Tough Upbringing, Tender Faith

Posted on April 23, 2013

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By David Ettinger

The product of a broken home, Daniel “Critter” Crittendon now seeks to unite the unsaved with Jesus Christ. “The Lord has given me a desire to serve Him,” said Critter, an intern in the Student Ministry at First Orlando.

Caption: Critter shares a message with a group of high schoolers at the Amp’d Student Ministry building.

Only 25 years old, Critter’s achievements include forsaking his use of illegal substances and becoming the youngest sergeant ever in the Texas prison system. On the challenging side, Critter has watched his father suffer through drug addiction as well as his older brother being sentenced to 30 years in prison for murder.

But for Critter, the influence of a godly mother and a heart willing to yield to the call of Christ have set him on a completely different path. “It hasn’t been easy,” he said, “but God has been very, very faithful.”

Critter was born and raised in Madisonville, Texas, a small city of about 4,200 people located 75 minutes north of Houston and two hours south of Dallas. He lived with his parents and brother, Kelton, three years his senior. “I had Christian believer parents, but it was still a tough home,” he said. “My dad [Dave] had a very heavy drug addiction — from marijuana to crack to basically anything he could get his hands on.”

Critter admits that his father’s addictions trickled down to him and Kelton. However, if there was a balance to the mix, it was his mother Evelyn. “She is a godly woman who loves Christ,” Critter said. “She didn’t believe in divorce, which is the reason she stayed with my dad. They are still married.”

But despite his mother’s influence, Critter began getting into trouble in elementary school. “People used to tease me about mom and dad and I got into fights,” he said. “By junior high, I remember getting kicked out of school twice. By the time I got to high school, I started dabbling in stuff — drinking heavily and smoking marijuana. I was trying to fill the holes in my life.”

Kelton was also getting into trouble. “By the time he graduated high school, he already had a kid,” Critter said. “By the time he was 23, he had three kids [all out of wedlock].”

Critter’s problems were also compounded by the fact that, beginning his sophomore year, he had to start working full-time in addition to attending school. “Because my dad was in and out of rehab, I had to help pay the bills,” he said. “I did anything I could to help.”

Fortunately for Critter, the football coach at his school took an interest in his life. “His name was Jim Leffert and he invited me to play as a way of staying out of trouble,” he said. “He also invited me to attend church. At first I was skeptical, but I went.”

That was at age 15, when Critter was involved not only in football, but in power weightlifting. “My powerlifting coach was a very godly man who stood strong in Christ,” he said. “He showed me the importance of quiet times and Bible study. I was always blessed to have older men of the faith who took an interest in me. Even though I had a rough life, seeing the examples of these men gave me options.”

Their influence was profound as at age 17, in the summer between his junior and senior years, Critter gave his life to Christ. “I went to summer [Bible] camp, which gave me a chance to get away from everything I knew [that was bad] and be surrounded by believers,” he recalled. “The camp pastor, Neil McClendon, basically told me straight up: ‘If you don’t change your life, if you don’t come to Christ, there’s no way you will get into Heaven.’ He offended me.”

As “offensive” as he was, McClendon was able to reach Critter. “That night, during church time, I was in tears. I was broken over every sin in my life. I felt for the first time that I was free. I felt free from all the [negative] things that were going on in my life.”

But growth came slowly for Critter, who wrestled with doubts as to whether or not he was truly saved. Aggravating the situation were two major setbacks to his athletic aspirations. “A week before two-a-days [preseason football practice], I broke my leg,” he said. “Because of that, I missed any chance for a football scholarship. I was one of the top defensive linemen in Texas, but my [senior] season was over.”

However, as his leg healed, Critter was able to compete in powerlifting and was being pursued by Louisiana Tech University. “I was horsing around one day at a track meet and I tore my ACL [anterior cruciate ligament],” he said.

That ended any hopes he had of receiving a college scholarship. “I thought, ‘Lord, I just became a Christian. I thought life was supposed to become easier, but I learned that it doesn’t.”

Though bitterly disappointed, Critter continued to go to Christian camps, remained at church and kept growing in the Lord. Following graduation, instead of going to college, he entered the job market and eventually took a job as a corrections officer at a maximum prison facility. “It was a whole new experience,” he said.

That’s an understatement. “It was two worlds [that inside the prison and that outside] colliding with each other. It affected me in who I believed I had to be in Christ and how I had to act in the prison. I had to be a hardcore guy who didn’t take anything from anybody. The need for the inmates to respect you is huge.”

Eventually, however, Critter learned how to better mesh his Christian beliefs with his behavior on the job. “I was able to have a witness,” he said. “I met many godly offenders. A lot of times I’d be reading the Bible at my desk and an inmate would come by and ask me about what I was reading.”

It did not take Critter long to find out that prisons are fruitful places in which to share the gospel. “People are looking for answers,” he said. “Despite what they did, many were sorry for it and were looking for acceptance. I had many meaningful discussions about Christ. After my first year I realized that this was a huge mission field.”

Not only was Critter excelling as a witness for Jesus, he was also doing tremendous work. In fact, after just two years on the job, he applied for and was promoted to the position of sergeant, becoming the youngest person in the Texas correctional system to ever attain that post, he said. But after a little more than four years on the job, Critter felt the Lord moving him in another direction. “I began praying for a church-staff job,” he said. “I felt I wanted to be a pastor or a youth pastor and started pouring my heart out to God. I wanted so much to be in ministry.”

That was in December of 2008. And despite the fact that Critter was making good money and had excellent benefits, he determined that the Lord was calling him, so he resigned.  “From there, I started going different places preaching to youth groups,” he said. “I got to disciple people and help out any way I could.”

As it turned out, Critter had met current First Orlando Student Pastor Keith Harmon when Keith was at First Baptist Church of Colleyville, Texas. The two kept in contact, and when Keith found out that Critter left his job, he invited him to Orlando to serve as an intern in the Student Ministry. “It was hard to leave everything I knew, but [being here] has been a real blessing,” Critter said. “The Lord has put a calling on my life to be with youth and to preach the Word of God wherever I go. I am so blessed that He has allowed me to do that.”

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