God Guided This Recovering Addict to Plant a Community Farm

He’d never gardened a day in his life, but he was led to help an underserved Dallas community by growing fresh vegetables

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Posted in , Mar 24, 2022

Daron Babcok; photo by Eric Guel

I live on a farm—a real farm—in the middle of one of America’s largest cities. You can see the skyscrapers of downtown Dallas from the fields near my house.

If that doesn’t surprise you, maybe this will: I knew nothing about farming when I moved to this neighborhood. I didn’t know much about life. I was a recovering cocaine addict who came close to destroying myself and my family and yet still struggled to contain a mighty ego.

Now I’m a farmer. I live in a house once owned by Habitat for Humanity and oversee Bonton Farms, a non-profit enterprise that grows organic produce, runs a market and a café and employs people from the neighborhood who are a lot like I used to be—looking for that connection to grace and love that will enable them to become all that God intended them to be.

Bonton is one of Dallas’ most challenged neighborhoods. The per capita income is $19,000. A third of residents live below the poverty line. Many have been incarcerated. This is not a typical farm community.

Why would someone who knows nothing about farming start a farm in the middle of a big city a decade after entering recovery from substance abuse? Doesn’t that sound crazy?

How I got here is a God story, pure and simple. I simply can’t take credit for this oasis of fertile soil and spiritual renewal. The truth is more wonderful than that. I’m living proof that God can take the driest, deadest husk and transform it into a source of life and love that never stops giving.

Two decades ago, I was literally thousands of miles away from my current life. My wife, Marcy, and I lived in Portland, Oregon with our two elementary-school-aged boys, Beau and Cole. Marcy and I ran a chain of Schlotzky’s Deli restaurants. We’d met in college and I was still head over heels in love with her.

Our stable family fell apart when Marcy was diagnosed with cancer. She died after two years of grueling treatment.

I had grown up going to church but I never took faith seriously. I was more interested in my own ambition. When Marcy died, I had nothing to fall back on spiritually. I had poured everything into my vision of a perfect family on the road to success. I depended on Marcy for my day-to-day emotional well-being. Her death left a hole I didn’t know how to fill.

I became profoundly depressed. I left our business unattended. I went through the motions with the boys but mostly I withdrew into myself and shut down.

One evening, some friends told me I needed to get out of the house. For some time, I turned down their requests but eventually I gave in. My friends took me out—to a strip club.

Going out and getting into fights became a regular source of release. I’d leave the kids with a sitter and carouse late into the night. I made up excuses about bruises.

One night, I wound up in a car driven by strangers. They took me to their apartment and offered me a line of cocaine. It was an even more intense adrenaline rush. Right there I knew I’d found my new best friend. I didn’t even have to hurt anyone to escape my depression.

Like all drug addictions, mine spiraled out of control. Much of that time is a blur. What I know is that, two years after Marcy died, I was alone in my house, my business and everything else around me was in ruins and my kids were living with my parents in Texas. I was in danger of losing the house because I hadn’t made a mortgage payment in seven months.

A large group of family and friends flew out from Texas and staged an intervention. They dragged me to a residential treatment program and promised to care for the boys while I worked on my addiction.

I was at the Hazelden Springbrook program in Oregon for three months. I was full of rage and refused to eat, so they put me on suicide watch. I came out determined to stay sober, be a good father and walk a different path.

What happened? Part of the Hazelden program was seeing a spiritual counselor. My counselor didn’t push any particular faith but she did ask me what I believed and why. When I told her I didn’t believe much of anything, she asked what it would take for me to believe in God.

I couldn’t put that question out of my mind. I also couldn’t help noticing that other men in the treatment program, all from different backgrounds, seemed somehow more whole than I felt. What did they have that I didn’t? They had surrendered to a higher power and they were following the program while I held back. I was too consumed by shame, too convinced I was irretrievably broken to turn to God or stop using drugs.

One night, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I got down on my knees and cried out, “God, I don’t know if you’re real, but if you are, and you’ll have me, I’m yours. I quit!” I said in a loud voice. It was a semi-incoherent prayer. The moment I said it, an indescribable peace and joy came over me. Life and hope flooded into the hole of despair that had appeared after Marcy died. For the first time in two years, I felt like I had a reason to live.

Out of rehab, I sold off what remained of my business, sold the house in Oregon and took the boys to live closer to my family in Texas. Eventually, I found a job at a supply chain company and moved to a Dallas suburb. I worked, went to church, went to 12-step meetings and tried to figure out what to do with myself now that my life no longer revolved around cocaine.

I met a man named Johnson Ellis, who attended Prestonwood Baptist Church. Johnson was a longtime Christian who became a spiritual mentor. He told me about a community group and Bible study he worked with in the Bonton neighborhood near downtown Dallas.

“You should come,” he said. “You’d learn a lot, and you have a lot to offer.”

I didn’t know what I had to offer but I trusted Johnson. The Bible study was run by a Christian community service organization called Bridge Builders. About a half a dozen men from the neighborhood came to the meeting. Most of them had been incarcerated recently and, like me, they were trying to figure out what to do with their lives.

I had wondered what I, a white guy with a relatively new faith and a background in business, had to contribute to a Bible study in a predominantly Black neighborhood with few economic opportunities. Turned out, everyone in that room had a lot in common. We were at a crossroads in our lives. We had made a lot of mistakes. We were asking God which way to go.

I went to that Bridge Builders group every Saturday morning. It was the highlight of my week. I began to get an uncomfortable feeling every time I prayed. “If you like Bonton so much, why are you there only one day a week?” God seemed to ask.

God’s questions grew more insistent. “Shouldn’t you be sharing your life with that community? I could use someone like you to help create some opportunities. Do you want to work for a supply chain company for the rest of your life? Or do you want to join me in doing something new?”

For the first time in my life, the words in the Bible began to come to life. In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus says the greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself. The prophet Isaiah says that true fasting is not just abstaining from food but sharing with the hungry, welcoming the poor into your home and clothing those with nothing to wear. At the end of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus gives his followers a great commission: to make disciples all over the world.

All of those passages challenged me to act on my faith, not just talk about it. At the same time, I remembered a passage in the prophet Jeremiah, in which God says he has “plans to prosper you and not harm you.” What would happen if I quit my job, moved to Bonton and dedicated my life to ministry there? Would that prosper me? It felt more like harm!

I couldn’t shake the feeling that my future was in Bonton, not the surburbs. My boys were grown and out of the house by this point. I put my house up for sale figuring I’d have a while to sort things out while the house sat on the market. It sold in 60 days.

There were no houses for sale in Bonton. People don’t tend to house shop there. The median home value is two-thirds lower than the Dallas metro area average.

I was at City Hall asking whether there was even some vacant land I could buy when I ran into someone from Habitat for Humanity. He mentioned that they had a house in Bonton.

“It’s got some challenges. The previous owner defaulted and it’s been vacant for a while. Vandals stripped out the copper wires and pipe and people have been using it as a drug house. Want to be the caretaker while we restore it?”

I said yes.

I started hosting the Bridge Builders at my new house. Our first meeting, I met a guy named David Richie wearing an ankle monitor while he was on parole. He launched into a story about how the monitor made it impossible for him to get a job because the parole officer had to call the employer to verify the interview before giving permission to leave the neighborhood.

“What do you think an employer does when a parole officer calls and says the person they’re about to interview is a convicted felon with an ankle monitor?” Richie said.

Another guy told how he’d been excited to be asked back for a second interview at Pilgrim’s Pride. He spent most of his remaining money on a suit for the interview but when he arrived, the manager said, “Oh, we didn’t want to interview you, we just wanted to get a look at you because we thought you might be the guy who recently robbed the bakery. But you’re not him, so thanks for coming.”

I realized one thing this group needed was some resume-building opportunities to make it easier for folks to get a job. Together we formed a neighborhood cleanup organization and recruited other guys to go around cleaning streets and doing other projects.

I noticed a lot of the guys kept showing up to work sick. “Why’s everyone so tired all the time?” I asked.

“Bonton is a food desert,” was the reply. “No grocery stores here.”

“Not one?”

“Just the junk food the liquor stores carry.”

Here’s where God must have spoken right through me. “We should start a garden.”

I had not gardened one day in my life.

The guys and I planted a garden in front of my half-gutted house. People in the neighborhood who knew how to plant vegetables helped us. The garden grew and other people from the neighborhood began coming by to offer advice.

One guy who’d always seemed mean when I greeted him on the streets turned out to be a master gardener. He began working for us and pretty soon we had a big group of employees and volunteers and a bunch of acreage in vacant lots under cultivation.

We started selling produce at farmers markets then started our own market. A café followed. Now we are raising money to build some affordable housing plus a community bank and a health and wellness center.

I would love to say I had some master plan that shepherded Bonton Farms from its small start to what it is today, a non-profit with a $4 million budget, more than 60 employees, 10,000 annual volunteers and a mission to disrupt the systems of inequity that created this place and its many challenges. We do that by feeding bodies, minds and hearts, and by restoring lives through discipleship, in a neighborhood usually ignored and cast aside.

Like I said, it’s a God story. And the story is still being told. God is not done with me, or Bonton Farms. He is always transforming and renewing. Always bringing new life out of hard soil.

One soul, one neighborhood at a time.

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