I have met many famous people of deep religious faith, including Mother Teresa, Pope John Paul II, Nelson Mandela, Arch- bishop Desmond Tutu, Anwar Sadat, Menachem Begin and Billy Graham, some of whom have had a direct and beneficial effect on my life.
There is another kind of faith, perhaps more difficult to sustain: having a firm belief in yourself and in other people, or in a seemingly impossible dream. Most often, but not always, these people also have deep faith in a religious cause. I would like to describe a few of these close acquaintances.
Millard and Linda Fuller
For the past 35 years, Rosalynn and I have spent at least one week each year building homes for poor people in need for Habitat for Humanity, founded by Millard Fuller and his wife, Linda.
As students at the University of Alabama, Millard and a partner, Morris Dees (later founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center), started several innovative ventures. One was the publication of cookbooks featuring the best recipes from the mothers of other students, and another was delivering cakes or flowers to students on birthdays or other special occasions after their parents had been contacted by Fuller and Dees.
After graduation, Millard married Linda and began to practice law, but he had so much money coming in from his other business ventures that he gave up his law practice. One day, much to Millard’s shock, Linda told him that she was leaving him and going to New York for marriage counseling because he was neglecting his family and seemed interested only in getting rich. Millard followed her, begged her to come back to him, and finally agreed to give away all his money and join Linda in any work they could share.
Millard kept his promise, and the couple soon settled on the biracial Koinonia Farm, just a few miles south of Plains, and began building houses for destitute families. Then they and their three children spent three years in Zaire as missionaries supported by some Christian groups, and they developed the idea of organizing Habitat for Humanity, using the “theology of the hammer” or the “economics of Jesus.”
This was a dream that few people believed could be realized, but working with volunteers and homeowners, Habitat has now built or renovated more than 2.5 million homes in a total of 70 countries.
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Volunteers work side by side with families who have been living in subhuman dwellings. The homeowners must contribute about 500 hours of work on their own and neighbors’ houses, and repay the full price of their homes, to which they have clear title. This can be done because the houses built by Habitat are relatively inexpensive, much of the construction work is done by volunteers, and Habitat’s policy is not to charge interest.
It is difficult to describe the emotions of our Habitat workdays, where we see extraordinary commitments and lives changed among formerly forgotten people. The deep Christian faith, vision and dedication of Millard and Linda Fuller have also helped to change our lives.
The first major health conference we convened at The Carter Center was named Closing the Gap. We had more than 125 public health specialists in attendance, and we learned that two-thirds of all deaths before the age of 65 were preventable, provided people had the knowledge, access and financial means to invest in health. Relatively rich people had these means but died unnecessarily young because of smoking, excessive drugs and alcohol, obesity, lack of exercise and other personal choices.
The orchestrator of this meeting was Dr. Bill Foege, a dedicated Christian who had devised the procedure that led to the eradication of smallpox. When I was president, I appointed him director of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Later he became executive director of The Carter Center.
Bill helped to devise our Center’s health programs, with a goal of addressing neglected tropical diseases that were the primary cause of suffering and death among some of the poorest and most deprived people on earth, caused not by unhealthy choices but by contaminated drinking water, lack of sanitation, exposure to insects or leeches, ignorance or lack of basic health care. With unwavering faith in his own ability, the wisdom and dedication of suffering people who are eager to improve their own lives, and faith in the efficacy of public health, Foege helped launch programs against dracunculiasis (Guinea worm), onchocerciasis (river blindness), trachoma, schistosomiasis, lymphatic filariasis (elephantiasis), and malaria.
When Bill, who is 6 feet, 7 inches tall, was fighting against smallpox in Biafra, in the eastern region of Nigeria, the priority challenge was to immunize hundreds of people scattered in small, isolated villages. He went to see the regional chief, explained the program and asked for a guide to take him to the widespread communities.
The chief looked up at the tall American and replied, “No, it will be easier if we bring them all here.” He directed his drummer to commence sending a message, and the next morning a stream of people crowded into the village square.
After they were immunized, Dr. Foege asked the chief, “How in the world did you induce them to come here just for an immunization program?”
The chief replied, “I told them to come if they wanted to see the tallest man in the world.”
Bill later became chief medical adviser for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012. Bill Foege is one of the great heroes of my life, and he continues to play an important role in the work of The Carter Center.
Annie Mae Hollis Rhodes
When I was growing up on a farm in Archery, a young woman named Annie Mae Hollis worked for my parents. After I left home for college, she moved to Albany, where she married a man named Rhodes and got a job helping in a wealthy woman’s house. When my father was terminally ill, Mother called Annie Mae and said, “I can’t nurse Earl and take care of all the family at the same time. Could you come back and help me?” So Annie Mae moved back to Plains to be with our family. I will never forget that when my father breathed his last breath, on July 22, 1953, Annie Mae Rhodes was holding him in her arms.
Annie Mae had a good life. Because of her sterling qualities, she never lacked a job. She was a stalwart member of her church and a counselor to others in her congregation. She owned her small but attractive home, which was a focal point for socializing, especially among her church family. Her handicapped brother lived with her, able to move around, mostly in his wheelchair, and even assist in the household chores.
In July 1994, Annie Mae was sleeping when, in the middle of the night, her brother woke her and said, “It’s been raining for hours, and the radio says the water’s coming.” She said, “The water’s not coming. I’ve been here 37 years, and water’s never come in my house.” But he insisted, so she got up, found her Bible, and tried to pull her old dog out of the house. Before she could get to the car, the water was waist deep, so she clung to the car door handle until some rescue workers picked her and her brother up in a boat. Her dog drowned, and her car, her house, and everything in it were destroyed. Annie Mae lost all she had, except a Bible and the water-ravaged lot where her house had stood.
Rosalynn and I were in Japan and we didn’t know anything about Annie Mae’s plight. Two women from Atlanta went down to Albany within a couple of days to help in the relief work, and they met this extraordinary old woman, who was hobbling around trying to see what was left of her community. She was helping to rejuvenate everybody’s spirits by saying, “We need not be concerned. The Lord will take care of us. We have to have faith in God and in ourselves.”
The two women were so impressed with Annie Mae Rhodes’ faith that they asked about her life. She mentioned in passing that she had worked for our family about 40 years ago, but she said, “Don’t bother Mr. Jimmy. I don’t want to be a burden to him.” Nonetheless, the women wrote me a letter and described what had happened. Some of us volunteers with Habitat for Humanity helped Annie Mae build a small, new house on her lot.
Annie Mae’s simple faith, expressed in works, was what James described in his New Testament epistle: “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2–4).
“Enduring faith” described Annie Mae Rhodes, who survived the flood that destroyed her home. Hundreds of flood victims, Habitat volunteers, and other rescue workers were inspired by the quiet faith of a stooped, confident, quiet 77-year-old woman.
Lillian Gordy Carter
Lillian Gordy moved from Richland to nearby Plains in 1922 to become a registered nurse. She married Earl Carter the next year, and they became my parents in October 1924. Lillian first worked at a hospital in Plains and was paid $4 a day for 12 hours on duty, which was a substantial boon to the couple’s income. When my father became a farmer with a little more income, Mama began nursing in the homes of our African-American neighbors and took care of others who were poor and needed help. She was supposed to receive $6 for 20-hour duty but rarely collected full pay during the Great Depression years. After Daddy’s death in 1953, Mama was housemother of a fraternity at Auburn University for seven years, then managed a nursing home until she “got tired of being around old folks,” and joined the Peace Corps at the age of 68. She nursed in a clinic in Vikhroli, India, a village owned by the wealthy Godrej family.
The Godrejes’ gardener secretly brought Mama flowers and vegetables, and told her that he had a son and daughter but that he could not afford to send his daughter to school. Having no other way to repay him, my mother taught the little girl how to read and write, and about the world outside. Mama served in India for two-and-a-half years, then returned home and made more than 500 speeches before her death 15 years later. She spoke about how good the Peace Corps service was and said, “We are never too old to serve.” The U.S. Peace Corps now gives an annual Lillian Carter Award to the former volunteer who served after the age of 50 and has exhibited the most admirable service to others.
Later, Rosalynn and I led a group of Habitat volunteers in building a hundred homes near Vikhroli, and the Godrej family had a reception for us and invited some of the people who had known Mother. I asked what happened to the gardener’s daughter. She stood and told us that she was now president of the region’s university.
Mama was a deeply religious woman, and she followed the parable of Jesus by making full use of every talent and opportunity to serve others.
One of the most memorable examples of faithfulness I ever knew occurred early in my term as president, when I found myself at odds with Idi Amin, the military dictator of Uganda. A few years earlier, the U.S. ambassador in Kampala had de- clared Amin’s regime to be “racist, erratic and unpredictable, brutal, inept, bellicose, irrational, ridiculous, and militaristic” and our American embassy there had been closed.
I do not remember having mentioned Amin in any of my public statements, but he was described in American news media at the time as being one of the world’s worst human rights oppressors, with the International Commission of Jurists estimating the number of Ugandan people killed by him to be about 300,000, including a former prime minister, the chief justice of the supreme court, and the Anglican archbishop.
In any case, Amin strongly condemned my human rights policy and threatened to retaliate. About a month after my inauguration, he issued an edict that no American could either enter or leave Uganda, and that all our citizens who were living in his country had to personally meet with him.
I contemplated moving some warships into the region and began contacting any friendly foreign leaders who might have influence with Amin. After a few days, he announced that all Christian missionaries were under arrest, and that if I did not apologize for critical American comments about him, some of the missionaries would be executed. I learned that he was a Muslim and had great respect for the leaders of Saudi Arabia, so I asked Saudi King Khalid to intercede. He did so, and Amin then announced that all the captive Americans would be permitted to leave Uganda. None of them chose to do so, and they returned to their village posts and continued with their Christian ministry.
My younger brother, Billy, was quite different from me, and superior in many ways. Mama always said that he was the most intelligent member of our family, and none of us who knew him well ever disputed her. Two of his most outstanding characteristics were his ability to make friends and his remarkable sense of humor. I have never formed more than a few close and intimate friendships at a time, and I would estimate that Billy usually had 10 times as many.
As a member of our family, he became an object of interest to the many news reporters who flooded into Plains when my presidential campaign progressed, and they were fascinated with Billy’s gregarious behavior. One of them asked him if he considered himself to be peculiar. After a moment, he replied, “Look, my youngest sister is a Holy Roller preacher, the other one spends half her time on a motorcycle, my mother joined the Peace Corps when she was about 70 years old, and my brother thinks he is going to be President of the United States! Which one of us do you think is most normal?”
The reporters were complimentary at first, but many of them became highly critical later in his life. Billy became an apparently hopeless alcoholic while I was president, but 12 years before his death Billy decided on his own, encouraged by his wife Sybil, to combat his addiction. He never drank again, was reconciled with his family, and lived a full and productive life. During these years, he and Sybil traveled all over America to inspire thousands of addicts who were struggling to break their dependence on alcohol and drugs. Impressed by Billy’s humorous and down-to-earth account of his own travails and his faith in their ability to follow his example, they responded with surprising enthusiasm to his beneficial counseling. Successfully fighting his desire for alcohol through all those years, Billy demonstrated his self-confidence, or faith in himself.
On his deathbed, surrounded by close friends and family and knowing he was afflicted with pancreatic cancer, he was still able to fill the room with laughter. My brother was an inspiration to me.
From “Faith: A Journey for All” by Jimmy Carter. Copyright © 2018. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.