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The 75-Year (and Counting) Christian Interracial Farm Experiment

Courtesy of the Koinonia Farm.

The 75-Year (and Counting) Christian Interracial Farm Experiment

For the past 75 years, Koinonia Farm in Georgia has been a radical experiment in Christian living, depending on your definition of "radical."
View of the farm from the 1950s or 1960s. Courtesy of the Koinonia Farm.

It would be easy to miss the entrance to Koinonia Farm. Nine miles south of Plains, Georgia, on a quiet stretch of Georgia State Route 49, past rusted tractors, houses fluctuating between stateliness and disrepair, and innumerable Baptist churches, the sudden pull-off to Koinonia is marked only by a plain wooden sign, embellished with the name of the farm, a cross, and an arrow pointing across the street to a dirt drive. Turning into the drive, you might see an older white man in dusty overalls, hauling a wheelbarrow; or an African-American woman wearing an elastic hairnet, carrying a tray of baked goods; or children of all ages and ethnicities, chasing each other through the playground. You would see a scattering of small but attractive houses and workshops, farm equipment, and hundreds of acres of serene pasture. It is difficult to imagine that, nearly 60 years ago, this tiny and tranquil place drew the rage of the entire county, and faced not only economic boycotts, but persecution, isolation, and terrorism.

Koinonia Farm was founded in 1942, established principally by a white Baptist minister named Clarence Jordan. Born July 29, 1912, in Talbotton, Georgia, Jordan attended University of Georgia’s College of Agriculture with the mission of improving farming techniques for underprivileged farmers and sharecroppers. After earning his agriculture degree, Jordan enrolled in the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, receiving his Ph.D. in Greek New Testament in 1939. A conversant and commanding speaker, Jordan was invited to minister, teach, and lead missions in cities and towns across the South, where he preached pacifism and racial equality, often over the objections of his white colleagues. Clarence Jordan could have pursued a long and successful life in the ministry, but, inspired by the early Christian communities as depicted in the Acts of the Apostles, particularly chapters 2:44-45 (“And all that believed were together, and had all things in common; And sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all men, as every man had need”), Jordan decided instead to combine his ministerial and agricultural training, to build what he called a “demonstration plot for the kingdom of God.”

Clarence Jordan, the cofounder of Koinonia Farm, poses with the children of community members. The population of the farm had grown to around 60 people in 1956, but by the end of the 1960s only two families remained. Courtesy of Hargrett Rare Book and Manuscript Library, University of Georgia Libraries

Clarence and his wife Florence, together with Baptist missionary Martin England and his wife Mabel, acquired 400 acres in southwest Georgia’s rural Sumter County. Committed to the practices of nonviolence, racial egalitarianism, and responsible land stewardship, the ministers named their land Koinonia, after the Greek word for “communion” or “fellowship,” used in Acts to describe early Christians who shared possessions and practiced communal living. Koinonia Farm was to be a place where all members lived equally, pooling resources into a common purse. As the rest of the nation was absorbed by World War II, Koinonia preached pacifism. As Southern governments enforced Jim Crow laws and segregation, Koinonia hired black workers, paid them the same wage as whites, and invited black and white workers to eat together at the same tables.

Koinonia wasn’t the only communal or intentional Christian community in the country at this time: The Mennonites, Shakers, Hutterites, and others had already been established, in some cases for decades, before Clarence Jordan first broke ground in Sumter County. But unlike many of these other communities, Koinonia was open to visitors and guests of all faiths or no faith, to all creeds, classes, and colors. Though the community would claim no more than 14 adult members by the close of the decade, a place like Koinonia, in southwest Georgia in the middle of the 20th century, couldn’t help but attract local attention. It wasn’t long before the neighbors began to take notice.

Steve Krout comes in from working the field at Koinonia Farm in January 2018. 

The closest town to the farm is Americus, Georgia, sitting eight-and-a-half miles northeast of the property. A municipality of about 16,000 people, Americus is today recognized for its antebellum and Victorian architecture, including the Windsor Hotel, built in 1892; and the historic, Art Deco-inspired Rylander Theatre. The international headquarters for Habitat for Humanity is located in downtown Americus. There are clothing boutiques and craft beer festivals.

I stop at Americus on my way to Koinonia. I’ve driven nearly three hours from Atlanta, after flying in from the West Coast, and I need coffee. I turn down West Lamar Street, the main drag through town. It is Friday afternoon in January, and the streets are bright and calm. As a person of color in an unfamiliar Southern city, I want to be deliberate in my motions and movements. Keep my head down but my eyes alert. I park my rental car and walk into the first coffee shop I find.

Café Campesino serves organic and fair-trade coffee, and its walls are adorned with photos of Central and South American coffee farmers. I order a cup of coffee and a chicken salad and have a seat at an empty table. I’m halfway through my salad when an older white man, in his 70s or early 80s, pulls out a chair at my table, though there are other available tables, and sits down to eat his own lunch. He doesn’t say a word as he eats, and he hardly glances in my direction. I think how odd it is that this white man can today so casually sit down at a table with an African-American man when, in this same town, Clarence Jordan and the other members of Koinonia Farm had been threatened with their lives for even suggesting such a thing.

On May 17, 1954, in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, the United States Supreme Court ruled that state laws establishing segregated public schools were unconstitutional. While the residents of Sumter County had not exactly been welcoming to Koinonia Farm—in 1950, the nearby Rehoboth Southern Baptist Church excommunicated members of Koinonia for their views on racial equality—they at least tolerated the tiny farming community. By the mid-’50s, however, reeling from the Supreme Court’s ruling, Sumter County had decided enough was enough.

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Jordan feeds the chickens in the coop in this photo, circa 1960s. Courtesy of the Koinonia Farm.
Volunteers pick pecans in the orchards on the farm in the 1960s. Courtesy of the Koinonia Farm.

It began with a countywide boycott of Koinonia. People and shopkeepers ceased to buy from Koinonia Farm or carry its produce, and they also refused to sell gasoline and fertilizer and other essential supplies to the farm. The farm's insurance was cancelled, and its bank accounts were closed. By late 1956, the citizens of Sumter County had stepped up their campaign of intimidation. People drove past the property at night, firing bullets indiscriminately, in some cases narrowly missing sleeping children. Burning crosses lit up the night. Farm equipment and roadside stands were dynamited. Phone calls woke residents up from their sleep, accusing them of being Communists and “nigger lovers.” Children of Koinonia members faced daily harassment at school. In February 1957, a motorcade of 70 to 80 cars, carrying members of the Ku Klux Klan, visited Koinonia and asked the members of the community to leave the state. When Dorothy Day, from the Catholic Worker Movement, visited the farm in the spring of 1957 and volunteered to sit night watch, a car drove past and fired a shotgun into her car. She was unharmed, but badly shaken. Faced with these threats, Clarence Jordan and the other members felt compelled to stay the course, to remain committed to the original vision, despite the risks.

“We felt that whatever we did, we had to give this project to God on his terms,” Jordan said. “We knew this flew in the face of the southern code. We knew white men could disappear just like black men. It scared the hell out of us, but the alternative was to not do it, and that scared us more.”

To circumvent the local boycott, Koinonia began a nationwide mail-order business, shipping its goods to sympathetic consumers across the country. They cultivated, separated, and packaged pecans and peanuts, with the advertising slogan, “Help us ship the nuts out of Georgia.” While the mail-order business kept them afloat, and though curious guests continued to visit the farm, Koinonia was losing members; by the end of the ‘50s, membership had dropped to only five to eight families, including the Jordans and their four children (Martin and Mabel England left in 1944 to resume their missionary commitments).

While Koinonia struggled for survival, the Civil Rights movement was just beginning to mobilize in the area. In July 1963, hundreds of protestors marched against segregation in Americus, resulting in the incarceration of more than thirty girls in a horrific stockade in nearby Leesburg. Two years later, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, united with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Sumter County Movement, assembled an estimated 600 marchers in downtown Americus. President Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act that August, and by the time schools opened later that month, the enrollment of black students in formerly segregated schools soared, from four to almost ninety. By the end of the year, more than 2,000 African-Americans in Sumter County had registered to vote.

Geneva Brown, Bakery Manager at Koinonia for more than 25 years.
Archival photo of Clarence Jordan on display at the farm. Courtesy of the Koinonia Farm.
Cement is poured on the farm during construction of a new building, date unknown. At right is partner Bo Johnson. Courtesy of the Koinonia Farm.

I turn off the paved highway and onto the dirt drive of Koinonia Farm. The grounds are quiet and still, as though having been recently abandoned. A volleyball net sags to the ground; dry branches litter the playground. The half-dozen or so buildings, however, appear to be structurally sound and inviting, like any street in any American residential neighborhood. I park and enter the welcome center. Inside, there is a modest collection of merchandise for sale, including books written by or about Clarence Jordan, histories of Koinonia, audiobooks, DVDs, T-shirts, coffee beans, and all varieties of pecan products—cinnamon spiced pecans, hickory smoked pecans, pecan brittle, pecan butter, pecan bark, chocolate pecan, pecan pie, etc.,—all packaged onsite. An African-American woman in her 50s named Gloria Hurley sits behind the counter. Hurley has worked at Koinonia for 20 years; she is currently assistant products coordinator. She offers to give me a tour of the worksite, which includes a fully operational bakery and three pecan plants. “You just missed harvest season,” she tells me. “That’s our busiest time of the year.” Harvest season begins around October and runs through December, when workers are up to their necks in pecans, harvesting trees and fulfilling Christmas mail-orders. But there is still work to be done today, and I soon discover that the reason I didn’t see any people when I first pulled into the farm is because they’re all working inside the plants, separating and sorting pecans, or mixing chocolate and pecans inside the bakery. There aren’t many workers—I meet fewer than a dozen—and they all share a close and familial rapport, as though Koinonia is nothing more than a simple mom-and-pop operation. Inside the pecan plants and bakery, whites and blacks work side by side, a testament to Koinonia’s 75-year ambition, and evidence of its survival.

Norris Harris, a 25-year Koinonia veteran, inspects pecans in the bakery.

Norris Harris, an African-American man in his 60s, was hired as a supervisor in 1993, became product manager two years later, and is now a covenanted member. He is also an African Methodist Episcopal pastor, and often leads devotions at the community’s small chapel. “This morning, during devotions,” he tells me, “when they call out the names of the disciples that Jesus sent out, I said, ‘That was then. Their bodies have returned to the dust from whence they came. It’s not their watch anymore. It’s our watch.’ Because guess who’s got to make sure this place is here another 75 years? It depends on what we do now. You don’t wait on the demonstration plot for the kingdom of God. The demonstration is right before you every day.” Harris brought his granddaughter to the community daycare 20 years ago, when she was a year old. Now 21, she works in Koinonia’s bakery and pecan plant. “One reason I stay here,” Harris tells me, “is to make sure that when she gets as old as I am, when she has children of her own, they can come to Koinonia and say, ‘This is where I got my start. This is that demonstration plot.’ I would like for her to come out here 20 years from now and Koinonia still be here.”

During an outdoor service reading, volunteers sit and listen to partners, including, Susan Major, standing center, and Don Abbott, far right, in the 1970s. Courtesy of the Koinonia Farm.

Harassment of Koinonia Farm finally abetted in the late ’60s, but it now faced an existential crisis. The community consisted of only two families, with hired employees and seasonal help for the mail-order business. After years of attacks against Koinonia, Clarence Jordan wrote in a newsletter that he was suffering “battle fatigue.” He was occasionally invited to speak to audiences or deliver sermons at universities and churches, but he was beginning to lose steam. During this time, Jordan had begun a new project—translating the New Testament into Georgia vernacular. The “Cotton Patch Versions,” as he called these translations, imagined the events of the New Testament happening in South Georgia, with whites and African-Americans substituting for Jews and Gentiles, and comparing the conflicts of ancient Palestine to those of the Jim Crow south. Jordan wanted to make the Gospel understandable and relatable to common farmers and field hands, while also stressing the un-Christianlike attributes of racism and segregation. Certain passages were sure to have rankled some of the good church people in Sumter County, such as Peter’s proclamation in Acts 10:30: “I am convinced beyond any doubt…that God pays no attention to a man’s skin. Regardless of his race, the man who respects God and practices justice is welcomed by him. This point was made clear to the white people when the good news of peace through Jesus Christ was preached. He indeed is Lord of all people.”

A worker at the farm’s child development center holds one of her charges in the 1980s. Courtesy of the Koinonia Farm.

Other passages, intentionally or not, made for much more irreverent and often humorous moments, like the depiction of John the Baptist, from Matthew 3:4: “This guy John was dressed in blue jeans and a leather jacket, and he was living on corn bread and collard greens. Folks were coming to him from Atlanta and all over north Georgia and the backwater of the Chattahoochee. And as they owned up to their crooked ways, he dipped them in the Chattahoochee.”

Barb Hauffman came from Ohio to work for the winter. She's visited Koinonia, off and on, for 8 years.
Keith Maendel cleans out a gas filter from a tractor being repaired nearby.
January blooms on the farm.

While these Cotton Patch translations occupied much of Jordan’s time, Koinonia was still in urgent need of renewed ambition and direction, if it were to become more than a footnote in history. Ambition and direction arrived in 1968, when a young lawyer, businessman, and self-made millionaire from Alabama named Millard Fuller, and his wife Linda, moved to Koinonia Farm. The Fullers had first visited five years earlier. Facing a spiritual as well as a marital crisis, the couple soon gave away their wealth and moved with their children to Koinonia. Millard Fuller found a spiritual mentor and partner in Clarence Jordan, and the two men immediately set about discussing their new mission: building housing for the poor. Using Scripture as an argument that land and property should be available to all those in need, Jordan proposed a Fund for Humanity, in which donors could provide non-interest loans to be used to build houses for the poor in Sumter County. With Jordan’s vision and Fuller’s business acumen, Koinonia Farm was retooled as a nonprofit partnership, expanded its mail-order business, and became Koinonia Partners, Inc. They began receiving donations and setting aside land for home construction. Though he was recharged with new and significant purpose, Clarence Jordan would not survive to witness the fruits of his labor. On October 29, 1969, while working on his translations inside his writing shack, Jordan suffered a fatal cardiac arrest. He was 57 years old.

An old photo of Clarence Jordan’s writing shack. Courtesy of the Koinonia Farm.
Dilapidated and in need of major repair, a new shack was built on the spot.

The funeral was held on Koinonia property, attended by a crowd of about 80, mostly consisting of family, Koinonia members, and poor farmers from the area. Jordan was buried in his work clothes, in a simple wooden crate used to ship caskets. He was laid to rest in a pasture called Picnic Hill, while Millard Fuller read aloud passages from Jordan’s Cotton Patch translations. The Fullers’ 2-year-old daughter, Faith, began to sing the “Happy Birthday” song to Clarence Jordan, as the men shoveled dirt onto the improvised coffin.

The story of Koinonia might have ended there, but, like early Christian communities coming together following Jesus’ death, its story and message only expanded over the next decade. New members and volunteers flocked to Koinonia; the Fund for Humanity began building its first houses for families in need; Jordan’s Cotton Patch books were published; and the first biography of Clarence Jordan and Koinonia Farm, The Cotton Patch Evidence, by Dallas Lee, was published. In 1973, Millard and Linda Fuller decided to take the idea of partnership housing to Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). Three years later, after successfully establishing a housing program there, which ultimately oversaw the construction of 114 new houses, the Fullers returned to Koinonia Farm, and in 1976, with the support and backing of Koinonia members, the Fullers announced their new project: Habitat for Humanity International.

Banners of love, joy, and peace line the wall inside Koinonia Chapel. The chapel sits just off a main road in Sumter County, Georgia—it's where members of the Koinina community gather at sunrise for prayer.

I wander the pastures and orchards of Koinonia Farm, speak with the residents, and attend morning devotion at the chapel, fumbling my way through singing the hymns. I sleep in one of eight guest bedrooms in the Fuller House. The other bedrooms are unoccupied. This time of year doesn’t bring as many guests as the spring and summer months, but Koinonia is at the moment preparing to welcome five new interns, joining the four interns who arrived months earlier. Interns come to Koinonia from all over the world, not necessarily to learn about farming, but rather to learn about intentional communal living and hospitality. A Christian faith isn’t required, but everyone is expected to attend daily morning chapel services, and to study and practice fellowship.

“From 1942 on, we’ve always welcomed everyone and anyone, from all backgrounds, all faiths, no faith, it doesn’t matter,” says Bren Dubay, steward and director at Koinonia. “Hospitality is a central tenet of Koinonia. But people know they’re coming to a Christian community.”

Bren Dubay, Director of Koinonia Farm.

After abandoning its communal practice, Koinonia converted to a not-for-profit service business in 1993, and the organization went through three executive directors over the next four years. In 1999, upon discovering one executive director had mismanaged and embezzled monies, Koinonia found itself $1 million in debt. Donations poured in, and Koinonia sold more than half its land, going from 1,400 acres to 575. Within a year, Koinonia was back in the black. The board of directors initiated a national search for a new executive director. Bren Dubay, a native of Texas, was hired in 2004 and tasked with finding a way forward for the community. She, the board, staff, and volunteers discussed their next moves. “We talked about three things,” Dubay says. “Should we become a living museum? Is that what we want? Should we become a very humble bed-and-breakfast with a good story to tell? Or should we return to the original vision?”

Nathaniel Nelson, a Koinonia intern from Los Angeles, began his internship in January 2018.
Bakery manager Geneva Brown reaches for pots.

In January 2005, Koinonia returned to Clarence Jordan’s vision of communal living, sharing a common purse, and providing for each member according to financial need. Koinonia also reinstated its internship program. Internships are for three-month terms, with food and board provided. After the first three months, interns can, if they wish, apply for a year-long internship. “This life, especially on a farm, it’s not horizontal, it’s vertical,” Dubay says. “You grow these deep roots. You’re here when it is good and you’re here when it is bad. You’re here when you’re bored to death and you don’t want to see any of these people anymore, and you’re here when you’re joyful and celebratory. You make a commitment to live the life.” One of the people who made that commitment is 31-year-old Steve Krout, from York, Pennsylvania. With a stocky build, close-cropped brown hair, broad smile, and a tattoo on his forearm of a large tree, underscored with a passage from 1 Corinthians (“The last enemy to be destroyed is death”), Krout started as an intern in 2015. He is now a novice, working to become a member. To become a member, a person must first apply to become a candidate, then petition for membership. After three years as a novice, he or she may become a covenanted member.

Koinonia Farm staff and interns gather for breakfast, followed by weekly Examen—an ancient practice for prayerful reflection.

“It is a constant life of communion with God,” Krout tells me. “Reading the Scripture, prayer, living with people, sharing, welcoming people from all kinds of backgrounds and faiths, or no faith. That, to me, is really living the Gospel, the two great commandments—love God and love your neighbor. And who’s your neighbor? Everyone. This is the great thing about Koinonia.” I ask Krout if he believes the present model is true to the original vision, as envisioned by Clarence Jordan in 1942. Based on what he’s learned about those early years, how does today’s Koinonia measure up? “For Clarence, it was about, everyone has a place at the table here,” Krout says. “Everyone is welcome to sit at the table and eat. I definitely believe today that we still very much follow the vision that Clarence had.”

Clarence Jordan's tractor.
A Koinonia intern bags pecans from the year’s harvest on the farm.
Pecan tree detail on the farm.

In our current national climate, with Christianity routinely being used by politicians as a tool to divide the nation into opposing factions, the concept of an intentional Christian community—one that has always openly advocated for brotherhood—might seem just as foreign today as it was 75 years ago. Given this, what are Krout’s hopes for Koinonia in the years to come? “I hope that there is always someone here faithful to our mission, and that people are always here to welcome people from all walks of life,” he says. “I think that is so important, especially in our culture today, and our political climate. That is such a necessity. Especially as a church, we really need to get back to welcoming all people.” Koinonia Farm has rededicated itself to communal living and to Clarence Jordan’s aim to feed the hungry, physically and spiritually, with its community outreach programs, hospitality services, and natural farming practices, including pesticide- and herbicide-free produce and grass-fed beef. Their mail-order business, established in the ‘60s to overcome the economic boycotts and threats by the Klan, continues to sustain them. Jubilee Partners—an organization offering hospitality to refugees recently arrived in the U.S.—was established by Koinonia members in 1979 and is still active today. After leaving Habitat for Humanity in 2005, Millard and Linda Fuller returned once again to Koinonia Farm to announce their next venture: The Fuller Center for Housing, a non-profit, ecumenical organization, building and renovating homes worldwide for those in need.

Archival photo on display at the farm, 1940s or 1950s. Individuals could not be identified. Courtesy of the Koinonia Farm.
Group photo including, far left Lady B. Sims, Maime Pope (white apron), and Mazzie Morgan, center white shirt, black hat, circa. 1960s. The barn later burned down. Courtesy of the Koinonia Farm.
Norman Race, partner and farmer (at left), and Roy Williams, volunteer and neighbor, circa 1977 or 1978. Courtesy of the Koinonia Farm.

While photos of and quotes by Clarence Jordan are reverentially displayed throughout Koinonia, in the town of Americus, Millard Fuller, who passed away in 2009, is venerated with a status more akin to a Founding Father. Both the headquarters for Habitat for Humanity and the Fuller Center for Housing are located downtown, mere blocks from each other. Millard Fuller Boulevard runs one mile through the city, from the Sumter County courthouse to Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard. The Millard Fuller Memorial Highway extends 22 miles, from LaGrange, Georgia to Valley, Alabama. But if you’re looking for Clarence Jordan’s name in Americus, you’ll have to stop in front of the Rylander Theatre and look down. There on the sidewalk, along the “Americus Walk of Fame,” lies a single plaque, with a brief inscription:

       Dr. Clarence Jordan        1912 — 1969        Founded Koinonia Farms in 1942        Author of        Cotton Patch Series        Civil Rights Worker

Jordan’s legacy, though less celebrated, has not gone completely unrecognized. This March, Americus and Koinonia are holding the Clarence Jordan Symposium, celebrating the community’s 75th anniversary, with three days of events, workshops, and speeches, centering around Jordan’s teachings of racial equality and nonviolence. The Rylander Theatre is presenting The Cotton Patch Gospel, an award-winning musical based on Jordan’s translations, with music and lyrics written by Harry Chapin in 1981. The hosts of the symposium, First Baptist Church and First Methodist Church, had once prevented Jordan and Koinonia members from attempting to integrate their worship services. Current situation notwithstanding, our cultural identity, including our churches and schools, has, in immeasurable ways, finally caught up to what Clarence Jordan had been preaching, 75 years ago, from a small farm in rural Sumter County, Georgia. It was a bold stance then, and now. “Faith is not belief in spite of evidence,” Jordan said, “but a life in scorn of the consequences.”

Group photo on the farm in the 1980s, including Edward Collard, volunteer (far left), and partners Margaret Faust, second from left, and Ray Rockwell, far right with volunteers. Courtesy of the Koinonia Farm.

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