On the first night after Daron Babcock moved into the depressed south Dallas area of Bonton, one of his neighbors, high and belligerent, accosted him in his home. It ended in a fight on Babcock’s front lawn. The next morning the neighbor was back on his doorstep, not to fight but to apologize and ask for help.
That’s why Babcock was there. A college wrestler and successful corporate manager, he left the comfortable north Dallas suburb of Frisco to live with and serve Bonton’s residents. He accepted his neighbor’s apology and offered to meet him on his front porch every day to talk and listen. Soon others were joining what turned into a discipleship group.
Bonton is a forgotten neighborhood tucked southeast of the glistening downtown area. Though its name is said to derive from the French for “high style,” already in the 1930s it had a reputation for crime. Not all its woes are self-inflicted. White racists bombed black residents repeatedly through the 40s and 50s, and the area was repeatedly flooded when the Trinity River swelled.
Babcock knew before he moved in that the residents of Bonton needed Jesus and jobs. What he didn’t know was that they needed food. Bonton is one of dozens of areas around Dallas classified by the FDA as “food deserts.” The term in defined in various ways, but the fundamental idea is self-explanatory: A food desert is an urban area without a steady, ready supply of affordable, fresh, healthy food.
In Bonton, there’s a convenience store (which, in the past, has doubled as brothel and drug distribution hub), where people can buy their Twinkies and grape soda but little else. Babcock realized that his neighbors were killing themselves with junk food. After joining residents on an exhausting three-hour trip to the nearest grocery store, he had an idea that met the community’s various needs in one elegant solution: Plant a garden, put residents to work, sell the produce, and use the whole project as a discipleship program.
Three years later, Babcock’s garden has grown into Bonton Farms, sponsored by H.I.S. Bridgebuilders, a Dallas-based ministry. The farm is located on a plot at the end of a cul-de-sac in the shadow of the Trinity River levee. Bonton residents work the farm, growing onions, carrots, kale, cabbage, and arugula and caring for the chickens, turkeys, goats, and recently acquired pigs. They harvest honey from a beehive, selling it as Bonton Honey, and they have a nifty aquaponics system that supports dozens of tilapia in a fifty-gallon drum and recycles the nutrient-rich runoff to fertilize trays of sprouting vegetables. The farm sells produce to local residents of the subsidized housing next to the farm, and the farm has a booth at a farmers’ market in another part of the city. Side businesses have sprung up around the farm, and Habitat for Humanity and other non-profits have pitched in.
The farm hires the recovering addicts and ex-cons who populate Bonton. Babcock doesn’t take just anyone. Employees have to prove they’re serious by attending Bible studies, and they’re put to work without pay until they prove they can stay drug-free. Once they cross the hurdles, they receive a weekly stipend. It’s not much, but it’s more than they can find elsewhere, and they’re doing honest work that serves the neighborhood. Some, like Patrick Wright the shepherd, take over responsibility for managing farm animals.
Every second Saturday, residents of Bonton gather at the farm for a work day. They plant and weed and spread wood chips. If there’s nothing else to do, they walk the sidewalks praying for the neighborhood. Babcock has raised money to build a community center next to the farm.
As I explored the farm with my host, Clint Hail of e3 Partners, another Dallas-based ministry, we fell into conversation with Kebe Cummings, a recovering addict, and Mark Carter, who had recently finished a long prison sentence for selling heroin. Mark and Kebe bantered about their housing woes, each trying to upstage the other. Kebe hasn’t had hot water for months, and is having trouble finding a permanent place to live. Mark has to cook over a hot plate, and wishes he could take a bath.
For both, though, the farm has been a godsend. Kebe admits that he used to live a life that destroyed his community. Now he wants to contribute to rebuilding it. For Mark, the farm has given direction to a directionless life. “When I came here I felt appreciated, a sense of calm and positive energy,” Mark told the Dallas Morning News. “I’ll help harvest, feed the animals, shovel to the best of my ability. I’m doing something with my life.”
Isaiah promised that the Lord would make the desert into a garden. Nothing seems more Utopian. But in this Dallas food desert, poetry and prophecy has become reality. The Gospel and diligent service has made a rose bloom in the wilderness, like life from the dead.