A Discussion with Tom Jones, Ambassador-At-Large, Habitat for Humanity

With: Thomas Laird Jones

October 23, 2008

Background: Since 2005, Tom Jones has worked as the ambassador-at-large in the CEO's office of Habitat for Humanity International (HFHI) where he represents HFHI and its CEO to outside groups. He has represented HFHI in the ONE Campaign, InterAction, and as a leader in the new HFHI Advocacy Initiative. Presently, he leads the HFHI Interfaith Exploration. Prior to his tenure with HFHI, Jones served as pastor of large Presbyterian congregations in Kentucky and Florida, and he was senior pastor of the Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. for 12 years. In the academic world, he has served as vice president for a theological seminary and faculty member at two seminaries; he received Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary's Distinguished Alum Award. He also served as a national staff person of the Presbyterian denomination. In this interview, Jones shares his experiences working within the religious world, both as an academic and a leader. He also explains how he became interested in the work he currently does with HFHI, detailing how his work with HFHI can be seen as an intersection of his religiosity and passion for development work.

Why don’t we start with your own journey? What path led you to your current work with Habitat for Humanity?

That depends on how far back you want to go! In fact, just this past week I have been reflecting on such issues, as I prepare to speak this weekend on the topic of journeys and life’s lessons with a group of Methodist men in Pennsylvania.

I grew up in the deep South, in St. Petersburg, Florida, in a household that was really quite poor. My dad was a woodcarver (he worked on many things, including carving Tony Sarg's puppet heads), and that was his life's profession. Dad was very talented but did not care about making money.

My mom and dad were both strong in the local Presbyterian church. Fortunately for my own life, the church had a really active youth program. As I reflect, I realize that remarkably, from my own era perhaps 30 people from that youth group went into full-time church work. We did everything together: school, church, social activities, service work, and so on. One such activity was our annual local church youth retreat. Once a year, we went away for eight days to what seemed to us then a wonderful YMCA camp site. While I was in high school, at one of those retreats, I felt a strong call to the ministry. I made and announced my decision.

I went to a small Presbyterian college, Maryville College in Maryville, Tennessee. It is a wonderful small liberal arts college which has been there since 1819. I was fighting the call to ministry I had felt and announced. I still remember well a moment when I came to terms with it. One Thursday night, during my junior year, I was in my top bunk, with it all going through my mind. As I look back I am awed that I really was arrogant enough to believe that I could make as much money as I wanted—that I could be a millionaire (more than a billionaire today!). Then came the question, “So what?” Since that moment, I have never worried about finding my value or purpose in how much money was involved. I now know my life will end never having made a six-figure salary. But we live well. What has helped is something one of my early mentors suggested: give away the first 10 percent of whatever you earn, and save the next 10 percent. It has worked remarkably well for me.

So what stands out in what you have been able to do over that long career?

It's a wholesome process to think back and to see how markers in your life give you guides for the future. As I reflect, I think that I have had as many good opportunities as anyone in the Presbyterian ministry; I do have guilt that I have not used all the opportunities to their fullest. I have been blessed! As I look back, a major highlight of every chapter in my life is that what mattered most was not what happened inside church walls, but what happened out in the society. Work in the community represents the high points for every stage of my life and career.

Can you sketch some of those high points?

While I was at the seminary (Louisville Presbyterian Seminary), I did field work; we all had to work in a local congregation every semester and two summers of seminary. In my second year, my field work was to start a new church. That challenge made you practical in a real hurry! I ended up staying at this church as its first pastor for four years after seminary. In those days, churches grew in spite of, rather than because of, their leaders! It was a wonderful experience. But as I look back, what I remember most vividly is our participation in overcoming some welfare problems in the community. The church was involved in the community in so many ways.

I then went to Orlando at the age of 29 years old to be associate pastor of a much larger church---over 3,000 members. When the senior pastor was gone, which was often, I preached, managed a staff of over 40 persons, and led many of the other activities of the parish.

As I look back, what stands out in that chapter of my life is leading the response to the Cuban refugee challenge. Florida was in the midst of first influx of Cuban refugees. I remember one Saturday I did something I had never done: on Saturday afternoon I changed my sermon topic from a Mother's Day family emphasis to the Cuban refugee crises in Florida. At the end of the sermon, I invited any who would to come back Sunday afternoon to discuss response to the crises. I expected 10 or 15 people; between 300 and 400 came! We organized the whole city for a major effort in which we resettled permanently 150 refugee families in Orlando. We provided foster care for some of the young adults who came on the Peter Pan flights. Mel Martinez was one of the kids. He went on to became HUD [Department of Housing and Urban Development] secretary and is now a United States senator. Another example of what emerges as important for the church is doing God's mission in the community.

I then went to Miami for a short pastorate. Our congregation was asked by the presbytery (the “corporate bishop” in the Presbyterian system) to take over a church in a neighborhood that was quickly changing racially. This was at a time when the Deep South, Miami included, was not very open racially. We were able to organize a biracial, bilingual ministry: one-third black, one-third Anglo, one-third Cuban refugee. It was a very different kind of preaching experience! We translated via headphones, United Nations-style. This meant having to pause for the translation into Spanish. When that happened, those of African-American background got their “amens” going. Saying "amen” to a preacher is like saying “sic ‘em” to a dog! The spirit was unforgettable. That church was able to play an increasingly powerful role in the community. But the point is, the important memory is of the church serving the community.

I next served as a national staff person of the denomination. This was the latter half of the 1960s “crisis in the nation” time in our country. I served as deputy secretary (director) of the Board of National Ministries. We were very much part of the civil rights struggle. I was our denomination's liaison to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s organization. My associate was in the Loraine Motel the night Dr. King was killed. We had raised money for food for the sanitation workers who were on strike, and their families who were meeting in a Presbyterian church. We supported the Poor Peoples' March and many other civil rights activities. Again, I realize the importance of faith groups' involvement in community efforts for peace and justice.

I next became senior pastor of the Harvey Browne Presbyterian Church in Louisville, Kentucky. This was a congregation of about 2,400 members. This congregation became involved in the racial crises, leading the struggle for racial integration in the school bussing controversy, organizing for peace in Vietnam, growing the largest senior citizens center in the country, starting a community wide effort called “Louisville United Against Hunger," which, 35 years later, still is active. Again, as I think back over the chapters of my life, the important ventures are those in which, because of faith, the most important involvements are in facilitating positive community development.

I moved to a new chapter as vice president and member of the faculty of Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary. During my time at the seminary, I was elected to serve as vice moderator, then moderator of the Presbyterian Synod of the Covenant which included all the Presbyterians in Ohio, Kentucky, and Michigan. We were able to involve the synod in dealing with huge economic crises in the steel mills and elsewhere. Again, the church in the world!

The idea was that when the seminary president (Ellis Nelson) retired in three years, I would succeed him. After two years I said, “Ellis, you have taught me two things: how to run a seminary; and that I do not want to!” I missed the pastorate!

How did you come to the Washington area?

In 1979, I took a call to become senior pastor of the Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church (CCPC). I served there for 12 years. That was a time when we finally ended the civil war within the Presbyterian family and church and reunited the “northern” and "southern” Presbyterian denominations. I served on the national board of the reunited church for its first nine years—in some sense it felt like a life sentence! I chaired the board that dealt with social justice and peacemaking. This brought us into national and international issues having to do with peace, self-development of people, natural disasters, hunger, the Presbyterian Washington Office, the Presbyterian United Nations office, and the like. This involved the denomination in work with the society, not within church buildings.

The Presbyterian General Assembly of Ireland invited us to come to Northern Ireland at the height of the Troubles there. There were (and still are) more Presbyterians than any other church in Northern Ireland. We went. Our efforts resulted in joining the Presbyterian denomination there, the Catholic hierarchy in Ireland, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and the Presbyterian Church (USA) in working together for peace and reconciliation. Regularly we brought a Catholic priest and a protestant pastor to the United States to itinerate in dialogical fashion for several weeks at a time; we sponsored groups of Catholics and Protestants going to Northern Ireland, we fostered cross-community student exchanges, and the like. Again, it exemplifies the importance of the faith leading to involvement in the world.

And how did you come to be involved with housing?

It was during this period of deep involvement in Northern Ireland that I came to a renewed sense of call about working on the problems of poverty, but with a new understanding of the central role of housing in that mission. The focus on housing came through a personal friendship with a Northern Irish housing leader. I felt a sense of call to work more directly toward the Gospel call to care about the poor, influenced by the emerging sense of the centrality of decent housing for all if that was to happen. I explored new opportunities for ministry. I was led to Habitat for Humanity International, a Christian organization which exuded my values, and, perhaps, which needed what I had to offer: contacts in the Washington, D.C. area and some insights into how Washington and its political systems work (or, often, don't work!). So, in 1992, National Capital Presbytery (my corporate bishop) approved me for a full-time specialized ministry with Habitat for Humanity International. I was asked to be the founding managing director of the HFHI Washington Office; later to assume also the responsibilities of HFHI vice president.

Much in my 12 years as pastor of Chevy Chase Presbyterian Church gave help to my new ministry “in the world.” CCPC was a very political and very diverse congregation, including political leaders from all across the political spectrum—from the far right to the far left. In CCPC we had sponsored a number of weeks called “Washington Scene Through Theology” in which we brought a dozen pastors at a time from across the country to help them experience how Washington works and to theologize about that. Regularly we went to the Situation Room at the White House, visited key leaders on Capitol Hill, met with government agency heads, ate with the homeless, etc. This resulted with contacts which later proved helpful to Habitat for Humanity's mission—again God's mission in the society.

So I started Habitat for Humanity's Washington office in the early 1990s and stayed in that position for about 14 years. I was responsible for working with the White House, the Congress, the United Nations, HUD, State Department, USAID, corporations, churches, national service organizations, Mortgage Bankers Association, National Association of Realtors, National Association of Homebuilders, etc.

What we were trying to do was to get people to understand the importance of decent housing for all and to be supportive of doing something about it for those in the below 50 percent of median income!

When I decided that it was time for me to turn over the day-to-day responsibilities of the HFHI Washington Office to others, Habitat asked me to serve as ambassador-at-large in the office of the CEO and to continue service on the HFHI senior leadership team. This has given me great opportunities. I do many different things, filling in for the CEO, being present when senior leadership for Habitat needs representation, serving as “oral tradition,” and so on. Especially, I appreciate having the chance to look at the long-term areas where we can have real lasting value in the world and be involved in some of that.

What are those areas where you believe Habitat can truly have lasting value?

Two things: interfaith work for housing, and mobilizing people effectively to engage on poverty issues, in part by working on fundraising for Habitat's endowment so that the ministry can continue for the long term. In addition, I am convinced that the endowment allows persons the chance to be supportive of this ministry in which they believe after they are gone from this life. The act of giving can become perpetual.

What is your dream for the interfaith alliance you advocate on housing issues?

Nic Retsinas [HFHI International Board chair] asked me to lead an exploration of how Habitat might work more actively through interfaith partnerships. We began with no preconceived notions about how it might work. But we had a strong conviction that interfaith work was important. (We share the view of Eboo Patal, a Muslim-American leader, that whereas race was the predominant issue in the United States in the twentieth century, religion is the dominant issue for this century). Nic Retsinas was federal housing commissioner in the first Clinton administration. For the past 11 years he has been director of the Joint Center for Housing Studies and member of the faculty at Harvard.

From day one, Habitat has been unabashedly a Christian organization and is not at all embarrassed about it. If anything, the faith character of Habitat is deeper today than ever. From our roots, we see the message of the Gospel as a call to work to end poverty. And decent shelter is a core issue toward ending poverty. Other major faiths have the same call of God to end poverty and have similar understandings about the importance of shelter. So the objective is to try to join the faiths together in the common venture of overcoming poverty, with an emphasis upon shelter, all in the context of comprehensive community development.

The great thing about interfaith work is that all faiths have at their root the call to work with the poor, so that brings us together. I, having grown up in the Deep South, have grown so much in my own faith and beliefs in this interfaith venture. I am deeply convinced that we worship the same God, that we are, together, called to be obedient to our God. We can all work together. That is not syncretism, and it does not call on anyone to compromise her/his own beliefs as to how one experiences God.

In Habitat's interfaith work, our ultimate vision now is to engage all faiths, but to make it more “bite size” we have begun with the monotheistic faiths: Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. If those three faiths could come together, worldwide, and be seen and experienced by everyone as working together to end poverty, to advocate for the poor, with housing as a core issue, what a difference that could make in the world!

The next step was to figure out the pieces we need to get us there.

So I engaged in many conversations, opening every door that even cracked, going everywhere with the hypothesis that there is this strong call in each faith to work to end poverty in the world, and in each tradition there is the long history focusing shelter as central. That is what led me to Katherine Marshall, and to the Berkley Center and to our December 4, 2006 all-day interfaith forum on shelter.

We are looking to the second Berkley Center meeting on shelter at a time of acute economic crisis, deeply affecting housing and shelter, in the United States and worldwide. What is Habitat's role in this?

Habitat is very deeply involved. Our CEO, Jonathan Reckford, has been focusing on the emerging crisis since early spring, when we saw the signs that it was taking a dark turn. For a start, we are doing everything possible to make sure that we can continue to operate effectively, which has meant that we have had to tighten our belts, trying to make sure we do not hurt persons along the way.

We have to ask if the crisis is a question of greed gone wild, focused on the housing situation, or is it deeper? And how is Habitat involved? In fact, Habitat is not really affected by the mortgage crisis in the first instance, given our long-standing and very careful counseling of everyone we work with. All Habitat for Humanity homeowners are given mortgages rates they can afford. And we remain totally convinced of the enormous difference it can make for the poor to build up equity. We do know that Habitat homeowners, all of whom are in the below 50 percent of median income in the community in which they live, are very vulnerable to job loss as jobs are cut. Traditionally, Habitat for Humanity affiliates do everything possible to work with homeowners who face crises.

The need for decent housing for all is huge and growing worldwide. What is affecting HFHI most directly now is the need for resources. Economic realities truly are a challenge if we are to provide the decent housing for all which is crucial toward overcoming poverty in the world.

Can you give us a sense of how far Habitat for Humanity is an American or an international organization?

Habitat for Humanity was begun America in 1976. It is chartered as an American organization. But the reality is that we build three to four houses in developing countries for every one built in the United States. This is possible because in most other countries houses are less expensive but also the needs are far greater. We have done a lot to meld all of Habitat ministry worldwide into one ministry. We have a senior leadership group with a vice president for each of four areas (besides the U.S. headquarters). We meet at least once a week by a conference call, with a common agenda. The vice presidents live in their regions: Pretoria for Africa, Slovakia for Europe, Costa Rica for Latin America, Bangkok for Asia, and Atlanta for North America.

The area organizations are part of the overall/united structure. There is a locally elected national board in each of the almost 90 countries where Habitat presently works. But Habitat works mainly through its affiliates, and they do all the building and most of the advocacy. There are about 1,600 U.S. affiliates, for example. Each affiliate is autonomous, with their own elected board. In the United States, each is an independent 501c3 organization. We work constantly on that fine line between self-determination and the need for some kind of structure so we can deal with our national partners, who want the reassurance that comes with standards, following best practice, and the careful monitoring that go with use of the Habitat name. It is on that basis that Whirlpool, for example, contributes a stove and refrigerator for every Habitat house, and in other countries where we both have presence.

We use many numbers as indicators, including over a million volunteers in the United States in a year, but the one we use most today is “families served.” Last year, Habitat served 49,500 families worldwide. Our goal is 55,000 this year. More and more we are focusing on advocacy and working to affect public policy wherever we are. We work with whoever we can, wherever we are.

We are now convinced that there is the knowledge to solve shelter problem in the world; that there are resources in the world to solve the world's shelter problems. What is missing is the will to do it: not only political will (important though that is) but also individual will, religious will, corporate will, foundation will, and the like.

What is Habitat's main advocacy focus?

On the advocacy front, the main focus of Habitat today is security of tenure. We look to whatever public policy is needed to provide that in every country of the world. We are working to help local groups know how to advocate for housing in ways to make housing issues be seen as the vital, core issue they are. Habitat has also, for many years, been a strong advocate for “green,” for environmental concerns. HFHI has been at the forefront of the environmental movement since the early 1990s.

Early on we were involved in beginning the ONE movement, advocating to end poverty worldwide. At the start, NGOs were at its core, and we worked closely with partners like CARE, World Vision, Bread for the World, and Save the Children to mobilize energies on the global poverty issue. InterAction is taking a greater role in that area today.

Habitat's work is taking different forms in different parts of the world, partly because needs and customs are so different, but also because there are such different understandings of both charity and community engagement. But we try to make sure that there is a common framework and common norms and high standards. I was in Northern Ireland last week, which is the only country where we have gone because they needed our process more than our product. There, community engagement with housing has been an important element of the reconciliation process; Protestants and Catholics built houses together. The government there has done a good job in providing decent housing, so the emphasis has shifted. Habitat Northern Ireland has sent 191 volunteer groups to other countries to build houses, to Zambia, South Africa, Jamaica, Haiti, New Orleans, and many other places.

In the Netherlands and some other developed countries, we do not build houses, but raise resources—money and people to build in developing countries around the world. What we see is an emerging “global village" that may or may not be interfaith. Internationally, there are some 700 international exchanges through Habitat for Humanity's Global Village program each year. Guatemala (where I participated in a build last summer) last year celebrated its 25,000 Habitat house.

How does Habitat evaluate the effectiveness of its programs?

That is an area where, presently, we are giving far more emphasis. It is part of an ongoing reorganization; Steve Weir, who participated in a Berkley Center program, is focusing on that area.

From where you sit, what difference did the December 4, 2006 meeting on decent housing at the Berkley Center make? What has happened since?

The interfaith forum had led to many, many discussions, opened many doors, and launched the exploration of many ideas! Most important, it had led many leaders to realize more deeply than ever the importance of decent shelter for all to be a core issue toward overcoming poverty and for positive community development. What the interfaith forum participants agreed is most important at the outset is to use networks of all who participated in the forum to try to catalyze and promote interfaith gatherings and work in local communities. And a lot of that has happened. Habitat wrote about the meeting to all its affiliates, and I understand that this brought action in many areas. But what we have recognized most vividly is that there is an urgent need for a toolkit for local use. Such materials seem necessary for local groups to know how to gather an interfaith group, how to understand each other's beliefs toward developing mutual respect, how to understand the teaching of each faith about poverty and shelter, how to take action together, how to understand the unique needs of each local community, and how to begin advocacy together in the community and beyond. We hope to set up a process around the formation of an international consulting team which will meet via conference calls to develop a toolkit for local groups.

A second “Where do we go from here” decision of the forum was to commit to symbolize in national and international venues interfaith partnerships toward ending poverty with a core issue of decent shelter for all. A vivid example of that happening was the build we organized at the annual convention in Ohio last Labor Day weekend of the Islamic Society of North America. There were some 30,000 people present; Habitat did a symbolic house framing, a Habitat poverty maze was used, and Habitat CEO Jonathan Reckford gave a keynote address.

Does Habitat have special recommendations for the new United States administration?

Well, we hope the new president and his staff will get involved in some Habitat builds, as have the other recent presidents and administrations! We hope the president will use his bully pulpit to focus the importance of decent shelter for all if we are to make advances toward overcoming poverty. We will mobilize forcefully to urge that decent housing be central to the agenda. We will also advocate for positive government action on housing, both in the current crisis and for long-term needs. It is not enough for the government to turn it all over to non-profits. No country has come close to solving housing problems without government support and action.

Any final thoughts?

I see the main business of faith groups to get people to want to give, and not to receive, to be other-centered, not self-centered. And I have learned how much joy and satisfaction there can be. You always get more than you give when you give. There's no martyrdom there—it's simply the best way. And it really must happen if we are going to change the world!

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