When Jen Hatmaker says, “You won’t believe your eyes,” I tend to pay attention.
For those of you who don’t know who Jen Hatmaker is, she’s an author, speaker, and podcaster, who has been leading me from afar for about a decade. I respect the way she lives in the world as she aims to follow Jesus, and I’m continually grateful for the impact she’s made on my life.
But this particular time, she didn’t just say some words online or in a book. This time, I was actually chatting with her in person, at her home.
Let me start at the beginning.
Dustin and I are part of a group called the Legacy Collective. It’s a unique group of givers who pool their money together through ongoing monthly contributions. Then, together, we decide how to distribute those funds by giving grants to nonprofits that are working to help make lasting change all throughout the United States and around the globe.
Every year, the founders, Jen and Brandon Hatmaker, invite the givers to their home to be part of an annual weekend together. We celebrate the good that is happening through these organizations and communities, and we even get to hear from some of them directly.
So last May, we travelled to Austin, Texas, for the Legacy Collective weekend. We spent Friday night with the Hatmakers and others from the collective, chatting about life and hearing stories about their cities and the nonprofits they’re connected to.
As the night came to a close and we were saying our goodbyes, Jen asked us if we were going on the tour the next day of Community First! Village, an Austin based non-profit that our collective had given a grant to a couple of times before. We told her we were, and she was obviously incredibly excited.
“You won’t believe your eyes,” she said. “It’s amazing.”
I had already been looking forward to the tour, but now I was really excited.
I’d heard about the Village before when Jen had mentioned it online. It’s a community designed to come alongside people who’ve experienced chronic homelessness, raising them up off the streets of Austin. I’d even read part of the book that the founder, Alan Graham, had written about the Village.
I knew the basics. Five businessmen – who were deeply impacted on a spiritual retreat – came together to start feeding people in Austin who were living on the streets, especially under the bridge. An organization was born – Mobile Loaves and Fishes – with food trucks serving daily meals all over the city. Along the way, a sixth person joined the founding team, a man who himself had been homeless. He added much needed perspective, experience, and heart, and he helped shape the organization’s trajectory.
After several years of feeding people, they began taking steps toward housing people that weren’t able to be housed through the other organizations in the city. MLF started by purchasing one RV for one person they knew, and the pattern continued from there. Soon they realized that they wanted to do more.
As they listened to stories and learned about the causes of homelessness, they began to believe that the single greatest cause of homelessness is a “profound, catastrophic loss of family.” So they embarked on a journey to find a solution that could actually address this deep need. This reorientation became the foundation for Community First! Village where the undergirding belief remains, “Housing alone will never solve homelessness, but community will.”
So, on that slightly chilly Saturday afternoon, Dustin and I headed out to see what this unique community was truly like.
We pulled into a small parking lot and came up on the Community Inn lined with several tiny homes available for rent and a beautiful, outdoor amphitheater. The place was pristine. Everything was maintained so well, and I immediately felt welcome.
Our guide, Daryl, met us at the front of the Village with his genuine smile and enthusiastic presence. He walked us through phase one of this beautiful neighborhood lined with nearly 200 tiny homes and RVs, a market and community garden, a health clinic and outdoor kitchens. We saw the Community First! Car Care, the Art House, and Forge.
We weaved up and down the roads, passing by neighbors that Daryl waved to and chatted with along the way. And we listened to Daryl’s story. He’d volunteered at the Village a few years prior, helping build some of the tiny homes for residents to move into and call their own. And as he spent time at the Village, he was drawn into the culture of love and belonging. He felt seen and known. His eyes filled with tears as he wrapped up his story, and it was clear to me that this place had forever changed the way he thought about, and lived, his life.
So he decided to start the journey to become a “missional” resident.
Missionals are intentional neighbors who choose to live at the Village to come alongside the community and share life with all of the residents. They give and receive love, offering their gifts, experiences, and stories to shape the neighborhood as they too, are being shaped. I was intrigued by Daryl’s story and the individuals and families who had chosen this missional life. It seemed that they were perhaps the most unique aspect of this one-of-a-kind community.
As we listened to the details of how everything had come together, how the neighbors relied on one another, how families who lived there called it the “safest neighborhood they’d ever been part of”, I continued to be amazed.
I couldn’t believe that this Village was funded solely from private donations. They were a place that nearly 220 people already called home, with plans to add on three more, even bigger phases. There was a city bus that came to make sure everyone could make it to other parts of Austin. There was fresh produce, community meals, and a church service that met weekly onsite. Residents could earn a dignified income by helping run micro-businesses that fit their skill sets.
This neighborhood seemed to be the best of what we knew of permanent supportive housing solutions, but it was also filled with values for autonomy and dignity that were undeniable. There was a spirit of genuine hospitality that permeated every nook and cranny. We had just walked the grounds of something incredibly special – a village that was clearly built on community and Jesus and love.
As we made our way back to the front of the neighborhood, the rest of our tour group departed, and Dustin chatted with Daryl for a little longer, asking lots of questions. But I was distracted.
Jen was right. I couldn’t believe my eyes. And I couldn’t deny that something in my heart seemed to have shifted.
As I stood there waiting, I felt the presence of God in a way that’s only happened a few times in my life. It was so evident yet so peaceful – like a small voice that won’t be denied or silenced. The voice was simply offering something, something that I didn’t even know I’d been longing to have.
“Here it is,” the Spirit seemed to whisper. “What do you think?”
“It’s beautiful,” I responded. “You love it, don’t you?” I asked.
“Yes,” she whispered back. “Do you want to be a part of it?”
Then, all at once, I realized the agency I have in my own life. The God I aim to follow is so gentle and kind. There was no pressure or even persuasion. Just a peaceful invitation to join him where he was already working.
Of course, he was working back home too, right in the middle of the church we love and the people we were serving there. He was working in the Peoria foster care system that I had dreams of continuing to support, and he was working in the friendships that we had formed and the family that was nearby.
God had sustained us through so many seasons of trial and difficulty over the last six years that we’d made our home in Peoria. We had finally found a rhythm we were loving and thriving in.
Could this really be the time to consider such an invitation?
And yet, the pull was undeniable. I thought about the invitation again and wondered what a response could mean. What we would gain and what we would lose.
I looked at Dustin and wondered what he was thinking, though I could tell that his wheels were turning and his heart had been stirred. When you’re with someone for nearly 17 years, you start to learn the signals.
We got back to the car.
“What do you think?” I said.
“It’s amazing,” Dustin responded. “I think we should come back and learn more. Maybe do something like this in Peoria.”
“I think we should move here,” I said, and I burst into tears, overwhelmed but in the best of ways.
We talked and talked, for hours the next day, and into the following days.
“Let’s contact them in a month,” Dustin says.
“That sounds good,” I replied.
We pondered and prayed. And waited. We looked at RVs online and had conversations about what this type of decision would mean.
And we also kept moving forward, living the life we currently love.
But every single night, when I was getting ready to fall asleep, I couldn’t deny the invitation’s pull.
“Do you want to be a part of it?” rang over and over again in my head.
It was hard to imagine an answer other than, “Yes.”