From drug trafficker to urban missionary
Acton Institute Powerblog

From drug trafficker to urban missionary

cliftonandchocolate
Image courtesy of Clifton Reese

“When people come down here wanting to help, the first thing I tell them is, watch Poverty, Inc.”

Clifton Reese of Bonton in the south side of Dallas has taken the Poverty, Inc. message to heart. When asked what he thought of Poverty, Inc. he pointed to his heart and said, “I have it in here.”

Clifton does it all; beekeeping, taking care of his four children, urban mission work, coaching, just to name a few things. His contagious smile and loving attitude overcome you immediately. But, life didn’t always seem this hopeful.

As a child, Clifton grew up with up to ten people living in the same house at one time. Drugs, violence, and poverty consumed him from an early age. He survived domestic violence, the death of his best friend (among others), homelessness, and constant hunger. As an angry teenager, Clifton was defined by the streets, eventually turning to drug trafficking at the age of twenty-two.

After having his first child, Clifton decided to make a change. He married the mother of this child and became the father he never had. This was short lived. After a year, he returned to pushing drugs, his wife left him, and it seemed as though he was heading down the same path his very own father chose years ago. That was until he began to attend H.I.S. Bridgebuilders in Dallas. His life was changed.

For months, Clifton tried tirelessly to put his life back together until one evening Mike Fetchner, then CEO of H.I.S. Bridgebuilders, told him, “I’ll walk with you as far as you want to walk, and when you stop, I’m going to keep walking.” That night, Clifton gave his life to Christ and nothing has been the same since. He reconciled his marriage, cleaned up, got a job, and built a house in the same community that he had grown up in. Ten years later, Clifton has two daughters in college, one daughter doing very well in high school, and an eleven year old son who has dreams of attending Texas A&M. Further, he has begun to serve as an urban missionary with H.I.S. Bridgebuilders, giving back to the very organization that turned his life around.

Earlier this year, Michael Craven, CEO of H.I.S. Bridgebuilders and an Acton University alumnus, told Clifton that he needed to watch Poverty, Inc. That night Clifton went back home and immediately watched the documentary on Netflix. His understanding of poverty and wealth was destroyed. He realized that much of what we do to try to help, especially in his Bonton community, may actually hurt the community. After years of providing free services in his community, Clifton said, “I realized that we were crippling people.” He draws a strong parallel between TOMs shoes interactions with the developing world and wealthy churches in the United States interactions with urban poverty. He says, “People come into a neighborhood like Bonton and bring all these resources down here. Whether its food, clothing … They think they’re doing a good thing, doing their good deed for this week, month, or year. But when you bring free things down here … you create a spirit of laziness. People don’t need to get off their butt and do anything.”

Poverty, Inc. has changed the way that Clifton and H.I.S. Bridgebuilders interacts with those wanting to come serve in the poverty-sticken Bonton neighborhood. Clifton is now encouraging business owners to train the jobless in Bonton, to empower them with hard skills in order that they may eventually lift themselves out of poverty.  He has realized that until people are empowered, nothing will change.

We can all learn a powerful lesson from Clifton. In order to best serve our fellow men and women, we need to be willing to challenge our current assumptions and look beyond the surface to the unintended consequences of our charitable efforts. This can’t be accomplished by dropping into a community with free “stuff”, instead it takes deep thoughtful interactions that form long-term relationships with those we seek to help. As Bono said at the World Economic Forum in 2012, “paternalism—the old way we did development—is no match for partnership.”

Visit http://www.hisbridgebuilders.org to learn more about the work Michael Craven and Clifton are doing in South Dallas.