As a child, he wanted to be a lawyer. In college, he majored in criminology and almost became a police officer.
Instead of either career, however, Dollison found himself called to an unplanned path that brought him to Polk County from his home state of Indiana and lets him combine religious conviction with promoting social justice.
He went back to school, in this case a theological seminary, and he came to believe churches should work for justice in their communities.
“If you care about what happens to the people, you have to know what they are experiencing and the challenges they are facing,” said Dollison, 57, pastor of the First Missionary Baptist Church of Winter Haven for the past 22 years.
“We have to engage in the process of bringing about change and justice for those who have no voice.”
For Dollison, that philosophy is somewhat of a no-brainer, although not all pastors might agree.
He is co-chairman of PEACE, president of the Interdenominational Ministerial Association of Polk County and a past president of Winter Haven’s NAACP chapter.
“From the early years of PEACE, he has been a very strong voice and face for the justice ministry that PEACE has been able to achieve,” said the Rev. Eileen Stone, who is active in PEACE’s efforts to improve health care access.
‘NATURAL LOVE’ FOR CHURCH
Clifton Eugene Dollison was born March 27, 1957, in Muncie, Ind., to Clifton Moore, a production supervisor, and Ora Dollison, who did domestic work and was a school library assistant.
He said he felt a “natural love” for the church as young as the age of 4.
He attended the Church of God in Christ, he said, and later joined the Baptist faith.
As a young man, he was shy and somewhat reserved, generally staying out of trouble, he said, adding:
“Not to suggest I was an angel by any means, but I did not have major issues with law enforcement.”
Attending Indiana State University, he met Valerie Bush of Bartow, appropriately enough in a gospel choir.
She remembers falling in love at first sight, impressed by his charm and drive.
His religious faith was another plus, she said, although his announcement he felt called to become a pastor soon after they got married in 1981 caught her off guard.
She had fought off attempts by family members to pair her off with unattached young ministers, so his desire to become one became an early test for the young couple.
“Ministry is not something you particularly choose,” Dollison said when asked why he took that career path.
“It’s a compelling feeling you have. It’s something you must do … It’s a feeling that will not relent.”
As he got support in becoming a minister from the Rev. Ceytus Malone of Second Baptist Church of Terre Haute, Ind., the pastor’s wife, Silver, assured Valerie Dollison she could remain her own person while married to a preacher.
Valerie Dollison said he’s supported her in raising their three children, now adults, and in her 22 years with Mid-Florida Credit Union, where she is a vice president.
Clifton Dollison was quiet when she met him, his wife said, recalling a family member who asked her if he ever talked.
His transformation to a talkative, outgoing preacher is one of his biggest changes in their almost 33 years of marriage.
Taking classes part time, Dollison earned a degree in theology in 1985 from Central Baptist Theological Seminary.
While pastor of Prince of Peace Church in Terre Haute, with a congregation of 75 to 100 people, he also was a civilian labor relations specialist for the U.S. Navy.
After several years, fate or God, with an assist from his late father-in-law, Willie Bush, brought him to the First Missionary Baptist Church.
The church needed a pastor and Bush, then a deacon at Mount Gilboa Baptist in Bartow, sent in Dollison’s résumé. He preached his first sermon as First Missionary’s new pastor on Easter Sunday 1992.
“He’s awfully young,” long-time member Celestine Roberts recalls thinking when she first saw their new pastor.
“We had been used to seeing our pastors more seasoned and now we have this young, handsome man.”
She said she and other members soon found him to be a “people person,” someone they could call at any time. He’s also more of a night owl than is his wife.
“He comes to bed late because he does that phone talking thing late,” Valerie Dollison said.
“It’s always positive, but he needs to do it in another room so he doesn’t keep me up.”
Her husband, she said, is “the kind of person who loves people at their individual place” and isn’t judgmental.
That doesn’t mean he won’t be firm.
Church member Gabrielle Thompson, now 21, said he came to her high school to have lunch with her when she was going through a rebellious teenage period and said, “You’ve got to behave.”
Dollison focuses on developing opportunities for young people, remains calm in crises and “thinks very quickly on his feet,” said Roberts and others who were preparing First Missionary for an April celebration of Dollison’s 22nd anniversary there.
The church women interviewed said they see him digging holes, changing light bulbs, sweeping and hauling supplies in his 2006 Toyota Tundra truck. On a Friday in mid-April, he was at church in a black track suit.
He’s very involved in preparing for church activities, Valerie Dollison said.
“I wouldn’t say he’s a perfectionist where it’s sickening,” she clarified, “but he really likes it right.”
Involved in the NAACP throughout his adult life, Dollison said he didn’t lose his desire to work for justice when he came to First Missionary Baptist, but he hadn’t realized how to combine that effort with church leadership.
He credits a speech by Robert C. Linthicum, author of “Transforming Power: Biblical Strategies for Making a Difference in Your Community,” with showing him how.
“His speech on justice work really impacted my desire to engage in work of justice and bring the church into doing that,” he said.
A justice ministry at First Missionary and its involvement in the PEACE group developed as a result.
An example of how Dollison thinks on his feet came at PEACE’s Nehemiah action in March. He was caught off guard when Chief Judge William Bruce Smith didn’t give the expected commitment on a deadline to make records of children’s first-time minor offenses inaccessible.
Smith said he could support making the records inaccessible, but he couldn’t commit to a May deadline.
Dollison asked why and, respectfully but persistently, pressed for a more detailed answer.
PEACE’s focus this year is Polk County’s rate of youth arrests for misdemeanors and developing alternative punishments. The group wants a commitment from school officials to seek alternatives, which it got in March, and from the judicial system.
This drive isn’t criticism of law enforcement, Dollison said. He’s a senior chaplain for the Winter Haven Police Department and has a son who recently joined the Lakeland Police Department.
Dollison relaxes by biking, painting and tinkering with cars, including having restored a couple of classic ones. His penchant for changing from used vehicle to used vehicle, his wife said, led a parishioner to ask, “When is he going to get a preacher car?”