The Rev. Samuel St. John Emerick passed away on Jan. 13 at the age of 96. Emerick was a Habitat for Humanity pioneer, serving as the first chair of Habitat for Humanity International’s board of directors.
In 1965, Sam Emerick drove from Richmond, Indiana, to Americus, Georgia, to attend a conference on poverty at Koinonia Farm. It was there he first heard Clarence Jordan’s notion of partnership housing. “It grabbed me by the shirt,” Emerick would say, pulling on his collar. “I couldn’t ignore it. I literally felt as if someone had gotten a hold of me and wouldn’t let go.”
With Jordan’s words ringing in his ears, Emerick returned to Indiana where he was director of Yokefellow Institute, a church renewal center at Earlham College. Emerick pressed for an entity to address local housing issues in Richmond; soon, he found himself as chairman of Richmond’s new Community Improvement Committee. Through it, 200 new houses were built for low-income families. “In doing so, I realized that I didn’t know much about poverty,” Emerick would later recall. “But I wanted to understand the cause and I knew the needs.”
Eventually, Emerick became part of the group that met at Koinonia during the summer of 1968 to lay out the vision for Koinonia’s new partnership housing ministry — the foundation of Habitat for Humanity. When Millard Fuller launched Habitat in 1976, Emerick served as the first board chair. “He led with grace and dignity,” says Clive Rainey, Habitat’s first volunteer and a longtime staff member. “But for all that surface calm, Sam, too, was on fire with the vision of Clarence Jordan.”
Emerick and his wife Patsy moved to Florida in 1978, where he helped start affiliates in Sarasota and Charlotte, Lee and Collier counties. “I used to call him a national treasure right in our backyard, and I truly meant that,” says Mike Mansfield, CEO of Charlotte County Habitat. “Sam was soft-spoken but steadfast. Think back to those early years and how crazy those ideas must have seemed. But Sam was so focused on ‘how do you throw off that yoke of poverty?’ He continued that mission for the rest of his life.”
In 2008, the 300,000th Habitat house worldwide was built by Habitat Collier County. “Love isn’t confined to words or pretty things. It’s action,” Emerick said that day. “I remember the spirit of volunteers and how much we’ve always relied on our volunteers. It’s amazing to see that spirit still out there today. There are people who are held by the idea today just as I was when I was listening to Clarence.”