From Mansions to Huts

Ben Higgins

Six weeks. No TV. No phone. No internet. A new setting, surrounded by people who don't share your faith.

Sound like a typical mission trip to a Third World country?

Try reality TV.

That was the experience of Ben Higgins, 29, when he competed on ABC's hit show The Bachelorette in 2015 before starring in The Bachelor the following year. Each season, the reality TV shows offer 26 singles the chance to compete for the affections of a featured bachelor or bachelorette by process of elimination as the weeks progress.

The experience rocked Higgins's Christian faith to the core. After questioning everything he believed, he discovered the emptiness of stardom and changed his life direction.

He's now returned to serving God and others by opening his own business, Generous International, to give back to a community in need.

The Search for Love

Being a contestant on The Bachelorette was not on Ben's radar when he moved to Colorado in 2013 from his home in rural Indiana to heal from a breakup and start over.

"I moved to Denver and I found a job," Higgins tells Citizen. "I quickly got out here and realized that I was pretty sad. I dreamed of relationship; I dreamed of family. I knew I was not going to be the best version of myself as a single man."

The idea of trying out for The Bachelorette first came up when Higgins met a former cast member on a flight between Indiana and Denver. The man encouraged Higgins to send in his headshots.

"That was the first time it stuck out to me that regular people do the show," says Higgins. "It's an option if you want to make it one."

A few days later at work, two coworkers told Higgins there was a casting call for The Bachelorette in Denver that day, and offered to drive him downtown for the audition.

"I said, 'I'm not going to a casting call,' " Higgins recalls. " 'That sounds terrible. But if I sign up for the show and they call me, I'll go through with it.' So I signed up, they called, and we went through with it."

Although he landed the gig, Higgins was driven by pain. "I was coming out of a pretty tough breakup. I didn't know what else to do, where else to turn. I felt a little lost, and I needed life to be shaken up a bit."

Life in the Mansion

Having come from a predominantly Christian town, Higgins grew up in church but didn't come to a personal relationship with Christ until he was attending Indiana University.

"I guess I never really believed much of what I heard" growing up at church, he recalls. "I found it confusing and weird."

But when he was 20, all that started to change.

"In some of my darkest and craziest moments, through prayer God showed up and made it very clear to me that He existed, that He is real, and that He cares," says Higgins. "It really took a direct experience with God for me to say, 'Outside of everything else, and outside of all the crazy questions, I know He exists.' " 

Higgins joined a campus ministry group and started growing in his faith. But when he arrived in Hollywood, that faith was challenged directly.

In 2015, Higgins moved to The Bachelorette mansion for six weeks to compete for a relationship with Kaitlyn Bristowe, the show's featured bachelorette on Season 11.

"My worldview was pretty small," Higgins recalls. "My mindset was pretty closed off. Living in the house with a bunch of other guys helped me realize there are a lot of people out there who don't believe the same things I do, and for some pretty good reasons. For the first time, I needed to make my faith my own."

His most jarring conversation was with the producer, Elan Gale, who had grown up Jewish and is now agnostic.

He "sat me down in a room and said, 'I don't like you,'" says Higgins. "I had never had anyone tell me that to my face, and he knew that was going to hurt me. He said, 'I don't like you because I don't know you. You've been impossible to get to know.'

"I'd been around for weeks at this point, and I said, 'Well, how can I help you get to know me?' He goes, 'Who are you?' I said, 'I don't know how to answer that.' He said, 'Who are you today?' I said, 'I don't know.' He said, 'That's the problem. You don't know who you are. You don't know yourself.' We started talking about faith, and I couldn't keep up. He knew more about Jesus than I ever did."

For four hours straight, Gale pressed Higgins to defend his faith.

He couldn't.

"He started debating me and being the devil's advocate to everything I would claim about Jesus. I would throw fluffy words around like, 'I know Jesus is real because He loves me and He died for me, and he'd be like, 'Well, that's (nonsense). What about this? What about this?' And I'd be like, 'You're right, I don't know what I believe.' "

The conversation shook Higgins up. "I wanted to just talk it out, to hear what other people were thinking." At the mansion, cast members had no access to TV, phone, the internet, movies, or even books—so Higgins's only way to figure out his beliefs was to talk with the other cast members and to pray.

Today, Higgins and Gale are good friends, and Higgins is grateful for that conversation. "I got off the show and I started to explore my faith," he says. "My faith expanded to a place I never knew it could because of being around a bunch of people and just listening. I was forced to be honest. I was forced to be authentic and genuine. Because of the environment [Gale] was running, he could be more intrusive and more demanding in getting me answers than any other moment in my life."

Higgins made it to third place, and the franchise selected him as the featured bachelor for the next year's show, The Bachelor (Season 20), which began airing in January 2016. The season ended with him getting engaged to contestant Lauren Bushnell.

The couple then starred in their own reality show, Ben and Lauren: Happily Ever After?, but it was short-lived. They paused filming to focus on their relationship, started attending couples' counseling, then finally broke off their engagement in May 2017.

"It started out great," Higgins tells Citizen. "I know I made the right decision at the end [of The Bachelor]. What happened along the way was just failures in relationship. Also, the devolving nature of the Bachelor beast is it adds distractions and elements to life that you never had before. Lauren and I were going two different paths, trying to figure out how those two paths could come back together, and they never did."

Living Beyond Himself

Through those experiences, Higgins discovered what he refers to as "the darkness that can come from sudden fame." After making it to the top and having everything the world offered, he still felt empty.

"It becomes a very selfish pursuit," he says. "You get admired and loved on and criticized. You get to eat and stay at the nicest places and travel to the coolest places.

"What I realized is that it was unfulfilling. So that leads to the question, 'What is fulfilling? Is anything fulfilling? Does life make any sense? Or is this just all craziness?'

"I realized the only times I felt fulfilled were the times I was leaning into God more and serving more. As humans, we aren't made to be famous; we need to make Jesus famous. Along the way, if fame or accolades come to us personally, that's great, and we should celebrate those moments and enjoy them—but realize that the only true joy comes from a real relationship with Jesus."

Higgins decided to change course and invest in serving others. In January 2018, he founded Generous Intl., a company that sells fair-trade coffee and apparel, and then invests 100 percent of its profits into nonprofit organizations.

Higgins's personal inspiration for Generous Intl. came from mission trips he's taken to Honduras over the past 14 years.

"I was with a bunch of kids playing soccer all day," Higgins recalls of his first visit, when he was 15. "We were in this community that was poor. There wasn't a lot of hope. It was sad, and it was depressing. But we were playing. As I was leaving, this kid started crying and grabbed my leg yelling, 'Please don't go, please don't go!' I had never been loved like that before. I looked at the leader of the trip and said, 'What's going on here?' He said, 'For you, this is just another day you'll remember because it was sad and different. For these kids, it could be the best day of their lives.' "

That experience has kept Higgins returning to Honduras over the years. When he was 21, one of his best friends founded a nonprofit, Humanity and Hope United, to serve low-income communities there. The foundation doesn't give handouts: Instead it partners with residents to help them accomplish their own dreams. This partnership can mean providing loans to those who want to start small businesses to helping them find employment.

For one of its projects, Humanity and Hope United partnered with a community to dig a well in a village that had no access to clean water. A year later, Higgins asked a woman what it was like to finally drink clean water.

"The woman looked at me and said that for the first time in 30 years, she hasn't woken up with a stomachache," Higgins recalls. "I thought, 'That is unbelievable.' " 

That conversation opened his eyes to Hondurans' daily suffering and the unrealistic expectations wealthier people can place on those who live in poverty.

"How would I expect them to pursue God?" asks Higgins. "How would I expect them to pursue work? To pursue education? To care for their families? Why would we expect all of that when they're suffering with stomachaches, diarrhea, cramps and pains all day long? Who are we to say 'You need to do this,' while they're just struggling to survive?"

Starting a Business for Impact

Generous Intl. started out as a coffee company, selling beans grown by Honduran farmers whom Higgins knows personally. But less than a year later, it has branched out into selling apparel and other products that are ethically sourced through fair trade partnerships that bring hope and income to impoverished areas across Central America.

All of the company's profits are donated to Humanity and Hope United.

"Our T-shirts are made with plastic bottles by single mothers in Haiti through Global Orphan Project," a nonprofit based in Kansas City, Higgins explains. "Our coffee is imported from all over the world. It's all single- origin, traceable, specialty grade."

Now when Higgins travels to Honduras, instead of seeing poverty, he sees potential. In the communities Humanity and Hope United has partnered with, he sees results. The villages are better off. People are employed. Children are being educated.

"Every trip I take down there, the lives of these people are getting better and better," he says. "My trip eight years ago was harder on me emotionally than my trips now, because there's been progress. Now there's hope."

As for Higgins's personal life, he is still a bachelor. Is he ready to get back in the dating game?

"Always," Higgins tells Citizen. In the meantime, while he's waiting for God to bring him the love of his life, you can find him being generous.

Originally published in the December 2018 issue of Citizen magazine.

 

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