What Rodrick Yarbrough saw when he walked into his living room late one evening changed his life: His 3-year-old son was rolling up a sheet of paper like a marijuana joint. Little Rodrick Jr. wasn't imitating what he'd seen on TV or learned from the bigger kids at the playground. He was mimicking Dad.
Five years ago, Yarbrough was a well-connected drug dealer in Bonton, a low-income section of Dallas. At one point he controlled nearly 70 percent of the drug traffic in his neighborhood. He narrowly dodged arrest on several occasions.
But seeing his 3-year-old rolling up that sheet of paper was more than he could bear. He recalls thinking, "I need to change."
Changing direction, though, is easier said than done in a place like Bonton. It's still easy to sign up for benefits offered by more than 70 different means-tested welfare programs. Government policies generate strong incentives for welfare recipients to remain single and unemployed.
A memory from his own childhood also propelled Yarbrough: "When I was growing up and saw my mom bustin' her tail working two jobs to feed a family of three, I was like, OK, this is what I need to do. I need to work to provide." In a typical welfare household in Bonton, though, children learn a different lesson: "They're thinking, 'When I get older, I have a couple of kids, I get assisted housing and food, and I have a couple hundred dollars to do whatever I want to do.' It's an ongoing cycle."
Yarbrough wanted to be a good dad and to have a legitimate callingbut he needed guidance. For years, volunteers and staff at a local ministry called H.I.S. BridgeBuilders engaged his passion for basketball and shared the gospel with him. In 2006 Yarbrough professed faith in Christ and began to be mentored by godly men.
Shortly after that, Ron and Cheryl Murff of North Dallas asked Mike Fechner, their pastor and the founder of BridgeBuilders, what they could do to make a difference for those in need. His suggestion: Get to know Yarbrough and his then-girlfriend, Alisha Thomas, the mother of his four kids.
So the two couples of different ages, races, and socioeconomic levels began to double date. "It was a little scary and a little awkward," Cheryl Murff recalls. "We didn't know what to expect, but there was an instant connection, an instant rapport with them that I would say is from the Lord."
The Murffs talked, prayed, and read Scripture with Rodrick and Alisha. They began to spend Thanksgiving and other special days together. As their friendship grew, the couples developed trust in, learned from, and helped each other. The Murffs gave financial help to the younger couple, and Ron Murff's company sponsored a Habitat for Humanity housebut a big part of the assistance was spiritual and relational mentoring.
"Along with their family, we simply wanted to be another sounding board, another place to look," Ron Murff says. Fechner adds, "Many people in the inner city want to have a family, but so often they've never seen what a family is. In our ministry, we started to see the opportunity to use couples to mentor couples."
Yarbrough and Thomas for the first time witnessed a model of a godly marriage, right down to communicating and sharing responsibilities around the house. In 2007 they became Mr. and Mrs. Yarbrough. Rodrick works on staff at BridgeBuilders as a community liaison. He found his calling encouraging others to give their lives to Christ, leave drugs, and take responsibility for their families.
Today the Yarbroughs' four children wake up in a safe home owned by their married parents and see Dad holding down a job.
"These are things that set them distinctly apart from what is happening in most urban centers," Fechner says. "This is how you break the cycle of poverty."
Ryan Messmore is a fellow in religion at The Heritage Foundation and the lead writer for a poverty-fighting study guide that can be found at seeksocialjustice.com