When Christine finishes her shift as a night nurse, she assists Eric, who used to be homeless, in caring for the village goats. Ed, Nancy, and Suzanne help Dan cook a meal for the scores of volunteers and residents who are spending a Saturday morning harvesting vegetables. “People need a place to live out their ideas. That’s what this place is,” seventy-one-year old Harold, who until recently lived in a camp in the woods surrounding Austin, tells me as we finish mixing a fresh batch of homemade soap, rich with milk from the goats.
Today we have Fulbright scholars visiting from Romania, South Korea, and China. They are full of questions for Harold, and he answers them with good humor and grace. To anyone watching, it is clear that Harold is not the recipient of charity but a maker and sustainer of the good things happening here. That’s life at Community First! Village, a master-planned community for the chronically homeless started by Mobile Loaves & Fishes, a nonprofit organization that has for years been serving the homeless of Austin, Texas. The first residents moved in during the fall of 2015, and now several new neighbors arrive each week.
The root of homelessness, anyone who tries to address the issue quickly learns, is not just a matter of material resources but of isolation and disconnection. If this is true, then homelessness cannot be answered with a job or a treatment program, important as these resources are. Rather, men and women will remain homeless until they have a home. And how do we create true homes? At Community First! Village we’ve found an answer in the foundational narrative of the Bible, in which “the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15 ESV).
Featuring renovated RVs and innovative “tiny house” designs, the Village’s twenty-seven acres also boasts organic gardens, poultry, blacksmith and woodworking shops, and an outdoor amphitheater. We’re building a clinic, communal kitchens, bath and laundry facilities, a library, a sanctuary, and a prayer labyrinth. Eventually the Village will provide low-rent housing to more than two hundred people.
My husband and I were among the first residents of the Village, although neither of us has been homeless. Steven had been on staff with Mobile Loaves & Fishes for several years. When we married in the summer of 2015, I left a full-time university post in Alabama to join him. As we prepared to move to the Village, we found that God had already called others to a life of service in intentional community with us, setting aside a “normal” home for the sake of this homemaking revolution. They are nurses and teachers, CEOs and police officers, mothers and fathers, single and married, grandparents and schoolchildren. Our calling, like the call of Christ himself, transcends profession and background. Some, like Steven, had volunteered at Mobile Loaves & Fishes, and the relationships they formed with homeless people there drew them to the Village. They desired to serve not just once a week but through their daily lives as neighbors and friends to those coming off the streets. One or two formerly homeless friends have joined us as well. One family felt God leading them to sell their house, move into an RV, and relocate to Austin to minister there – before they had ever heard of our community. When they stepped onto the property, they realized that this was the place God had prepared for them. Their infant daughter is now the Village’s youngest resident.
Together we have formed a “mission community” within the Village. Some of us continue to work outside jobs and some work at the Village itself. We meet regularly for fellowship and to discuss how we can better meet the needs of our neighbors. While staff members of Mobile Loaves & Fishes continue to serve the Village with their expertise and compassion, we try to serve with the witness of our daily lives. As yet, we have no formal covenant. There was no organized campaign to recruit us, and we do not operate according to any rigid list of responsibilities. The formation of this community exhilarates some and bewilders others. In our short time here, we have already grappled with many of the tough questions of life: Who are we? Why are we here? How do we translate our ideals into daily life? What kind of distinction do we make between ourselves and those we serve?
If harvesting, cooking, or husbandry is the “work” of the garden God has placed us in, then how do we “keep” this place? We hope to protect our friendships from superficiality and to remain faithful over time. After all, the Village has been built not as a homeless shelter or temporary housing but as a place of permanence and stability for all who call it home. We guard the autonomy and dignity of our neighbors by recognizing their essential role in the work of this place. Again and again, those who have lost home and family tell us they need a place where they can give as well as receive, where they can be hosts as well as guests. They don’t want to live in government-sponsored housing that feels dangerous or dead. They don’t want to stand in line and beg for their basic needs.
As a nascent community we hope to inhabit the Village not as outsiders dispensing aid but as neighbors cultivating God’s garden together. We long to see if a lifestyle of service among the poor is sustainable for our children, our elders, and ourselves. Already in the first year, the fundamental patterns of our daily lives have begun to change in beautiful ways. Living in tiny homes and RVs, we leave our doors open and spend more time outside. That way, it’s easy to talk with our neighbors. Weekday meals turn into “stone soup” suppers where anyone is welcome to add something to the pot and stay for the meal and the company. And when I leave the Village and see a panhandler on the street corner, I now meet his eyes and wonder, “Will he be my neighbor soon? What garden might God be preparing for him?”
The names of formerly homeless are pseudonyms.
Photographs courtesy of the author.