Into the Swamp
by Kristel Zelaya2/1/2024 2:00:00 PM
Three-year-old Rosie* climbs on the step of the church van, clutching her necklace protectively.
“Mine,” she fiercely tells Pastor David Houck. “Mama gave it.”
Pastor David (a U.S. missionary with Intercultural Ministries), known as Pastor Dave, has parked the van outside Rosie’s home – a decaying trailer-turned-meth lab. Rosie’s mother is inside, passed out from another weekend of partying. She doesn’t even make an appearance today as two of her children, Rosie and 7-year-old James,* run outside and scramble on board. Some Sundays she staggers to the door to see them off in the same disheveled, partially dressed condition the previous night’s party left her in.
Pastor Dave tells Rosie that he won’t take her necklace. Reassured, she lets him look at the sinister pendant around her neck. It is ugly — a pentagram etched with ominous, satanic symbols.
“My dollies talk to me at night so Mommy gave me this necklace to protect me,” Rosie mutters. “She sticks needles in my dolls so they’ll stop.”
James, who has hurried back to the van after being sent to search for his ragged shoes, hitches up the backward swim trunks that serve as his pants.
“Yeah,” he jabbers, “Rosie’s dolls talk at night so Mommy threw them in a fire.”
Rosie and James don’t faze Pastor Dave. He lives in their Florida community — called the Forest — with his wife, Tammy, and 12 children (four biological, eight adopted). Each day, he and Tammy deal up close with the horrors of drug abuse, witchcraft, poverty, sexual dysfunction, domestic violence, and racism.
The Forest is hidden deep in the swampy thick of Ocala National Forest, about an hour from Daytona Beach. It is a secluded place that even people living just outside Ocala often don’t know exists.
Legend has it the community was first discovered around the time when President Theodore Roosevelt established Ocala National Forest in 1908. As federal foresters moved through the area, they came upon an isolated, reclusive cluster of people who were outraged at having been found.
The conflict escalated, and the National Guard became involved. But the furious, heavily armed Forest people held the outsiders at bay on two separate occasions. The government finally agreed to let the Forest people remain as residents of the national park.
The land itself — 2,000 square miles — is beautiful and renowned for excellent hunting and fishing. Over 3,000 black bears roam the woods. Close by is the famous Silver Springs State Park where films, including the original Tarzan movies and Creature from the Black Lagoon were filmed.
But many of the 45,000-plus residents of the Forest live in poverty and squalor. Superstitions run deep and education levels are low – in many cases only to elementary or middle school. Many do not have birth certificates or Social Security cards.
Most Forest people live in decrepit mobile homes, and few have jobs, opting instead to make money by collecting scrap material or by bartering, trading and hunting. Many homes do not have electricity. Meth grips the Forest with an iron fist.
Squatters and drifters roam the swamps. Once a year the “Rainbow Gypsies,” a self-titled group of around 2,000 homeless partiers establish themselves in the Forest for weeks of orgies. The annual pilgrimage leaves behind staggering amounts of trash and filth and “inevitably a few bodies of those who overdose,” Pastor Dave says dryly.
Forest residents despise the Rainbow people, fear the government, and like living off the grid. Pastor Dave and Tammy and their ministry, the Help Agency, are the only social group serving the Forest. Other agencies ask Pastor Dave to accompany them on their business in the swamp.
When he was eight years old, Pastor Dave’s family moved into an old, unheated mobile home in the Forest after his father experienced a devastating work injury and subsequent job loss. Food was scarce, and Pastor Dave remembers wearing shoes cobbled together with duct tape and glue. He swore to himself that once he escaped the Forest, he would never return.
Years later, living in California and far from God, Pastor Dave was unable to deny that God was calling him back to Himself and back to the Forest. Pastor Dave answered both calls.
In 1993 Pastor Dave and Tammy returned as missionaries with Assemblies of God U.S. Missions to found the Help Agency. Since then their work has exploded, growing to include Camp SoZo, a 72-acre camp located by a lake; little league; prison ministry; a food bank that serves 40,000 meals per month to 7,000 people; a restaurant and culinary school called The Filling Station; mentoring centers; and Salt Life Church, which in 2020, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, had the resources to purchase and renovate an old bar without taking on debt. Their feeding endeavors expanded to feed more than 15,000 people per month at that time, and they went door to door with needed supplies for over 3,000 children. These efforts continue today, as do car repairs, dental care, and the provision of shoes, socks, underwear and backpacks for children, single mothers, and widows.
“We did about $1 million in these projects,” Pastor Dave says. “It was all volunteer labor. Retirees started sending us their stimulus checks.”
Like Pastor Dave, many of the Help Agency staff have personal histories that render them uniquely qualified to work in such a challenging environment.
After overcoming remarkable odds and accepting Christ as Savior, Robert Alt, executive chef at Camp SoZo and the Filling Station, worked hard to attend Central Bible College (now Evangel University) in Springfield, Missouri. At one point, he even lived in his car while working three jobs so that he could pay down his school debt faster.
Today Robert, affectionately known as Pastor Rob or “P-Rob,” is an indispensable part of both the camp team and the Houck family.
“Really, you couldn’t find a guy with a better heart than P-Rob’s,” Pastor Dave says. “Whatever needs to be done around here, he is on it with no questions asked. He is so humble and hard-working. He is one of our family.”
Pastor Dave’s cousin, Missy McFarland, and her husband, Tay, are also uniquely equipped for the Help Agency. For 15 years they lived together, unmarried and rotting in lives of drug abuse and prostitution.
“Christ rocked these two,” Pastor Dave says. “They both got saved and baptized and then married. Now Missy manages our restaurant. She is highly trustworthy and really has a heart for people.”
Tay, who is African-American, has been key to breaking down racial barriers deeply rooted in the Forest.
NO NEED IS TABOO
Living in the Forest, Pastor Dave and his team can’t afford to tiptoe around issues or ignore the harshest realities of life. Though Pastor Dave is daunting in size, he is always armed, not only for his security but also for his family, team and congregation.
“Meth is everywhere here,” he explains. “And when these guys have been using meth they have superhuman strength. You can’t overpower them.”
One night, just outside the entrance of Camp SoZo, Pastor Dave happened upon a man beating his young daughter to the point of killing her. When the man refused to respond to Pastor Dave’s initial intervention, Pastor Dave pulled his gun.
“Man, you’re rough,” complained the disempowered child beater.
Pastor Dave helped the young girl into his car to get away. “No,” he replied. “I’m Pastor Dave.”
Tackling issues of domestic and sexual abuse and pedophilia are routine occurrences for the Houcks. Many underage Forest girls — some as young as 11 — are pregnant. The fathers are often in their 20s.
“The parents of these poor girls just sit back and do nothing,” Pastor Dave explains. “They say these men will make good fathers one day if allowed to lie low until the threat of jail blows over.”
Attempts at creating stronger bonds between fathers and their children are filled with obstacles. The church’s first attempt at a Father/Daughter banquet ended abruptly after the fathers used the gathering as an opportunity to discuss pornography in detail in front of their young teenage daughters.
Pastor Dave and Tammy work hard to instill in girls and young women the value they have in Christ.
The Houcks use a mobile dental care bus and plan to use a mobile pregnancy care bus in their ministry. They also want to open a pregnancy care center in the Forest. In that area, they say, pregnancy care is a form of disaster relief.
“If we can help a mother to understand her value, eventually her baby will grow up to understand his or her value,” Pastor Dave says. “Our goal is to let pregnancy care and education create generations of believers, not generations of atheists.”
The Help Agency’s ministries — particularly its mentoring centers — exist to provide education that will equip the Forest children to break out of the poverty mindset, get out of the Forest for further education, and later return to help other Forest residents. Each outreach exists to provide relief and build a bridge to salvation and a better way of life.
Linking the Forest to the outside world is the Ocklawaha Bridge. Some Forest residents flatly refuse to cross it. Pride in their “way of life” keeps many Forest people from accepting help or hope, even when it is close at hand.
Yet Forest children and teens are increasingly being bused into larger cities to attend school, where they are often bullied for their lack of grooming and possessions. This provides the Help Agency with opportunities to make a major impact by hosting annual back-to-school outreaches. They partner with local beauty shops, churches, and other sponsors to provide haircuts, hygiene items, clothes, backpacks, and school supplies to hundreds of kids.
Besides meeting immediate physical needs, the Help Agency teaches older children life skills for independence and to eventually handle money and business matters correctly.
One Forest family earns a living from raising and slaughtering pigs. Their operation is headquartered in their living room. The Houcks seek to help them and others like them understand better, safer, more hygienic ways of doing business.
The team’s latest initiative, Dragonfly Project, is intended to “help disenfranchised adolescents and youth connect to meaningful careers, providing a safe environment in which participants will receive character development and vocational training and skills.” Pastor Dave and Tammy know this is a vital lifeline for Forest youth.
Learning the background of each person they encounter — especially the children — helps the Houcks know how to build bridges to reach them.
“Every child, every behavior we see here, has an explanation,” Pastor Dave says.
No matter how sordid the behaviors may be, he and Tammy are dedicated to finding the explanations and dealing with them at their sources.
“Cutting is a big problem in teenagers here,” Pastor Dave says. “I’ve had calls in the dead of night from mothers or grandmothers to tell me their kids are slicing up their arms. When I get to the homes I find them sitting there, dragging on meth pipes, just watching while their kid bleeds out on the floor.”
Kellie* was once a cutter. Her scars go deep, both emotionally and physically. But today, sitting at dinner with Pastor Dave and Tammy, she giggles and crinkles up her face when Pastor Dave reminds her that she is beautiful and valuable to God.
“I used to be an atheist,” she says. “But now I believe in God, even though that means I lost all my old friends.”
Finding Christ was a process for Kellie, just as it was for a man named Hank.*
In a profane tirade, Hank confronted Pastor Dave, screaming, “I don’t believe in your God, or your church!”
“That’s fine!” Pastor Dave snapped back. “I haven’t invited you to my church yet!”
Hank was startled into silence. Soon, he started showing up at church. For weeks he marched in, sat sullenly on the back row for 10 minutes, and then stomped out.
One day, he didn’t stomp out. In the middle of the service, Hank’s hand shot into the air.
“Hank? What are you doing?” Pastor Dave demanded. “Are you getting saved? That means you have to believe in God!”
“I do,” Hank rasped out. And so Hank — a confessed murderer of five men — was redeemed.
“We joke that we have over 200 combined years of prison time in our church,” Pastor Dave says. “People here are getting saved who have never been in a church in their lives. Several have been in prison for many years.”
Every Sunday, Pastor Dave wakes up early, meets at the church to pray with his team, stops by a gas station (run by a Hindu family to whom he also ministers), buys dozens of donuts, and makes rounds through the Forest in his church van.
He pounds on doors of numerous homes until residents, passed out from days of partying, respond. Then he waits while they get semi-dressed and crawl into the van. He provides them with donuts and continues on his way, filling the van again and again with reluctant churchgoers. Others, many of them children, are waiting expectantly for Pastor Dave to arrive.
“Around here we don’t spend our Sunday mornings getting fixed up pretty, sitting in service, and then going home,” says Donna Rondo, a longtime friend of Pastor Dave’s and a member of the congregation. “This is a place where our hands get real dirty. Pastor Dave helps people no matter what they look like. This is rewarding work.”
“Jesus is becoming famous for loving the unlovable in the Forest,” Pastor Dave says.
As the Houcks see to it that Jesus’ fame grows across the swamps of Ocala National Forest, the Forest people are seeing to it that His fame grows around the world.
By giving $5 or $10 at a time, faithful attendees of Salt Life Church have raised enough money to plant 90 churches in India and rescue dozens of girls out of sexual slavery in Nepal.
In 2016, Salt Life Church raised over $25,000 to rescue victims of sex trafficking. “We want exactly the same for those girls as we want for our Forest girls – to know God intends them to be His princesses, not slaves,” Pastor Dave states.
“Ours is a missions church,” he continues. “We only do two things with our money: pay our bills and give to community and missions outreaches. In 2015, the church collected $2,600 in pennies and nickels alone. Some people even go out and sell plants on the side of the road to earn money to give.”
The church’s work in Nepal began just over four years ago when they began sending Kindles to neighboring India, loaded with books to train pastors and church planters. “The church in Nepal is healthy and growing,” Pastor Dave says. “People are hungry for the one true God! I have never seen people pray so hard.”
On one trip to Nepal, Pastor Dave and his team helped facilitate 37 camps with over 15,000 youth from all over Nepal. Attendees included Christian kids, new converts, rescued sex slaves and even Hindus seeking “The Jesus.”
Pastor Dave and the Salt Life congregation also stepped in to meet a need in the Central American nation of Honduras, partnering with Assemblies of God World Missions (AGWM) missionary Zach Rix and Honduras AG missionaries Bryam and Denia Cruz to provide a motorbike that assists the Cruzes in their service to the Garifuna people group, located in remote parts of Honduras.
Whether in Florida’s forgotten Swamp, India, Nepal, Honduras or beyond, the Houcks and their team are ensuring that those living in darkness see a great Light.
*Names have been changed
Updated. Originally published in WorldView magazine Volume 3, Number 7, 2017.