Bonton, A Neighborhood Rooted in Segregation
The Bonton neighborhood is what has come to be known as an urban food desert. Much of the population of the Bonton neighborhood lives well below the poverty line, and it is a three hour round trip bus ride to the nearest grocery store. Bonton is a neighborhood that has deep seeded roots in racial discrimination and this is well documented. The mayor of Dallas, at the turn of the 1900’s, was looking for a way to keep newly freed slaves from moving into white neighborhoods close to downtown Dallas and began a program “to keep them where they are” by subsidising and building housing. The KKK was actively bombing homes near downtown if any African-American families attempted to “move into white neighborhoods.” This began a long series of intended, as well as unintended, consequences. This is all well documented but for more information watch this short documentary.
The Bonton neighborhood looks like something out of a movie, when you enter the neighborhood through one of only two entrances you pass through giant gates. I later found out these gates are there because the Bonton subsidized housing development was built in the Trinity River flood plain, so if the river gets near flood stage the city can close the gates so that only Bonton is flooded. Even though Bonton was conceived and constructed at the turn of the century on a floodplain, the city did not build a levy until the 1990’s. Can you imagine the emotional impact that has on a community’s self-worth and sense of value? We are closing the gates so only your homes get flooded, so only you can’t escape, you are expendable, your lives, your possessions are not as important as these other lives over here.
The Angel of Bonton
Men from a ministry called Bridgebuilders were spending time with the men of the neighborhood who were looking to change their lives for the better. These were men who were coming out of drug and alcohol addiction, trying to escape gang life or the drug trade, men with multiple felony convictions. Bridgebuilders would spend a few hours on Saturdays praying and talking with these men. Daron Babcock, founder of Bonton Farms, told our group on tour that he was invited to be a part of the group. Up to this point in Daron’s life, he was a white collar worker with a lucrative job in the business world. But one day sitting on an airplane, while realizing he had already flown over fifty times that year and it was only thirty or so weeks into the year, something changed inside him. Daron said some people might say God spoke to him, others have called it an epiphany, but whatever it was, he knew something in his life needed to change.
In seeking that change, Daron was invited to join some men and go down to Bonton on a Saturday. He said at first it seemed “cool.” He could tell his friends and co-workers he was hanging out with gang members and drug dealers. However, after about a month, something changed in Daron again. It suddenly wasn’t cool anymore; it was heartbreaking. The more he thought about it, the more he felt like two hours on Saturday was not enough to affect real change in these men’s lives. Daron eventually gave up his career, bought a house right there in Bonton and decided to “do life together” with these men that wanted something more than drugs, gangs, prison, or some combination of these things, for their lives.
Daron didn’t have a vision, or mission statement, or funding, or even much a plan at all beyond “doing life together.” But he certainly had a calling, whether he would call it that or not. Daron began gathering these men each morning and they would mow yards, pick up sticks, patch roofs, whatever they could find around the neighborhood to do that day. But admittedly it was tough; they didn’t have a purpose or a goal until the day Daron decided to start a garden in the vacant lot next to his house.
God Is At Work At Bonton Farms
Now the garden has grown, five years into the project, into Bonton Farms. The garden next to his house has now relocated and includes over two acres of crops. This two acre patch produced over 26,000 thousand pounds of produce. Patrick, a man that grew up in the neighborhood, remembers drinking beer before a baby bottle, he says he was already on his way to drug addiction at age two, and now because of the farm he has a job, a purpose, a relationship with his daughter, and a relationship with Jesus. Patrick has been promoted to the manager of the farm. Patrick now oversees a farm that not only grows crops but now includes registered Berkshire hogs, whose meat bring a premium price; goats for meat, cheese and milk; and finally chickens, for poultry and eggs. Patrick calls Daron Babcock the Angel of Bonton.
Another partner, has come in from North Dallas and helped some of the original workers from the Farm create Bonton Honey Company. He has donated everything needed to start a beekeeping and honey company. In two years the men involved will be given full ownership of the company. In the meantime the benefactor sees to it that they get all the equipment, training, marketing and business skills they need to succeed long term.
A large church in Highland Park, the most affluent neighborhood in Dallas, has invested a large amount of time, people, resources and money into the farm. They paved the way for Daron to get the farm to where it is today and they paved the way for a host of other churches and ministries to begin to come along side Bonton Farms. Recently a Dallas area business man decided he liked the ministry of Bonton Farms so much he donated eighteen acres about seven miles down the road. After Daron presented his vision for the new land, the man came back and let them know he purchased twenty more acres of land right next to the original eighteen.
Bonton Farms and Urban Hunger
The thing I love about the farm and environment Daron has created is that Bonton is a wholistic approach to ministry. It is highly relational, living daily in the community and working along side the men and women discipleship occurs naturally and easily. Bonton is incarnational, meaning Daron and one of is workers Matthew “Trog” Trogdon, are living out the teachings of Jesus and showing entire community what it means to be like Christ. Trog told us on the a tour, that he is in not there to farm, he is there to disciple men, farming is just the avenue he gets to use to do life with these men. Working along side of men on a daily basis they open up more so than they ever would sitting in a circle for an hour a week.
This experience that the farm has created it missional, Daron refers to himself as an Urban Missionary. He is meeting the basic needs of men, women and children that have grown up in a neighborhood without access to food for over fifty years. One man said his regular diet consisted of honey buns and sweet tea. The neighborhood has suffered huge physical effects and devastation of it’s health as a community. Childhood obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and other major illness are more than double the rate of the the rest of Dallas County. Dallas County has something in the neighborhood of forty food deserts according to Daron. The City of Dallas has offered a $3,000,000 grant to any grocery store chain that would build in one of these food deserts, in over a year not one has responded.
I wonder what other churches, ministries or non-profits are out there that you know of that have ministries similar to this? Do you see this as a sustainable and reproducible model? What can the seminary do to prepare leaders and pastors to be entrepreneurial in their vision for ministry? Are their flaws or shortcomings in model like this that you can see that could be avoided or overcome with added insight? Are their historical models of similar ministries from church history and missions around the world that could give us insight into the future of Bonton Farms and ministries like it?