The inner-city community of Bonton, near downtown Dallas, is thousands of miles and nearly two centuries removed from the Victorian London of Charles Dickens.
But there are some important parallels. If I’m hesitant to cast Daron Babcock, of Bonton Farms, in the role of Scrooge for this re-telling, it’s only because we focus too much on the Scrooge of Christmas Eve and not enough on the Scrooge of Christmas morning.
Yet the similarities are clear; true charity comes from individual hearts, not from government coffers.
Babcock once worked for a private equity firm—not unlike Scrooge & Marley’s counting-house. But following the loss of his wife to cancer at the age of 32 and the discovery of his faith, he dedicated himself to something he saw as far more important—the well-being of his fellow man.
Babcock began volunteering in the Bonton community in 2011; he soon moved into a dilapidated home with no electricity to be among the people of the blighted area. He founded an urban farm, a farmer’s market and a café. He received no government funding, yet the area has been revitalized.
“By serving the least of these, God rescues us, and invites us in to help rescue others,” Babcock told me recently. “I started working with former inmates, and those men saved my life.”
And it’s here that the parallels to Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” become clear. Babcock is on the side of the angels here—or, rather, the Christmas Ghosts.
At the beginning of Dickens’ classic story, Scrooge was a proponent of government activism and critical of private sector efforts. The miser paid his taxes happily, it seemed—or at least without a single complaint about tax rates. And he was content to let government’s existing mechanisms address the poverty all around him.
“At this festive season of the year, Mr. Scrooge, it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the poor and destitute, who suffer greatly at the present time,” one character tells Scrooge. “Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts, sir.”
Scrooge responds, “Are there no prisons? And the Union workhouses… Are they still in operation?”
The “union workhouses,” by the way, were government-run institutions regulated by the Poor Relief Act of 1782; the term “union” simply referred to a provision that allowed several workhouses to be administered on a county-wide basis. You might recall from another Dickens tale, “Oliver Twist,” that they were run by beadles, minor government officials.
Essentially, Scrooge (of Christmas Eve) preferred to rely on public institutions, rather than private philanthropy. But, of course, even Scrooge realized his error, by the dawn of Christmas Day.
In the street on that bright morning, he came upon the men he had so rudely refused the day before. He pressed a sum of money upon them.
“If you please,” said Scrooge. “Not a farthing less. A great many back-payments are included in it, I assure you. Will you do me that favor?”
And as Dickens assures us, “it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.”
Daron Babcock’s efforts in the Bonton community are no less personal. He takes the commandment—love thy neighbor—quite literally. It’s not something we can foist off on government officials; it’s an individual duty.
That’s not to say government doesn’t have a role in fighting poverty. Babcock himself has some ideas how government can ensure that all of us—including the poor, the forgotten, the formerly incarcerated—find opportunity and hope.
Mostly, those ideas involve government removing barriers. Too many inmates come out of prison with minor municipal fines and even warrants hanging over them, for example. Their options for work and housing are artificially limited. Government can get out of the way, and let compassionate individuals and organizations take the lead.
There’s much that public policy can do to help Bonton and communities like it. We can start with learning a truth that Ebenezer Scrooge learned; lives—and homes and families—are built through compassion and community, not through government programs.