Politics in the modern age is a business of images, and none is more prevalent in this season than the image of the politician as Defender of the Faith. Ronald Reagan has cast himself for the part. "Faith and religion play a critical role in the political life of our nation," he said last month at a prayer breakfast. "Without God, democracy will not and cannot endure." His most prominent critic, Walter Mondale, warned that Reagan's way "will corrupt our faith and divide the nation." But perhaps the most compelling image of the season came from a politician who chose to express his faith in work, not in words. Last week Reagan's predecessor Jimmy Carter was to be found in a run-down quarter of New York, using his hands and carpentry skills to help build housing for the poor. "Rosalynn and I were planning on taking a summer vacation in the Virgin Islands, but we decided this would be better," the former President explained at his work site last week. "This is bound to be a week in our lives we'll never forget."

The Carters, along with 36 friends from Georgia, journeyed to New York to spend five days of hard labor renovating a dilapidated, 80-year-old, six-story brick building on East Sixth Street, in the high-crime badlands of Manhattan's Lower East Side. The project was sponsored by Habitat for Humanity, a Christian organization that builds low-cost housing for the poor in the U.S. and 11 foreign countries.

Carter proved throughout the project that his ego has not swollen. Along with fellow Habitat members he boarded a chartered Trailways bus in Americus, Ga. at noon on Saturday, Sept. 1. Like all his fellow pilgrims, he pinned on a name tag and settled in for the overnight ride. (Rosalynn flew up to join him two days later.) Followed by a Secret Service van, the bus picked up more volunteers in Atlanta and made its way north, stopping for Sunday services at the Bellmawr Baptist Church in Bellmawr, N.J.

It was 3:30 on Sunday afternoon when the bedraggled group arrived at the Metro Baptist Church in New York's Hell's Kitchen—a seedy neighborhood just south of Times Square. Dressed in shirt-sleeves, khaki pants and Topsiders, Carter hoisted his bags up four flights of stairs to a sparsely furnished dormitory in the men's quarters, where he and four others spread out over three double bunks. He and Rosalynn had been offered a private room, but they turned it over to a newly married couple. "This looks just fine," the former President of the United States said with a grin as he swung his suitcase onto an upper bunk.

By morning Carter had switched to a hard hat and a work apron. The largely black and Hispanic residents of East Sixth Street congregated outside the building, shouting, "Jimmy! Jimmy!", and later Carter obliged by emerging briefly to sign autographs and speak with neighbors and the press. As Millard Fuller, the 49-year-old founder and executive director of Habitat, noted, "He felt he could make a hands-on contribution by driving nails and sawing boards, but he also realized that his presence and influence would help draw attention to the project and be helpful to Habitat worldwide."

By his actions Carter made it clear that he had come to work, not talk, so he grabbed a hammer and an electric saw and got to the business at hand—replacing rotten beams, laying new floors and helping to rebuild the roof with a proficiency that amazed some observers. "I've done this kind of work since I was a teenager," he explained. At the end of the day, when Rosalynn arrived, she too was eager to pitch in. "I don't think I can manage a hammer, but I can sweep and carry boards and push a wheelbarrow like everyone else," she said shortly after she unpacked her bag in the makeshift dorm room she shared with six other women workers. "You can swing a hammer too," her husband chided.

When the renovation is completed in 13 months, the building will contain 19 apartments, ranging from studios to three-bedroom units, which will be offered to low-income purchasers for $30,000 to $35,000. The residents will receive interest-free loans from Habitat to buy the apartments and will have 20 years to repay the loans. In return they are asked to contribute their labor to other housing ventures. "The entire project is designed in accordance with biblical teachings," explained Carter. "There is a verse in Exodus that says when you lend money to a poor person, do not receive interest on the loan. It's compatible with the things I tried to do when I was President. It has a strong connotation of human rights, justice, caring for people who are poor and a willingness to share blessings with those who are needy."

Carter's involvement with Habitat began in 1982, when he was invited to speak at its annual meeting in Americus. In March—after being assured that the press would not be notified—he spent a day as a volunteer on a Habitat housing project in Americus and in April joined the board of directors. When he went to New York that same month, Carter stopped to see the East Sixth Street site, Habitat's first multiunit project. "Let me know if there's anything I can do," he told Rob DeRocker, 25, director of Habitat's local chapter, as the two men surveyed the urban wreckage from the rooftop. DeRocker recalls: "I was kidding, but I said to him, 'Why don't you come back with a group from your church for a workweek?' "

As much as anything else, Carter was attracted by the energy of Habitat's founder. Millard Fuller was a self-made millionaire and lawyer in 1965, when he and his wife, Linda, gave away nearly everything they owned to join the Christian community Koinonia Farm in Georgia. They built housing for the poor in Georgia and Zaire until 1976, when they formed Habitat for Humanity. "The idea of Habitat involves more than just building houses," he explains. "From a theological point of view we're trying to build the Kingdom of God on Earth. We believe that God does not want people living like rats."

Late in the afternoon of a long workday last week, as members of the Habitat work crew were still hammering and sweeping plaster and building floors, Jimmy Carter ducked out of the building and walked to an adjacent vacant lot. There he found an old woman stooped over a fire-blackened pot, cooking corn and eggs. He first saw her, Carter said, when he visited the building five months ago, and the image of that old woman, one of the many homeless squatters who live where they can among the burned-out buildings and empty lots of the Lower East Side, remained fixed in his memory. "That made me realize how much Habitat could mean to a neighborhood like this," he said.

Indeed, Carter's week could be measured in more than nails driven or boards sawed. It was clear that the neighbors shared Carter's enthusiasm—and saw in him a symbol of hope. "This is wonderful," said Aron Williams, whose family has lived in the area for two generations. "Once this thing is finished, something is going to happen. I don't know what it will be, but something wonderful is going to happen."

  • Contributors:
  • David Grogan,
  • Mary Shaughnessy.