By Todd Cohen
WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Flying in the face of a recent finding that people in Forsyth County, while deeply religious, don’t trust one another, is a five-year-old interracial initiative by Habitat for Humanity of Forsyth County.
The initiative, which aims to put different racial groups together to build affordable dwellings for needy people, has produced eight houses, including one built last year by Christians, Jews and Muslims.
That pioneering effort – the first ever at any Habitat chapter involving all three religions – has landed Forsyth’s chapter a prestigious award from Habitat for Humanity International.
And thanks to $100,000 from the Winston-Salem Foundation – the largest grant from its $2.5 million fund it to build civic ties, known as “social capital” – Habitat has ambitious plans to build more houses and connect more people.
In Forsyth County, that will be challenging, says Kay Lord, Habitat’s executive director.
“We’ve not made very much progress in race relations over the past 10 years,” she says. “It is very difficult for people of different backgrounds to get to know each other outside the workplace.”
To help tackle that problem, the Winston-Salem Foundation in 1996 gave Habitat $50,000.
Using those funds to help raise the remainder of the $45,000 it need to build a single house, Habitat enlisted members of 13 black and white churches and constructed eight houses.
One of those was built last year in northeast Winston-Salem by members of three black churches, three white churches, a Jewish temple and an Islamic masjid.
“We all build images in our mind of distinctions and they break down when we meet people,” says the Rev. Stephen McCutchan, pastor of Highland Presbyterian Church, a partner in the project and part of a nine-year-old interracial initiative involving black and white Presbyterian churches.
“It’s often easier for people to build relationships when they’re working on a common project,” he says.
On April 30, the Forsyth chapter was one of only two to receive Habitat International’s Clarence Jordan Award for creativity and innovation.
Lord says the chapter, which has built 125 houses since it was formed in 1985, will build 24 more this year, up from 19 last year, and expects to build 30 a year by 2003.
Habitat — a mortgage lender that has formed a partnership with Piedmont Federal Savings and Loan to collect mortgage payments — this spring will finance its first house entirely through mortgage payments for previous houses.
“Mortgage payments are being used to build more houses,” Lord says, adding that Habitat has never foreclosed on a house.
Habitat’s expanding construction program simply creates new opportunities to connect people across racial lines, she said.
“As you are building the physical walls of the house,” she says, “the social walls you brought with you start crumbling.”