"Give it up for the black man who just got you out of class!” If anyone else said those words there would be an awkward silence, but when they come from the mouth of US-based inspirational speaker Reggie Dabbs, they’re greeted with uproarious laughter and applause.
For the past 31 years, Reggie has been travelling across the world delivering a message of hope to teens. He is known by multiple generations of Aussies for his jovial presence, booming voice and heartfelt messages—often with a serving of saxophone. And while his audience ages, his message doesn’t.
And it’s not because Reggie’s funny, it’s because, unlike many other speakers, he gets right down to what’s important.
“It ain’t the humour and it ain’t the honesty [that make kids relate to me], it’s the love,” says Reggie. “I believe people turn to drugs and a lot of other negative, horrible influences in their life because they don’t have that love. And when you put in that love factor, it attracts people in a cool and genuine way.”
Reggie’s presence is undeniable. If he’s not engaging teachers in a hysterical activity, he’s poking fun at American stereotypes or making everyone feel less awkward by talking about his own appearance—one which stands head and shoulders above everyone else in the room.
“The number one thing I make fun of is my size. Being very, very large, I just joke about it, and anybody who has any kind of abnormal feeling about themselves, their walls are going to come down because they’re like, ‘Now this cat he’s laughing about himself. Why can’t I laugh about me?’” he says.
By laughing at himself, Reggie breaks down walls most of us wouldn’t dare even climb. It allows him to talk about what truly matters to his audience: their concerns about relationships, bullying and their future. But, most of all, it gives him the remarkable ability to bring hope where there is none.
“If you confront the walls and break them down, when you do bring up hope, love and Jesus, it’s easier to reach into the heart of every person in the room,” he explains.
After the laughter dies down, Reggie will tell the kids sitting in front of him about his own upbringing. He explains that his birth mother was a prostitute, and she gave him away to her favourite schoolteacher because of her great love for him.
In fact, he was only eight years old when he found this out for himself, and he shares that this put him on the path to helping young people.
“When I was 12, it was three in the morning and I decided I didn’t want to live any more. My foster care dad came into my room, put his arms around me and said, ‘You’re not my son. I can’t give you my blood, but if you let me I’ll love you to the day I die.’ And he did just that,” Reggie tells Warcry.
“It was the love of Jesus through him and through my foster care mum that led me to Jesus the first time.”
Over time, Reggie realised that the only way he could keep kids from the darkness he once felt was to share his own story. And that’s why every joke he cracks is met with the truth that no-one is ever truly alone.
“We all have something deep inside that only love, only Christ, can fill,“ he says. “I can be a part of that hope-finding process. I come across as very funny in my humour, and also very serious in my personal testimony, and I think God gave me the ability to blend the two in a way that’s really unique.”
In a climate where religion is becoming more contentious in public forums, different sources label Reggie different things: a motivational speaker, an evangelist, even a ‘bully buster’.
When you get down to it, though, it’s clear Reggie has one simple agenda: to bring hope wherever he goes. Sometimes this falls in the parameters of a public school where he acts purely as a motivational speaker, and other times he’s front of the stage at a Christian teen rally, leading chants and introducing people to Jesus.
This means the mission of The Salvation Army resonates with Reggie deeply, so much so that a vision founder William Booth had has informed much of his career.
“I love The Salvation Army. When General Booth had that dream of people drowning in the ocean and he was trying to pull them out, that affected me. I read that when I was in high school and I still feel the same today, that we’ve got to save the drowning—save the lost.”
Reggie’s results speak for themselves. He’s met with tears, kids line up for bear hugs, they take selfies and he receives messages over social media. And the best part of it all? His message of hope isn’t just reserved for the people who can afford to see him; he makes a point to travel far and wide so people in even the most remote areas have the opportunity to hear his story.
Of course this comes at a cost: he confesses that travel can be challenging, but notes that the response he gets from kids makes it all worthwhile. And best of all, his family supports him on the journey.
“I have an incredible wife who lets me go,” he says, before mentioning that she made sure their son Dominic joined him on the road as a kid so he understood what his father did.
“When Dominic was 10 years old, a teacher asked him, ‘So what does your dad do?’ and he said, ‘My dad saves the world.’ He’s actually 23 now and an aeronautical engineer. He took his vacation time to go to a conference and hang out with me!” Reggie says with pride.
With more than three decades of public speaking under his belt and hundreds of thousands of teens reached with his message of hope, Reggie doesn’t look to be stopping any time soon. As he says, “You’ve got to go, go reach one more kid, do one more sermon, do one more show, play one more saxophone song.”
Reggie is planning to return to Australia next May—by way of London and Stockholm.
Given his packed schedule, it’s a good thing his motivation is so strong. As he says, “If you come and hear me speak anywhere, and you leave and go, ‘Man, I can breathe a little better,’ then me and the Jesus that I love, we’ve done our job.”
A crazy, world-changing job? Well, it’s not conventional, but someone has to do it, and Reggie Dabbs is the man for the job.