, and a corporate fundraising position.
What is the physical jurisdiction of your chapter?
We service the city of Atlanta and the southern half of Fulton County. There are other affiliates in the metro Atlanta area that we occasionally collaborate with on special build projects. How many affiliates are there in Georgia and will you be working together at all on interfaith issues?
There are a lot of affiliates in Georgia because Habitat started in Americus. I am not sure of the exact number.
What indicators would you use to measure your chapter’s capacity? Is it the budget or something else?
We build about 40 to 50 homes each year. We are up to over 1,200 homes that we have built in the city. We use 13,000 to 14,000 volunteers each year and we have a ReStore facility that generates revenue for the organization and keeps hundreds of tons of material out of the landfill.
What are the main issues around housing in the Atlanta area? Which do you focus on as an institution?
The main issue is the lack of affordable housing for working families. Atlanta Habitat is one of the only institutions providing affordable housing options for families that would otherwise not qualify for traditional home financing.
What does your work involve, both day-to-day and at the strategic level?
It is a balance for me between the fundraising element and the faith-based element. For instance, if I talk to a faith-based group that does not want to provide funds, but will contribute time through volunteering, then I turn them over to our volunteer manager. In my faith-relations position my work is heavily centered on fundraising, but I am also the contact person between Atlanta Habitat and all faith-based groups. If a faith-based group wants to get involved, they come to me to find out how to do so.
In terms of volunteers, I am solely responsible for coordinating the groups that participate in the interfaith builds. For the other faith builds it is my responsibility to find the faith groups that will be bringing the volunteers and to communicate with the groups to be sure that each congregation is represented across each of the seven days of the build. Ultimately, on the general faith builds it is our volunteer coordinator who is then responsible for making sure that the numbers are right.
How do you evaluate your own progress and performance?
In my job description, I would evaluate my performance based on how many different faiths we have participating, how many congregations are participating, and how diverse they are. That is not, however, the criteria of the organization as a whole.
For our affiliate as a whole, we focus more on education. Each of our homeowners has to take 12 education classes when they move into their home, including finance and budgeting, civic engagement, rights as a homeowner, etc. Based on that model, our affiliate gauges its success on how long and how involved our families are in their communities. We would ideally love to see that our homeowners stay in their homes for their entire lives and really bring change to the communities that they are in.
How did interfaith work begin to take root in your area and your affiliate?
The interfaith work at Atlanta Habitat really started diversifying in 2002 after 9/11. We had a contact named Jan Swanson, who has been working with us to do inter-racial work with local congregations since 1995. We got a grant from multiple foundations to help cover some of the sponsorship costs from congregations so that we were able to reach out to smaller congregations and get them involved without any financial burden. The grant was specifically for groups that were coming from different parts of town and that were inter-racially mixed. For instance, we had a white congregation and a black congregation that worked together specifically. Some of those congregations are still in partnership now, so it was clearly a great success.
Then in 2002, Jan and our president at the time decided to focus deliberately on interfaith work and getting Muslim groups out, as well as Sikhs and Hindus.
We have done seven Atlanta Interfaith Builds since 2002 that had more than four faiths represented and build solely on Sundays. We also started a Jewish-Christian build in 2002 and they do that every year, so there have been ten of those in total. That build is called the Northwest Interfaith Build. That build splits the work days between Saturday and Sundays. We try to be flexible with our build days so that we can accommodate people of different faiths.
It sounds as if Habitat Atlanta has a long history of interfaith work. Do you have any thoughts on why your region might have been working on these issues earlier than others?
This is mostly due to the president of our affiliate and the make-up of our city. We really want it to be “Atlanta Habitat” for all in Atlanta, and not just the part of Atlanta represented in who is working, sponsoring, building and becoming home owners. Our president has been here for about 15 years now. She is really open-minded and has been working on moving us to be more inclusive of everyone we work with. Her acceptance expands outside of just religion, but also to sexual orientation and other members of society. I also think that Atlanta itself has a long history of interfaith work, with Dr. King being based here and his interest in Gandhi and Hinduism. It has led to a really interesting mix of people and being a major city lends itself to having access to all of those different religions. Also, some of our homeowners have been Muslim. That dynamic opened up conversations of what it means to give a Bible to a Muslim family during a home dedication or to have churches sponsor a Muslim family.
Can you talk more about how Atlanta’s background in interfaith overlaps with the racial relationships?
I think it is a natural progression to go from race work to faith work because if people are not okay working with people of their own faith who are a different color than them, then we cannot even talk about major divisions or belief in God. So I think that was something that we really had to address and work out in Atlanta first. I don’t think that we could have had white Christians and Indian Hindus working together if they didn't even think the other was human. That was a really big step, for everyone to get over that issue first.
In your territory what is roughly the demographic breakdown of the faith groups?
We are in the Bible Belt, so we number in the thousands and thousands of Christians, including probably thousands of congregations just within the city limits. We have a growing population of Hindus, whose congregations are mostly technically outside of Atlanta, but most live in the metro Atlanta area. We also have a large Jewish population.
There is a very large immigrant population because of the refugee resettlement groups that work here, such as Catholic Charities and IRC. These populations bring in a lot of smaller religions to the area. There are growing Sikh and Muslim populations.
What did you do to get started on integrating interfaith into Habitat’s work? Are you working with interfaith groups in your region?
Jan Swanson was really the person who helped us start on this journey. She also helped start many interfaith organizations in the area. One of those is the Faith Alliance of Metro Atlanta (FAMA), another is the World Pilgrims Program, and another is the Interfaith Community Initiative. We started working with these organizations through our connections with Jan.
Then when I came on I joined the FAMA board. They were historically a group that did education programs around interfaith. For instance they would host a panel discussion on homelessness including representatives from different faiths to discuss how each faith views homelessness and what the congregations are doing to address the issues. They also cover more controversial topics such as end of life care and abortion.
This year FAMA decided to focus on three major issues:
1. Affordable housing and homelessness
2. Harmony, addressing issues of discrimination and hatred
3. Hunger, partnering with the local food bank and other initiatives
FAMA selected me as the chair of the affordable housing committee, which has been great because I have been able to integrate their work with my work at Habitat to make the effort stronger and to reach out to a broader group of affordable housing representatives in Atlanta.
Why did you decide to take part in the Interfaith Toolkit Project and what are you hoping to achieve through the project?
We are well established with interfaith builds and do them well. Advocacy in general is something that we need to focus on, but advocacy with interfaith groups is something we really want to focus on even more so.
While the practical part of the toolkit was easy for us to move with, the next part on getting a core group together to address advocacy is going to be really difficult. It is not a conversation that we have really had before and the word “advocacy” can be very scary for people. I see the toolkit as providing some help in identifying where that element of the project will go and how we do it. In addition to the toolkit itself, it is helpful to have the input of the other affiliates working on the project. For instance, I know that the New York City office does much more on the advocacy side. It has been interesting to work with them and hear how they engage with people on that level.
How much tension do you see surrounding faith in the Atlanta area? Is it an issue that is often discussed?
We have not seen much tension in the congregations that we reach out to. If they are interested in interfaith and the build works in their schedule they will come out.
There are a lot of congregations that are interested in interfaith and that see its importance. The key for Atlanta Habitat was that we wanted a real reflection of everyone here. In addition to having homeowners from different faiths who we embrace and love, we also wanted to give their congregations the opportunity to sponsor homes and help community members build their homes. We need to build relationships beforehand so that when we call up a Mosque that we have never worked with and ask them to come out, there are not so many questions about Habitat as a Christian organization and what we are trying to do. We have to make it clear that we are working from our faith inspiration, but what we are doing is addressing human issues as a whole.
What is/will be the focus of your chapter’s advocacy work?
Many people in Atlanta are unaware of the severity of some of the housing issues that exist, such as lack of paved roads or high cost of housing. So first of all, I’d like to work to raise the awareness of Atlantans so that they are more familiar with the struggles around housing that exist in our city.
The other part is getting congregations involved with raising awareness of access to affordable housing, and related, central issues. I hope to engage with congregations as a way to address these issues and have a broader reach within the city.
In a little more detail, how have you laid out your pilot program and what do you see as your major milestones thus far?
The recommended path was to find a group, then hold an activity, and then do advocacy, but the easiest way for me to start was to do the interfaith build because we already had it on the schedule. The build started six weeks ago, so we will be finishing up this weekend with our dedication. There are about thirteen different groups represented on this interfaith build and I have been working with coordinators of those groups to identify who might be good people to be on our advocacy team. Although we are sort of working backwards, it has been really helpful in our model to use the relationships that we already had established around this interfaith build.
So I have part two checked off in terms of the activity. Then with the start of the Faith Alliance housing and homelessness group, there are clergy who want to be involved in both parts of the project. I don’t yet have a core group of people committed to be our advocacy team at Habitat, but we are building on strong foundations.
For part three, we have started conversations with some of the advocacy groups that already exist. One is called Atlanta Housing Association of Neighborhood-based Developers (AHAND), they focus on capacity building within nonprofits around affordable housing in Atlanta. Their sister group is Georgia State Trade Association of Nonprofit Developers (G-STAND) and they focus more on the state level.
Do you have any reactions on the toolkit itself? How has it been useful or less useful?
I think it’s extremely well done. It is very broad, which was the point so that a wide variety of people could use it. They make good points on how to assess your geographical area and what to do from there. I have not used it as much when it comes to the activities because we have been doing that for a long time. However, the resources and the advocacy elements are very helpful.
It is a really good conversation starter, especially for groups who have never done any interfaith work at all or for staff to have a tool to begin to understand what each faith is about.
The conversation among the six participating affiliates during the process has also been very helpful. It enables us to hear how other groups have taken the ideas presented in the toolkit and expanded on them or asked really good questions that had not occurred to me.
What is your relationship like with HFHI [Habitat headquarters] since they are also based in Atlanta?
We spend much time redirecting people who call our office looking for Habitat for Humanity International. Most people don’t know how Habitat works, so it is a balance between being distinct in some ways and then working together in other ways. They find a group that wants to build and that wants to engage in a national partnership and come to us. For instance we just had a group come out that had come through HFHI, the group was doing a national project we got to be one of the cities involved. In that case, Habitat International doesn't do the physical building so they passed it over to us and we were able to get another sponsor that way. Overall we are both very supportive of one another.