From the Ground Up: Carpenters for Christ Reaches #125

August 29, 2023 by Analise Narine

Be part of a milestone moment by volunteering to help build Carpenters for Christ’s house #125 this fall! Sign up now for a season filled with food, fun, fellowship, and faith.

The Foundation

Carpenters for Christ, a ministry of Highland Park United Methodist Church, will start building its 125th house this fall, making it the largest contributor to Habitat for Humanity of any faith-based organization worldwide. This accomplishment took years of meetings, donations, and sweat equity. And it all started with six congregants who had a vision for Habitat for Humanity at HPUMC: Doug & Jeanne Reinelt, Philip Wise, Kent & Susan Roberts, and Stephen White.

Doug and Philip were involved with Habitat for Humanity before the foundation of Carpenters for Christ. Philip was a founder of the Dallas Area Habitat for Humanity and has served on the board for over 30 years, and Doug was an independent volunteer and later the faculty advisor for the Southern Methodist University campus chapter of Habitat for Humanity.

“We went out to dinner with our wives and talked about getting the church involved with Habitat as a sponsor,” Doug said. “That was toward the end of Rev. Leighton Farrell's time as the senior minister of HPUMC. It didn’t seem like quite the right time to start an initiative like Habitat, so we postponed it.”

Soon after, in 1995, HPUMC welcomed a new senior minister, Rev. Mark Craig. He delivered a sermon about all that the church had done in the community, building churches in North Dallas, partnering with the Wesley-Rankin Community Center in West Dallas, and working on projects that made a difference in East Dallas. Then, he said that it was time to look toward South Dallas.

“Doug and I both sing in the choir, and we were listening to this sermon.” Doug’s wife, Jeanne Reinelt, said. “We'd been waiting for a while since we'd had that dinner for the time to be right for our church to start doing Habitat. Rev. Mark Craig said that, and we just turned and looked at each other across the way with that knowing look, 'This is it. Finally, we're here!’”

Doug and Philip made an appointment to meet with Rev. Mark Craig two days after his sermon. They spoke with him about the church getting involved with Habitat for Humanity. At the time, their aim was simply to build one house, and while Doug said Rev. Craig was enthusiastic, he also wanted it to be a grassroots effort.

“He didn't want it to be driven from the top down—he wanted it to be from the bottom up,” Doug said. “So he put us together with Kent Roberts, his wife Susan, and Stephen White, who were in a disciple Bible Study together and were also thinking about getting the church involved with Habitat. That's how the committee got started.”

Doug became chair of the first committee. Committee member and choir member Dallas Miles came up with the name “Carpenters for Christ,” and Jeanne, a graphic designer by trade, designed the original logo. They had laid the groundwork for Carpenters for Christ at HPUMC, but there was a lot of work to be done to build it up.

“We wanted to send a letter to raise money from the congregation for the first house, but the finance committee was worried that it would take away from donations to the general operation expenses of the church,” Doug said. “I thought that the opposite would happen. If the church became more involved in the community, then people would not only get excited about that project but also about giving to the church.”

Doug and Jeanne drafted the letter and created a brochure. After mailing them out, donations from the congregation came rolling in. Doug also spoke from the Sanctuary pulpit to garner support for the vision for Carpenters for Christ. After a year of gathering donations and organizing, the first house build began in the fall of 1996, and there was no shortage of volunteers.

“Everybody wanted to work,” Jeanne said. “People would say, ‘I always wanted to do Habitat for Humanity, and now I get the chance. There was a lot of demand, and it was exciting, but there were only so many people you could have on-site at one time, so we had to do two shifts. Doug gave a welcome and safety speech in the morning, then repeated it. We needed to let everybody be a part of it.”

125 Homes

The first house was built in Bonton, a neighborhood in South Dallas. After Habitat for Humanity and Carpenters for Christ built multiple houses in the neighborhood, crime rates decreased, and organizations rose up to continue the positive effect the new housing has had on residents.

“It has totally turned around the neighborhood, and there's now a Bonton farm and cafe down there that's really involved in the community,” Jeanne said, “Habitat and Carpenters for Christ try to concentrate on areas that are in really bad shape, where a whole community needs revitalization.”

Each home that Carpenters for Christ builds raises the value of property in the area and builds equity for the people who receive the home, which helps low-income families and communities develop stability. Carpenters for Christ emphasizes that they are not building homes for families; they are building with families.

“They are partners with us, and they're building alongside us,” Doug said. “They are involved in a lot more than just receiving the house; they learn how to be a good neighbor, manage their finances, and have a no-interest mortgage that they pay back. The cost is often less than they were paying in rent, but they own the home.”

Each house that was built had its own dedication ceremony, attended by everyone who had a hand in the building of the house. Homeowners received a housewarming basket, a Habitat for Humanity toolkit, and the house keys, often given by a house leader like Doug.

“There was just so much love there,” Jeanne said. “The families have a unique kind of privilege to be able to see their own house being built from the ground up and get to know the people building it. Many houses are similar, but every house differs because each family is different.”

After the dedication of multiple houses in the Fair Park area of South Dallas, Habitat for Humanity’s co-founder encouraged Rev. Mark Craig and HPUMC to aim for one hundred houses. This goal seemed too ambitious to many at the time, but with the church’s support and donations from families—some giving to build a whole house in honor of a loved one—more and more houses were built.

After Willie Tichenor tragically passed from cancer in 2006, the Tichenor family, early supporters of the ministry, donated to build a set of houses in his honor that were known as the WillieBuild homes. The first of these homes (Carpenters for Christ house #50) was built in 2007.

“The cool thing about the WillieBuild, besides the Willie story itself, was that it got the youth involved,” Jeanne said. “They weren't always old enough to work on-site, but we found creative ways for them to work alongside on other projects in the neighborhood while the house was being built.”

Many of the neighborhoods in which Carpenters builds are home to community churches. One year, HPUMC Youth painted a church across the street from the home being built. Jeanne said that the church was building a program to get their youth involved, and the pastor and community were inspired by seeing HPUMC Youth serve.

Another notable project completed around the homes built by Carpenters for Christ was the T.R. Hoover Community Center, constructed in the Ideal Neighborhood. Toward the end of 1998, Carpenters for Christ was invited to participate in the project, north of where the first Carpenters houses were built. The Ideal Neighborhood had been one of the main centers of African-American homeownership before World War II.

For a few years, Carpenters for Christ worked on two houses at a time in the spring with Southern Methodist University students. Some were built directly on the SMU campus, then moved to the permanent site. This increased the visibility of Carpenters for Christ, and SMU students from different groups volunteered to build, furthering the longstanding connection between HPUMC and SMU.

The Legacy

Under Senior Minister Rev. Paul Rasmussen’s leadership, the Carpenters for Christ ministry of HPUMC has continued to flourish.

“When Mark [Craig] stood in the pulpit and said, ‘We're going to build a hundred,’ they thought that was impossible,” Paul said. “I think we're going to keep going well past two hundred.The HPUMC congregation, once again, has accepted this new challenge. This year, Carpenters for Christ is building house #125 and doesn’t plan on stopping there.

“It's not just about a brick-and-mortar and a roof,” Paul said. “It's about a new relationship that's been established between our church and someone out in the community who needed some help. I think that it tangibly helps that family, and I know that it tangibly helps the heart and the spirit of people that are part of the process.”

Throughout the years, groups of all ages have come out to volunteer or provide lunches for Carpenters for Christ, including HPUMC Youth, Chancel Choir, Young Adults, Working Faith Leadership Network, Sunday Morning Classes, Small Groups, and staff.

“There's a lot of value in building servant leaders and becoming Christ-like in how we serve others,” Jeanne Reinelt said. “I think it becomes part of who you are—that you learned what it feels like to work together with other people on something bigger than yourself. You see how much can be accomplished by many people doing a little bit together.”

This message can be seen in how Carpenters for Christ went from building house #1 in 1996 to, less than 30 years later, house #125, a major milestone in Carpenters for Christ's history. Donors and volunteers came together to make each home happen.

“The people who want to be there just have big hearts and are there to help,” Jeanne said. “Often, they're stepping out of their comfort zone. It's cool to see people building something for the first time and feeling so satisfied at having been able to wield the hammer, use the saw, or put in a window.”

Now at house #125, Doug and Jeanne, along with the other founders and contributors to Carpenters for Christ, can look back at the years they’ve been involved and reminisce on the hard work, the good times, and the lasting impact.

“From where we started, it's pretty incredible that we got here,” Jeanne said. “You watch so many friendships happen; then you see somebody returning because they had such a great time. To think about how many years that's been happening, how many houses and how many Saturdays, thousands of people have had these great experiences.”

Doug has since passed his committee leadership torch to others such as Bill Reeves, Jane Parker, Ed Wilson, and Joe Fortson, but he still serves as co-house leader supervising the construction of each HPUMC Carpenters for Christ house.

“It is satisfying to know this project that we started so many years ago has become one of the shining light projects that our church does,” Doug said. “All of these families had their lives and communities affected by what we've done, and the future impact on their children and grandchildren is going to be incredible.”