Pastor with a punch

Pastor Dave Houck and his wife, Tammy, center, are surrounded by most of their children. From left, are Rebekah Houck, Joseph Demello, Andrea Lewis, Joshua Houck, Daniel Reyes, Robert Johns, Trisha Johns, John Johns, Jordon Houck and Aaron Houck.

Dave Houck was just 9 years old and knee-deep in swamp water when Daddy taught him how to slay a dragon. 

Stay alert.

Swallow the fear.   

Wait for Daddy to hook the beast.

Dodge the powerful whips of the tail.

Steer clear of the snapping jaws.

Then flip it onto its back while Daddy finishes it off with an ax — in this family, bullets cost too much.  

It was scary, sweaty, bloody work.

But it was food on the table for him and his little brother.

Houck didn’t mind gator for dinner as much as his dad minded his mom being ridiculed for using food stamps at the grocery store. Better to keep their dignity and fend for themselves, he said.

Almost four decades later, Houck, 47, is still patrolling the pockets of deep poverty in Ocala National Forest, the father of a forgotten flock still trying to fill their kids’ dinner plates.

The dangers have evolved, but he still measures success by the meals he puts on tables. Through his unconventional ministry, it’s swollen to tens of thousands each year.

An estimated 40,000 to 45,000 people live within the forest’s borders about 40 miles north of The Villages. Here 22% of people live below the poverty line, compared to 15.5% statewide.

“Pastor Dave,” as everyone calls him, comes across more like a rough-and-tumble biker than a man of the cloth — and that’s neither accidental nor an affectation. If his 6-foot-3-inch, 270-pound frame wasn’t imposing enough, add a crew cut, arms scarred by battles with gators and rattlesnakes (another supper option in his youth) and a long goatee befitting a Civil War general. 

And, of course, his ’97 Harley-Davidson Softail. 

“Some rougher guys don’t open up to a pastor,” Houck said. “But they’ll open up to a biker.”

He’s been shot at. Twice.

He’s taken — and given — his fair share of punches.

Once he arrived at a woman’s house in time to stop a beating by her husband, only to scramble into a dog kennel to continue negotiations after the man grabbed a shotgun.

In fact, he grew his goatee in part so he wouldn’t be mistaken for a cop — a definite hazard as he moves through the dark corners of this remote world of abject poverty.

It’s scary, sweaty, bloody work.

But it’s a last lifeline for many families fighting back against the crime, child neglect and lack of social opportunity that trap generation after generation in unrelenting quicksand.

Houck himself couldn’t break the forest’s pull.

At age 20, he fled to California. But within weeks, he heard a call from God to move back.

He’s since made it his life’s mission to help the thousands of poor families scraping by in this rural wilderness. The Help Agency, a not-for-profit charity he founded, operates a food bank, provides free dental care, runs after-school programs and puts on summer camps.

The work is made possible in large part by donations from senior citizens, especially those who power four SoZo Kids clubs (the word SoZo is Greek for “rescue”). Since the SoZo Kids Club of The Villages formed in 2016, it has collected more than $100,000 in donations.

Houck walks the walk. He can be found daily rolling up his sleeves to do minor home repairs, such as fixing a wheelchair ramp or cleaning homes to help parents in danger of losing custody of their children to the state.

“The work he (Houck) does is never-ending; he can’t shut it off,” said LaRae Donnellan, Villages club president. “Maybe a child broke a leg at midnight, someone is being released from prison with no ride, a lawn mower broke or a pipe burst ... David is there to help. The man truly has a vision and a mission.”

Houck and his wife, Tammy, also have adopted eight children from forest families in crisis, raising them alongside their four biological children.

“I have a lot of kids I don’t own,” Houck jokes. “Adopting kids is our superpower.”

Help Hard To Come By

The 607-square-mile forest is a checkerboard of government-owned and private property.

Many of the homes are trailers, but in the forest, people will live in “just about anything with four walls and a roof,” Houck said, including sheds and shacks cobbled together with stray pieces of metal or wood. Some are living without electricity or running water, not knowing where their next meal will come.

It’s not uncommon for residents to live in the same dilapidated home in which they were born, often pooling meager resources with several generations under one roof.

Neighbors look out for each other the best they can.

This fall, Melany Peters opened a 10x12 shed on her property to Mary Henderson, 52, whom she met through their sons. Peters would welcome Henderson into her trailer, but it’s already crowded with her mother and 27-year-old son with special needs.

“It’s been a horrible year for us,” Peters lamented, her persistent smile at odds with those words.

The three family members recently underwent surgeries, Peters said, including neck and dental procedures. Henderson was scheduled for her own wrist surgery soon, and the women were worried about the lack of insulation in the shed as winter drew near.

Houck and three helpers answered the call.

“I think we got a bigger problem here than we thought,” Houck said as his crew worked while two dogs in a metal chain-link cage whined nearby.

He’d underestimated the workload and materials needed — and like many of his projects, this was one he’d need to come back to finish.

It’s never just a single day’s work for him.

A Legacy Of Sacrifice

Houck’s family “had nothing” when he was growing up in the forest, he said.

He was a first-grader when an on-the-job injury in Manatee County took Houck’s father out of the workforce. Daddy was making just $343 monthly in workers’ compensation, and they could have a home in the forest for $171.

What they did have, they gave away, Houck said. The sacrifices he saw his family make would foreshadow the rest of his life.

“My mother would let anyone live with us,” he said. “At one point there were 13 children.”

Finding a place to sleep took some ingenuity. Sometimes they put wood planks across the top of the bathtub to turn it into a bed.  

Because he grew up with so little, other kids made fun of him, with a particular focus on his hand-me-down shoes.

“I was a target,” he said. “Fighting became a part of who I was.”

It’s part of the reason he now puts such a focus on providing kids with new clothes and shoes rather than secondhand donations.

Houck didn’t imagine he would grow up to be a pastor and devote his life to helping the poor.

“All I ever wanted to be was a policeman — a sheriff,” he said.

But that wasn’t his fate, thanks to a handful of arrests, double-digit traffic violations and getting expelled from two high schools for fighting and skipping class.

He dropped out at 17. That’s when his dad tried to teach him the importance of an education — the hard way. He said Houck could only live in the family’s house if he was in school. Then he changed the locks.

Houck slept on the steps in front of the house until he agreed to go back to school.

“My dad wasn’t gentle,” Houck laughed. “But he was a good man.”

And his dad, who died two years ago, wasn’t a bad matchmaker either.

Houck’s parents were religious, and he was raised as a self-proclaimed “church boy who didn’t go to church.” He only agreed to go to Christian summer camp because he was in a band and heard they were looking for a drummer.

There he met Tammy, a missionary’s daughter who “always wanted to be a pastor’s wife and work with kids and have kids.”

Houck said he wouldn’t have liked himself if he were in Tammy’s father’s shoes.

“My wife is honestly perfect,” he said. “She’s always been perfect – not like me.”

Houck’s bad-boy style was the exact opposite of what a preacher would want for his daughter. The tension wasn’t quickly remedied after their marriage either, a union for which Houck had never asked Tammy’s parents to bless.

Today the Houcks live in a three-bedroom trailer with their son, Aaron, and a nephew at Camp SoZo, a 72-acre property he leases from the federal government. Houck built a treehouse nearby for his seven grandchildren.

During the summer, the free camp allows children to stay in a dorm while canoeing, watching movies, sitting by the campfire and chowing down on pizza, ice cream and s’mores.

Three more of Houck’s children also live at camp full time. They’re joined by, among others, Rick and Karen McKeever, two retirees who “are like parents” to Houck and his wife, living in a motorhome; Jeremy Thomas, who was invited by Houck after serving prison time for killing his mother’s abusive boyfriend; and Jabari Woodard, a SoZo summer camp graduate who is now youth pastor for Houck’s Salt Life Church.

Houck’s family spent Thanksgiving sitting around two turkey fryers full of oil while some of his sons jump-started a child-sized four-wheeler over and over again. The strong smell of burning gasoline battled with the frying turkey’s scent.

In the end, the turkey’s sizzling skin attracted mosquitoes, and Houck kept his .40 caliber handgun in the mesh side pocket of a camping chair after getting a call that a bear was headed his way.

He and Tammy spent the afternoon regaling some of their kids gathered around the fryers with tales of the early days of their marriage. Even though Houck was broke, he managed to buy an engagement ring and wedding band from JCPenney for $300 on credit. When he proposed in an Olive Garden, they celebrated with a cannoli.

The rattlesnake he caught, skinned and marinated for Tammy to cook when they were newlyweds is still a sore subject for Houck, who came home to find his hard work thrown out in the dirt driveway. Tammy said she wasn’t going to cook snake then and she still wouldn’t do it today.

A Family Mission

Houck landed on the idea of a food bank while sorting food for homeless AIDS victims in California. Back in the forest, though, he was making $4.25 an hour mowing lawns to provide for his own family, which included a pregnant wife.

It was his mom, Sue, who kept it all running, he said.

“I tried to close the pantry four or five times in the late ’90s,” Houck said. “She just wouldn’t let me.”

Now, Houck drives a box truck to Winn Dixie and Publix three times each week to pick up donations for about 7,000 clients monthly.

“Think that’s a lot of food?” he said, pointing to a mostly full load one recent morning. “It’s not. It’ll be gone by the end of the day.”

The people who hand out food at the pantry are just as poor as those receiving it, he said.

“My mother ran it a lot more efficiently because she was there every minute,” he said. “That was her life.”

Houck lost his mom 11 years ago. But her impact lives on.

“She was a saint,” said Missy McFarland, Houck’s cousin. “She kept it all going and made it what it was.”

McFarland spent a lot of time at the Houcks’ house until she moved to California at age 6. When she came back to the forest five years ago at age 39, Houck helped her recover from years of drug addiction and prostitution, she said.

“He led me to God, and that’s what saved my life,” she said. “The whole SoZo program helped me have an outlet to feel normal again when I didn’t see a future for myself.”

Now, she does what she can to help her cousin and sees what he’s up against.

“The forest needs more resources,” McFarland said. “Even getting a job or doing homework needs to be online now … but what if you don’t have electricity or internet?”

A Forgotten Flock

Houck’s tough-guy persona melts away when he talks about his children, both those he’s raised and the hundreds to come through the SoZo Kids program.

Some of the kids Houck serves in the forest are the first high school students in their families — not the first high school graduates, the first students.

At his Sandy Acres mentorship center on Dec. 9, no child went home from the annual Christmas party empty-handed.

Houck’s Salt Life Church claims a congregation of about 100 that meets in a VFW building.

Before a Sunday service, his helpers put black curtains around the edges of the room to cover the war paraphernalia, but they can’t mask the smell of stale cigarette smoke coating the paneling.

It’s all hands on deck at a quarter after 9 a.m. before the Help Agency’s three vans bring in the churchgoers.

Snack tables are set with pastries and biscuits and gravy. A welcome table serves newcomers jars of honey next to a box accepting donations. The church doesn’t ask for offerings.

As speakers start to play the first contemporary gospel songs of the day, the setup crew is rewarded with Subway breakfast sandwiches.

As God’s creatures, everyone is beautiful to Houck — and he makes sure to tell them so. He greets his parishoners with high fives, handshakes and hugs while coaxing smiles from the kids. 

He nods his head as he listens to the day’s problems — medical, financial, children — and tries to get his flock moving in the direction of the folding chairs after the last van rolls in.

The service begins with a booming command from Houck for everyone to find a seat and finish their breakfasts.

Services start off with praise reports, and people timidly raise their hands to give thanks for a fruitful doctor’s visit or good news from family members.

“I went to the cardiologist Wednesday — he says my heart is doing fine,” one man announced.

“That’s the stuff right there, man,” Houck responded. “Great job. What else?”

“I had the tumor taken out of my neck,” a woman called “Tinker” said. “The whole outside of it was benign, the center was malignant. Since they took it out in one piece, it wasn’t exposed, so no chemo, no radiation.”

A few people clap, and one man whoops.

“My brain is back in my head, not in my ear,” she continued with a smile, “and I’m good to go back to work.”

More people clap.

Houck then calls on one of his own family members.

“I praise God for the wonderful world, and God is good,” said Aaron Houck, the couple’s 26-year-old son.

The prayer request section follows, and people wave wildly to ask for the pastor’s prayers.

“Just a good friend of mine, his salvation and some peace,” a woman requested.

“I had one text in,” Houck said. “The Johnsons said they would not make it this morning, but they wanted to give a praise report. John’s doctor visit did well this week, six months and his blood work came back great.”

For more than three years, The Daily Sun has followed the Johnson family journey through financial struggles and medical crises as John Johnson, father of four and husband to Jenny, had to have a heart transplant. Jenny called Houck the family’s “emotional and spiritual support.”

“He’s still battling CMV (a common virus),” Houck told the congregation, “but it’s under control now, so prayer requests for that and a niece who is going to have a baby any day — the first baby. You know the Johnsons drive all the way from Belleview now, so for them to be here at all is a pretty cool thing, but it’s good for them because they got a new house. If you’d seen them before, this is a really good thing.”

The sermon today is about Moses, a man who was hated even while he was on the verge of performing miracles.

It’s a story Houck holds close to his heart. Not everyone appreciates his family’s sacrifice, and he’ll never forget being cursed at for bringing the wrong flavor of Pop-Tarts in a food delivery.

One place where Houck is always welcomed with enthusiasm is prison.

For about a year, he’s been participating in Xtreme Soulutions, a faith-based program for about 400 men at Marion Correctional Institution in Ocala. It focuses on preparing prisoners for release back into society and is structured like a church.

“Dave can touch us because he’s like us — a big man with a goatee could be in here with us,” said inmate Rogelio Perez.

“You walk the walk, you don’t just talk it,” another one added.

“After you showed your commitment to us, how could we not be committed to you? How could we not be committed to Christ? How could we not?” asked another.

“It gives us hope,” said one more.

Each positive comment brought cheers of “Amen” around the room.

Houck said he only has two fears in his life. The first is that his kids, grandkids or other family members will not know and serve God.

The second is not being able to go to the prison and reach the people there anymore.

“I love spending time in prison,” he said. “That’s a strange thing to say, but I love being in prison. There’s a huge part of society that’s been in prison, and without our support, they aren’t going to be able to change. Now it’s a big part of my life. These guys are affecting me.”

Beyond Today’s Need

Although he’s come a far way from a 9-year-old hunting gators to feed his family, Houck wrestles with the constant stream of needs.

“In my mind, I can’t see the end,” he said.

The worst part? Getting someone to the edge of success only to lose them.

“Pouring our blood, sweat and tears — literally, our tears; we cry for these kids — and then seeing someone get to 18 and get close to the edge and they fall off …”

His words trailed off.

“It hurts me if kids don’t make it,” he said. “The ones I put the most into are sometimes the ones that never made it.”

His most heart-breaking moments include burying the newborn infant of a preteen mother, watching another forest mother push her daughter into a life of drugs instead of college and trying to comfort his 15-year-old nephew who witnessed his mother’s death from a heart infection caused by drug abuse. Houck said “something broke in the kid” as he saw his mom convulse and blood come out of her nose and mouth.

Why does Houck put himself through this?

“If you’re not here, that boy is going to be next,” he said.

Houck worries about his family’s well-being, but doesn’t fear for himself, he said. He doesn’t fear failure.

“If it’s God’s will, it’s His bill,” he said.

Houck steals moments for himself in the quiet places. Sometimes he goes up to Georgia, to hunt. Sometimes he squeezes in some wind therapy on his motorcycle, where he can’t hear his cellphone pings.

Those fleeting instances where he can be disconnected are some of his happiest, but attendance lags whenever he’s away.

“Me being gone last week and only 30 people coming to church — if I die today and that’s what happens, then I’m not doing it right,” he scolded his congregation one week.

He sees only two scenarios in which he might be able to leave the Help Agency.

One option is to spin the food pantry, mentor centers, Camp SoZo, the dental bus and other projects into standalone operations that can be run by different people.

The other is to pass the torch to his son, Jordon, who is starting school to earn his pastoral license.

“I’ve pretty much been groomed for the ministry my whole life,” he said. “I just got smacked with it, I guess.”

Already, Jordon also has plans to follow his family trend of adopting. Growing up in a missionary family, he said, meant the whole family became missionaries.

“(As kids) we were unloading food trucks, box trucks full of food, at midnight,” he said. “It was just us doing our thing. There were no other people around yet. It was just us running the ministry in the beginning. When the church started, we were the worship band, the children’s pastors, the youth group ... It’s different experiences that help build us.”

Being a part of all that gave the Houcks experience to serve all aspects of a community, Jordon said.

“I have a feeling I’m going to end up doing a lot of different things,” he said. “You can’t be a Houck without doing a lot of different things, apparently.”

For Dave Houck, leaving the keys to the kingdom to his son might not be so difficult if there weren’t so many keys.

But, it wouldn’t be a Houck production if it were simple.

 “We don’t know what tomorrow’s need might be.”

Staff writer Alexandria Mansfield can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5401, or alexandria.mansfield@thevillagesmedia.com.