For 15 years, Habitat for Humanity has been building and renovating houses for the poor across the United States and around the world, using as much donated material and volunteer labor as it can muster.
Then the houses are sold, employing what Fuller termed "biblical economics," to the poor at no profit and no interest.
"It's common sense that everybody who gets sleepy at night ought to have a place to sleep," Fuller said yesterday, sitting in an office at Eastern
College in St. Davids before one of the many yearly speeches he gives around the country to win more volunteers for the Habitat campaign.
"What's surprised me is that we have been able to make it work in places like Philadelphia, New York, Chicago and Cleveland," said Fuller, who spoke yesterday at West Chester University. "We've been able to make it work everywhere."
With more than 550 affiliate chapters in the United States and Canada, Habitat for Humanity has constructed or renovated nearly 10,000 structures, according to its officials.
The 10,000th house will be built in one day, April 13, in Atlanta, "just for the drama of it," said Fuller, who has written four books about his experiences with Habitat. The most recent, The Excitement is Building, was published last year.
This summer, the organization plans a 15-week building blitz to mark its 15th anniversary, with volunteers starting projects in 15 locations around the country. Then they will move on to another site, stopping in 225 cities, until they all converge in Columbus, Ohio, for a celebration.
"It's going to be the biggest party in history," said Fuller, an admitted workaholic who two decades ago decided that, to save his marriage and his family, he had to give up his lucrative business partnership.
He gave away $1 million and moved with his wife to Koinonia Farm, an integrated Christian community near Americus in rural southern Georgia, which was dotted with crude shacks and dilapidated houses. There, the house-building ministry took form.
"One of the things we saw around us was (that) a lot of people were living in substandard housing," said Fuller, reciting a Bible verse about how it is in the Christian nature to invite the destitute in.
"We couldn't invite all those people into our house," said Fuller. At that time, there were more than 27,000 people in Sumter County, about half of whom lived in poor housing.
"So we said we've got to build them all a house," Fuller recalled. That was back in 1969, when the ministry was known as Partnership Housing. The first one went to Bo and Emma Johnson, who paid off their mortgage in 1989, six months early.
In 1976, after Fuller and his wife had transplanted their ministry to Zaire for three years, Habitat for Humanity opened shop in the United States. Fuller is now executive director.
Volunteers (only a handful of affiliates have any paid staff) have built houses from rural Georgia to the rugged plains of Peru, from the Mississippi Delta to Haiti, from the Tennessee mountains to the inner cities of Philadelphia, Chicago and New York. They have even been to Armenia to help the 1989 earthquake victims.
The costs range from as low as $5,000 in the Tennessee mountains to $50,000 in Southern California.
In Philadelphia, where former President Jimmy Carter came more than two years ago to help on a project, workers have built and rehabilitated 20 houses during the last six years, at an average cost of $26,000. At least nine have been built in the Bucks and Chester Counties for roughly the same amount.
"We had a big vision from the beginning," Fuller said, one that has been sharpened as the organization grew. Today, he talks about "making shelter a matter of conscience" in addition to providing the needy with a place to live.
"We want to make (poor housing and homelessness) religiously, socially, politically and morally unacceptable to people," said Fuller, who believes such societal ills could go the way of smoking on airplanes if enough public awareness can be raised.
"It'll go away," he said.