I was on a work meeting at Foster Village today, and we were discussing the barriers for many of the biological families we get to walk alongside as they work hard to reunify with their children who are in foster care.
While the exact circumstances surrounding the cases are different, we definitely see a common theme: the parents don’t have the support that many people (myself included) rely on to make it through when life gets difficult.
When they arrive at their initial meetings or first court date and are asked who they have for support, far too often the answer is “no one”. In fact sometimes, these moms and dads don’t even have someone they can list as an emergency contact.
No one. No parents or siblings. No friends. No coworkers. Not a single person identified that they could turn to.
For many of us, we can immediately begin to tell ourselves stories about why this must be.
“They push people away and have burned so many bridges.” “They deal with substance abuse.” “If they’d just get treatment for their mental illness, things would be easier for them.”
On and on and on.
And these stories could be true. But in the last several years, I’ve begun to tell myself a different story about these moms and dads.
After getting to know some incredibly strong people who have graciously shared with me, after learning about systemic failures and generational cycles of adversity, I can now see it differently.
After working with and raising kids who have spent time in foster care, now, when I hear about someone who has no support, I imagine them first as a child.
I think about the person’s connections to their family when they were little. What happened when biological mom was growing up? Could she depend on her family then? Was she shuffled through the system too? Did her own mom deal with substance abuse? Did she have any model of what healthy parenting or family systems could look like? Did she age out of foster care and now she’s part of that grim statistic that says the cycle will continue?
And then I remembered this blog, Dustin wrote last year about our time getting to know those who have been homeless, and the same thing rings true. Sure there are lots of other circumstances and barriers that can lead to homelessness, but the lack of supportive relationships is a major component in nearly every story.
All of the real obstacles of life are way more difficult when we’re walking through them completely alone. And it wasn’t meant to be this way.
There is a chasm between how things are and how they should be in this broken, beautiful world we call home. And I sense that chasm nearly every single day. Maybe you do too.
For some of us, feeling that chasm hurts. It haunts us. It can leave us feeling debilitated and can push us toward disengagement. When entire systems are broken and so many people are suffering, it can just feel too overwhelming and too painful. We may think of real solutions and policies and reforms that could help but also feel powerless to make a real difference.
For others, noticing that chasm energizes us. For the enneagram one “reformer” in me, the possibility of helping to create a better world pulls me forward with an almost physical force. I am compelled.
It’s why I do the work I do at Foster Village. It’s why our family has chosen to live at Community First! Village among those who have been chronically homeless. It’s why we launched A Faithful Presence to help Dustin do this neighboring thing full-time, so we’d have more capacity to do it well.
But it doesn’t take an organization to begin telling ourselves a different story about the circumstances of those who are walking beside us in this world. And it doesn’t take an official organization to show up as a friend for just one person who might have given up on looking for an emergency contact.
We can be doing this right where we are. In the neighborhoods we live in. In the churches we attend. Where we work. Where our kids go to school. Where we shop. Where we play.
In every corner of our little worlds, there are fellow travelers making the journey completely alone.
When we notice the gap, tell ourselves a different story, and then show up, we can be part of remaking this world into something better – one relationship at a time.
As I’m writing this post, Dustin, the girls, and I are in the front yard on our fairly busy street. The girls have been riding their scooters for the last couple of hours, and we took a break to eat some takeout on a picnic blanket. It’s been a good evening.
Kristin is currently screaming, “Hello! How’s your day going?” to every single group of people that passes by our home.
It’s a beautiful weather, so she’s had quite a few people to talk with, or perhaps “talk at” is more accurate. Most people just smile, barely acknowledging she’s spoken to them.
So she usually just asks again a little louder, “How’s your day going?”
If they don’t respond, she then proceeds to share about how her day is going. “We love summer!” or “We’re riding our scooters!” or “My cousin gave me this helmet,” were some of her go-tos tonight. She’s an extrovert and just happy to see people.
The last people to pass by were a little more chatty. They’d been by once before, and this time upon their return, she let them know she loved their dog, their shoes, and their shirt.
“You’re so sweet,” they told her.
“Yep,” she replied. “I was born sweet.”
Her joy is contagious, so normally by the time people have finished listening to whatever she has to share, they’re smiling a little bit more. I think she feels satisfied.
As for me, I’m trying to get a hold of everything that’s swirling in my mind. So, I’m writing. Outside of talking Dustin’s ear-off and making unending to-do lists, writing is my way to process the constant deluge of thoughts. It’s not so much a plan as it is a broad outline of expected efforts and outputs. (This is growth for me.) I know this isn’t necessarily the time to be making goals, but I also know that our life requires us to show-up, so here are the areas that seem to need most of my attention. (Of course, this is all subject to change because we’re living through a pandemic, and some days all I want to do is eat cheese and watch Gilmore Girls.)
School – As I’m sure many of you are, we’re basically counting down the days to the end of this school year. The girls have done a pretty good job staying focused even with everything that’s happening in the world, but I’ve found my motivation is fairly unpredictable. Some days, I’m ready to dive in and teach, and other days we play some games, cook together, and call it a day. Our homeschool philosophy has always been pretty flexible as far as curriculum. We’re open to a variety of experiences and learning opportunities, so as we head into the final stretch of the year, we’re giving ourselves, and our girls, lots of grace.
Parenting – Our focus for the last two years in parenting has been this: become a stick-together family. When we’re flourishing and when we’re floundering, our aim is to find some way to actively stay on one another’s team. We get curious. Look for the need behind the behavior. Work on our own emotional regulation, so we can help the girls with theirs. Talk regularly to stay on the same page. This area of life can’t really be compartmentalized. It shows up in the middle of every other aspect of life, especially right now, because there are no good boundaries. Everyone is together all the time. Parents, I see you, and I’m with you. You’re doing such good, good work.
Home Projects – To be completely honest, I’m not as excited about this part of this month. I don’t mind chores or projects in general, but painting, deep cleaning, and home improvement stuff really isn’t my jam. Give me a pile of dirty dishes or a closet to organize, and I’m all set. Ask me to do some yard work, and you’ll hear some grumbling. But alas, being an adult isn’t always fun so projects are on the horizon. Hopefully we’ll be ready to list our home by the end of the month!
Community First! Village – One new addition to the to-do list for this month is getting serious about Dustin’s new role at Community First! Village. While we’re still wondering about our official timeline for our move, we know our next step is to invite our people to partner with us in this mission.
Dustin is looking forward to devoting his time to the Village and aiming to raise enough support to be onsite full-time. We see this ministry as the next step in his pastoral calling (and mine), and while it’s a new place, a new people, and a new way of doing life, there is also a deep sense of continuity with our current life. We have a deep love for God and for people and an ever-increasing commitment to being bringers of justice and good news to everyone.
By committing himself to full-time missional life, Dustin will be able to lean into the areas of ministry where he feels most at home, especially pastoral care and spiritual direction. His gentle, steady presence will be such a fit for this new role, and I’m incredibly excited to see the ways God will continue to move in and through him at CF!V. Just as he’s done over the last decade in local church ministry, Dustin will still be using his gifts to care for people as he helps them connect with God and one another.
We’re excited about the opportunities for him to care for both our new neighbors who were formerly homeless and our fellow missional residents. While those who are centered in society often receive spiritual direction and pastoral care regularly, these types of conversations and spaces aren’t always available to people on the margins. He’s looking forward to creating room for our neighbors to explore spiritual questions & dialogue, to dive into scripture together, and to try out spiritual practices individually and corporately. We know that the main part of Dustin’s role will be providing an attentive, relational, faithful presence. This will mean adapting to the needs that arise, and I’m confident Dustin will do that with grace and peace.
We are honored to be joining such an amazing group of people who call the Village home and we know we will be challenged, encouraged, and loved in ways that we’ve never experienced before. As with any new ministry role, flexibility and sensitivity to God’s leading will be essential, and we’re open to finding our best fit as we continue to get to know this new community.
So, this month, we’re working on a website, talking with potential partners, and praying for this next season. We’re looking forward to continuing to share our journey at the Village and are trusting that God will help us find some partners in this ministry who have hearts for those on the margins.
If you’re interested in learning more about Community First! Village, we’d love to share with you! Leave a comment or send us a message, so we can set up a time to chat.
It was September. We had gotten the chance to tell Pastor Josh a little bit about our discernment process, something we really wanted to do before we moved forward, so I finally felt ready to head back to Community First. We loaded up the van and began our 15-hour road trip to Austin.
Our girls knew we were planning to be in Tulsa for our trip. They just didn’t realize we’d only spend one night there. Once we were on the road, we decided it was a good time to start the conversation with them.
We turned down the music, probably Taylor Swift’s most recent album, and told the girls we wanted to talk to them about the rest of our trip. We asked them if they remembered the movie about Community First! Village, we had watched back in May. When we’d come home from the initial tour, we brought back a copy of the documentary that showed the village and how the model for community worked in their unique neighborhood.
The girls immediately remembered. They had loved the documentary and had actually asked to watch it a second time. They loved the stories about the neighbors and Kaylynn particularly liked Alan Graham, one of the co-founders who spoke quite a bit during the film. We told them we were going to actually go visit the Village as a family for most of the trip. They were excited!
Then, we eased into the second part of the conversation, aiming to choose our words carefully.
“We’re actually wondering if the Village could be a good place for our family to live someday. Daddy and I loved our tour so much, and we could picture our family fitting right in. We wonder if God is sort of giving us an invitation to join in what’s happening there in Texas, so we wanted to bring you this time to see it for yourselves.”
I don’t think they quite knew what to say. They were obviously shocked, just as we expected them to be. We continued.
“Sometimes, when we’ve taken a big step in our lives, we’ve had a super strong feeling. It’s sort of in our stomachs, and the feeling tells us to notice something really important happening. When we were at the Village in May, we felt that feeling. Kind of like God was trying to get our attention. Do you know one of the other times we felt that feeling?”
“When?” they said.
“When we felt like God invited us to become foster parents.”
They filled in the rest of the story because we’ve told them how our family had come to be many times.
“You waited for two girls who would be your daughters, so you said no a few times to other kids who needed a home,” Kaylynn said.
“Yep. And when we decided not to have babies come from my belly and to become foster parents instead, that was a big decision. It felt something kind of like this. And when they called asking us about those other kids who also needed a safe home, we felt like we should still wait for two girls.”
“Us!” said Kristin.
“Yep. We waited for you. This might be a time kind of like that. But we don’t know yet. It’s sometimes hard to know what God is saying, but we try to learn to listen.”
They got emotional, and I immediately wanted to clarify. I didn’t want to make them feel like we had to do big, bold things to follow Jesus. Most of my life has just been ordinary acts of obedience. Everyday decisions. Small steps. On a rare occasion, I have gotten a strong sense of God’s leading in order to help me take a leap.
“But you know what, even if it’s an invitation from God, I don’t think he’ll be mad at us if we decide not to move. God’s not like that. He might just be saying it’s a special place that we could be part of. I think he’d still be happy if we stayed in Peoria and kept our same house, our same church, and our same jobs. Either way, whatever we choose, God will be with us and we’ll be together. But we want to decide together, so we want you to see it. You can get to know the neighbors to see what you think, and we’ll talk about it a lot more.”
The conversation went on for quite a while. Kristin put her headphones on to listen to more music and perhaps, check out of such a heavy conversation, but Kaylynn had more emotions she wanted to process and more thoughts to sort through.
She shared how much she’d miss Pastor Josh, Breakfast Club, and our nearby family. She also shared about how neat it would be to live in a village that helps people who used to be homeless. It was, in fact, her dream.
When Kaylynn was in first grade, she was impacted by visiting our local Salvation Army on Christmas morning. That day, we took our Breakfast Club on the road and met our friends where they were staying at the shelter. This was the first time the girls saw where they lived. After we served, Kaylynn got into the car and told us, “I want to open a homeless shelter someday.”
It was out of left field to us, and we just listened as she shared her thoughts. She wanted everyone to have their own room, activities to do, and a swimming pool so they could all have fun together. She thought they needed more there than what she’d seen, and she was pretty determined to make it happen.
Months later, when she was asked by her first grade teacher to draw a picture of what she wanted to be when she grew up, she drew this:
We honestly didn’t know she was still thinking about that idea, but it seemed to be a pretty big deal to her.
For that reason, and many more, we knew that if we decided to make the move, it would be a family calling. We were looking forward to seeing how the girls could fit into the rhythms of village life.
We stopped in Tulsa the first evening to spend time with dear friends, and then traveled on to Austin the next day, with a brief stop for lunch in Waco, because while we were open to the idea of a tiny home, we also love watching those amazing spaces that Chip and Joanna create on Fixer Upper.
We arrived that evening in Austin, and stayed at the Community Inn, one of the micro-business on-site at Community First! where neighbors can work and earn a dignified income.
The inn is made up of tiny homes and RVs that are rentable. People from all over the country (and even the world) can book one through AirBnB. They’re all well-maintained and inviting as they sit at the front entrance of the neighborhood near the outdoor theater. The girls were so excited to spend a few days in our airstream with the booth that turned into a bed!
We spent many hours over the course of those few days getting to know a little bit more about the community. We shared meals and coffee with missionals and heard stories of how they had uniquely been called to live there. We chatted with neighbors at the Farmers Market and at the Community Table. And the girls loved hanging out with the chickens and goats and enjoyed watching Aladdin at the Community Cinema.
We spent time talking with as many people as possible, and especially loved meeting the members of the Mobile Loaves and Fishes Executive Team, a sharp and passionate group of people who were approachable and incredibly humble.
Everywhere we turned, we seemed to encounter hospitable people who were grateful to be part of something so special.
Our girls jumped right in, as we thought they would. One of my favorite qualities both girls share is their ability to connect with all kinds of people. They have spent quite a bit of time around our church’s Breakfast Club ministry, and they’re incredibly friendly, wanting everyone to feel welcome.
Seeing them at Community First, where people aren’t just housed but are welcomed home, Dustin and I felt strongly that this move across the country would be a beautiful experience for our whole family. It would be a way to fulfill dreams that Kaylynn had been carrying in her heart for the last couple of years.
And while Dustin and I were definitely thinking about the ways our gifts and experiences could fit into the fabric of the Village, we were also aware that our girls had their own unique gifts to offer, right now. Those gifts weren’t something they would have to wait to use when they were older.
Instead, we could see their unique personalities – their joy and hospitality and love for people – immediately fitting in and filling gaps. They hugged neighbors they’d just met and introduced themselves to everyone.
But our favorite moments of the trip were probably during the house blessing, when we were able to help welcome a new neighbor, Linda, into her new home. The neighbors gathered to read the house blessing prayers, and our girls handed Linda the traditional housewarming gifts for her RV. Then, we walked to her new home, prayed prayers of blessing, and she welcomed us in. She’d spent four years living on the streets, and she was so happy to finally have a place to rest and call her own. It was beautiful.
Our girls seemed to connect with her right away, and she chatted with us for awhile, sharing that she wasn’t in touch with her family. We didn’t need to hear the whole story to know that when our girls hugged her, just a little bit of healing happened. Their presence mattered, and they offered a gift that none of the adults there could have given – acceptance and love from children.
We spent the rest of our time at the village celebrating Kristin’s birthday and connecting with more missionals. One of the missional families who has four kids (yes, they’re all in a tiny home) helped us celebrate.
They put up balloons and streamers and the kids all played together like they were old friends, running from yard to yard.
As we wrapped up the trip, we felt even more confident that this could be the next step for our family. We could picture our future, and it looked so bright.
It was mid-June. I was sitting outside reading a book and watching the girls swim in our pool, my absolute favorite way to spend a summer afternoon. Dustin got home from work and came out to greet us.
“I called Community First today,” he said.
“What?!” I replied. “What did they say?”
It had been exactly one-month since our tour at Community First! in Austin, and we had settled back into our regular rhythm of life – pastoring our church, Imago Dei, and spending time with our girls soaking up summer break after having completed our first year of homeschooling.
Dustin and I knew that our experience in Austin was a major deal, and the two of us talked about it fairly regularly. But we also knew that we owed it to everyone – ourselves, our girls, our church and our families – to take the process slowly. We wanted to let the impressive experience wear off a bit and return to our normal life. So we kept to the one-month timeline before we made that call.
Of course, I did spend more than a few hours during that month diving deep into the world of Pinterest & Instagram looking at remodeled RVs and dreaming about what it could possibly mean for our family of four to downsize and move 15 hours away to be part of this community.
If I’m honest, it was fairly difficult for me to keep everything to myself. When you have an experience that feels ground-breaking and life-altering, the effects of it don’t just go away by reentering into regular life. I’d find myself wanting to share openly with our close friends (who are also part of our church) but knew it was best to stay quiet and wait.
Our church had been through a huge transition over the last couple of years, and we wanted to give people time to breathe and relax. We wanted to continue to build a strong relationship with our newest co-pastor, Josh, and we wanted to make sure our community was adjusting well to all of the changes. Pastoral transitions are a major deal for some congregations, and our first commitment was to the church we loved.
So instead of sharing with our friends who were part of our church, we decided to begin processing our experience and sharing our behind-the-scenes feelings with a few of the people less connected to our daily life. These friends care about us deeply, know our hearts, and have walked with us through other big decisions and seasons. We knew that sharing with them would be a critical piece of our discernment process.
I loved those early conversations, and I can remember the initial reactions of pretty much everyone we shared with because there was such consistency in their responses. Whether they were our friends in North Carolina, Oklahoma, or Texas, across the board they listened well, affirmed who we are, and expressed their support of and belief in us. As we told them about the tour, the strong pull we felt toward the Village, and our thoughts since returning home, they didn’t scoff or laugh. They didn’t say we were absolutely ridiculous for considering such a move. Instead, as good friends do, they asked specific, needed questions about what it would mean for our jobs, our girls, our parents, and our church.
So when Dustin came home on that summer afternoon and told me he’d called, I was super antsy to hear what the conversation with Community First was like. I wondered if they’d ever had a family from out-of-state want to come join what they were doing. I wondered if this was something that was even possible for a family of four. I wondered about their structure for missionals, their roles and responsibilities, and the process for figuring out if we were a good fit for the community.
“They told me to email a woman named Nancy who oversees the missional program,” he said. “Now we wait to hear back from her.”
The next day, we heard back from both Ed and Nancy, a married couple who help individuals and couples who desire to begin a discernment process about missional life at CF!V.
Ed emailed back first saying he’d actually spent time in Peoria, having gone to ISU in Bloomington. He was familiar with the area and that immediate connection was unexpected. Later that afternoon, Nancy emailed as well, letting us know she’d love to schedule a time to talk to us over the phone.
Dustin and Ed actually got to talk first and had a great conversation. They chatted about our family, our experience on the tour, and our current ministry at Imago and in Peoria. They talked a little about Breakfast Club, our Sunday morning meal open to those in our local area who are experiencing homelessness.
I remember listening in on one half of the conversation as Dustin paced around the kitchen. When he hung up the phone, he filled me in on the rest of the details.
It seemed promising and we set up a time for the four of us to talk over the phone. Even in that early phone call, I could so clearly hear their passion for the Village, their love for their neighbors, and their enthusiasm about beginning the discernment process with us. They explained the basics about tiny home life, the adventure of living among the chronically homeless, and the ways their lives had been impacted by this unique community.
I felt an immediate connection to them and could tell our hearts were similar. I was excited about the possibilities and felt an even deeper sense of calling settling into my heart. I didn’t know such a place could exist. It was not a utopia with perfect processes or perfect people, but it was built on a foundation that seemed carefully crafted and intentionally maintained. Their ideas were so similar to the ways our Breakfast Club ministry had evolved over the years. They focused on relationships with people not transactions and tasks, and they communicated not just a desire to “serve” but to “be with” those who’d been on the streets. This type of language matters deeply to us, and I could hear the authenticity in their words.
So, we began the official discernment process – one that normally lasted anywhere between 9 months to a couple of years. This process was one that all missionals would go through, though ours would be different since we were the first out-of-staters who were seriously interested in engaging the process.
I felt comforted by the length of time they estimated for walking through the process. It gave me confidence that they cared enough to do things well, investing time and resources into finding the right people to be part of this beautiful community they were creating.
So we set up some mile markers. We definitely wanted to go visit again with our girls and planned to go back in September for a week. We wanted to make sure that we could picture our family of four thriving in the environment. Then, Ed and Nancy would come visit us in Peoria for a weekend later in the fall to see what our everyday lives look like. Then, if we were all still feeling good about the process and where God was leading us, we’d visit another time, maybe for a symposium. The symposium at Community First! is a three-day learning opportunity aimed at helping others from around the country understand the heart of not only the Village but the entire organization that birthed it – Mobile Loaves and Fishes.
We now had a plan, a loose one with flexibility, but one that would guide our next steps over the course of many months. I felt a sense of peace knowing that there was no rush for a decision. No need to push or pull on the timeline. We were in no hurry to leave and they were in no hurry to “recruit” us. We seemed to be in agreement that if this was the next step for our family, we’d find alignment along the way.
Of course, we had some practical details to figure out, especially about when to invite others into our process. We wanted to tell our families what we were thinking about and let our church leaders know as soon as we possibly could – but we didn’t want to jump ahead either. So we continued to hold things loosely – imagining the possibilities for the future while staying available to be engaged and effective in the present.
We continued to enjoy our family time – spending afternoons by the pool and running lemonade stands in our front yard. We continued to lead our church – organizing events, sitting with people in their joy and pain, navigating the ups and downs of leadership.
I even started something brand new by coming on staff at FamilyCore as their Foster Parent Recruiter. I am always thinking about ways to strengthen and support the foster care community, and even though I knew it might not be a forever job, I believed it would be worth it to pour my time and energy into an organization that I love.
Our life was still moving forward, even in the waiting, and that’s exactly as we hoped it would be.
And our next step? Preparing to share the Village with our girls when we’d visit again in September.
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.”
During Advent, our family reads daily cards that are beautiful and designed to walk you through the season. There are discussion prompts on the back, some of which encourage you to read a short passage of scripture together, to spend time laughing with one another, or to do an act of kindness for a neighbor or friend.
Some of the activities are more poignant than others, and some days the girls are into it. Other days they’re not quite sure how to respond to such grown up questions about life and faith.
One of the recent cards prompted our family to talk about “promises” that God has given to us. And while I loved the sentiment that God is faithful and trustworthy, which I totally believe, I struggled to come up with specific promises. I mean, I had plenty of verses I could recite that seem like promises from God. God promises – “to prosper us and not to harm us, to give us a hope and a future” or that we can “do all things through Christ who strengthens us” or that we can move mountains with “faith like a mustard seed”. And while I think those parts of scripture are all beautiful and that they all matter, those aren’t really the ways that I think about faith right now.
As our girls looked at me from across the table waiting for me to come up with a few promises God has given us, I was honest.
“Well,” I said. “I’m not quite sure how many promises God has made to me. There are lots of times I’ve felt like God spoke to my heart and told me things I should focus on or reminded me that he loves me. But promises? I think maybe the most important promise is the one we think about at Christmas time. Do you remember what Immanuel means?”
Kaylynn replied, “God with us.”
“Exactly. God with us. I think that’s what he promises us. He doesn’t promise us that life will be easy, or that bad things won’t happen, but he promises to always, always be with us. No matter what.”
It’s a simple, yet profound promise. It’s the hope I’ve clung to when life has been difficult, and when I’ve watched friends walk through intense loss and grief. It’s the part of the Christmas story that gets me every single time. “So the word became human, and made his home among us” (John 1:14 NLT).
He made his home among us. Proximity matters for so many reasons.
Being near people is the way we learn and grow. It’s the way we expand our limited perspectives of the world. Relationships are the first step in beginning to understand those who have a different life experience than we do.
But perhaps proximity also matters because when we are near people, we’re living into the example that’s been set before us. We’re reflecting back our Creator’s image. We’re making our home with others in a world that can too often feel inundated with isolation and loneliness.
I don’t think this with-ness has a formula or blueprint. I mean, Jesus came to be with us in the most unexpected, most unassuming of ways. He made his home with us as a baby, born to a teenager, yet called, Immanuel – God with us.
My guess is that he didn’t have to do anything in particular for this moment to matter. His presence itself brought joy and hope. Even as a baby, his arrival signalled that God was truly with his people.
So maybe when we are truly present with others, we somehow, inherently, carry the good news that God is with us, into this weary world.
Perhaps your gentle hand on her shaking shoulder, your meaningful text in the middle of the crisis, or your willingness to listen without offering advice, is the perfect way to show up.
Perhaps the extra cuddles when he’s too scared to sleep in his own bed, the countless hours at his bedside in the hospital, or the five-hour road trip to see her even when she no longer recognizes you as son is exactly what the power of with-ness looks like.
Perhaps your presence – your intentional, willing, available, presence – continues to remind those around you that God is still with each of us, even as we enter into the longest night of the year.
For I wholeheartedly believe, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
I joined Jen Hatmaker’s Book Club which probably comes as no surprise to anyone in my life. She’s my favorite. She’s funny, honest, bold, and kind. She loves Jesus and people. She’s been leading me from afar for years through her writing and social media presence.
So when she says, “I’m starting a book club, and it’s x amount of dollars,” I say to myself, “Well, of course I’m in. Please take my money.”
The first book in our club was Tell Me Moreby Kelly Corrigan. I’ve never read anything by Kelly Corrigan, though I’ve seen Jen recommend her books before. Honestly, I just have an ever-growing list of to-be-read books, and sometimes I need a little incentive to finish one before opening the next. Nothing like online accountability to keep me going.
I’m so glad I decided to jump in because I absolutely LOVED this book. Kelly is honest and raw. Her writing is relatable and easy to follow. I loved the short essay format for each chapter and all of the moments where I heard myself saying “me too”.
You’ll have to dig into the book to see what you think, but today I’m sharing a list I was inspired to write based on Kelly’s short chapter that she dedicates to her “Yes” List – things she’ll always say “yes” to in life.
We bought a new book for our daughter, Kaylynn, this year for Easter. I had seen one I knew I wanted to grab for our younger daughter, Kristin, and because keeping things as even as possible seems to be the best approach in our household, I obviously needed to find one for Kaylynn as well. I landed on one entitled, “Maybe God is Like That, Too” by Jennifer C. Grant.
The book begins with a boy who lives in the city having a conversation with his grandmother about God. The boy, having never “seen God”, is wondering what God is like.
The grandmother, in her wisdom, encourages the child to look throughout the city and notice the places that people are displaying God-like characteristics – the fruit of the spirit to be exact. Wherever there is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, she suggests, God is there too.
The boy goes on to spend his day on the lookout for God. He notices God in his classroom among the students, in his neighbor as he opens the door for someone, and in his own grandmother, as she faithfully washes the dishes that evening. God is evident in the spaces he’s experienced daily, and all he has to do is begin to notice.
It’s a simple message that has stuck with me over the last couple of weeks.
God is always moving and always at work, not just in the spaces that are bright and easily defined as beautiful, but also in the spaces that seem devoid of those things. God is inside the broken and bruised and tattered and torn realities that sometimes fill our daily lives. God still shows up right in the middle of those spaces with a presence and Spirit that is unmistakable.
If we’ve met in person or perhaps even online, it’s probably evident that I’m passionate about foster care. The system and the stories have impacted me in ways that I can never rid myself of, even if I would try. The pain and the brokenness and the injustice of it all are what first caught my attention. The loss and the longing and the not-quite-made-right-ness seemed exactly like the places that Jesus spent his time.
But it wasn’t only devastation and destruction that I saw in the system. I saw stories of hope and healing. I saw families being restored, light breaking in, and the Church engaging. These realities and endless possibilities captured my heart and my dreams. They have shaped the last 8 years of my life and have forever impacted my trajectory.
There’s a parable in the gospel of Matthew, where Jesus is talking about the Kingdom of Heaven. He says, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like the yeast a woman used in making bread. Even though she put only a little yeast in three measures of flour, it permeated every part of the dough.”
This, to me, is foster care. A system full of overwhelming heartache, yet permeated with the aroma of God’s slow-working, Kingdom of Heaven.
And I’ve seen this happen in so many ways right in our own church. Through the overflowing donation bins in our lobby packed with diapers and wipes, so that families have one less thing to think about when welcoming a little one into their family on a moment’s notice. Through the desserts served and the smiles given to a room full of tired yet faithful case workers. Through the Christmas presents bought and wrapped for kids spending Christmas away from the mom and dad they’ve known.
Through the meals delivered to a family as they celebrate an adoption and welcome a five month old baby into their home all in the same week. Through the child care volunteers, who spend time with a room full of kiddos so that foster and adoptive parents can connect, decompress, and share. Through the older couple, now honorary grandma and grandpa, who takes two energetic boys out for one-on-one time, so an adoptive mom and dad can have a couple of hours of silence to sit and breathe.
Through the CASA volunteer from Peoria driving all the way to Carbondale, so she can check on her kiddos who are now placed there. Through the Genesis volunteers who welcome the tentative first-time student who’s never been to church and seems overwhelmed by all of the sights and sounds of a new environment.
Through the family that welcomes a teenager into their home, even before the system acknowledged that the need was truly there. Through the couple that says yes again, even though they said goodbye to the little boy they loved.
Like yeast permeating flour or a mustard seed moving mountains, these ordinary actions of ordinary people are slowly but surely reminding me and the world around us,
I didn’t expect my voting experience to be a spiritual one. I’ve never been super into politics and have even exercised my right not to vote a time or two. And while I know and believe that everything is spiritual at some level, most times I just like to get stuff done. Today, voting was just one of the many tasks on my to-do list.
So when I pulled into the parking lot at my polling place and was immediately overwhelmed with emotion, I was caught off-guard.
At first, I thought it might have been anxiety. It’s no secret that this election has been tough to get through. But as I approached the door, I realized I wasn’t feeling anxiety about the outcome of today or what the future holds.
I was feeling inspired and encouraged.
The first person I noticed was a woman with braces on her legs who was almost at the entrance. A man ahead of her was waiting at the door to hold it open for her and then for me as we entered the building. Then, I noticed a woman in line helping direct another voter to his correct polling place. She was using her phone to look up the location, and then gave him directions, making sure he understood where to go.
Once in line, I noticed an elderly women, who had probably voted in countless elections, slowly making her way into the building. Behind her, I noticed a young woman who may have been casting her vote for president for the first time.
I continued to watch people, which is really one of my favorite things to do. In fact, I often feel closest to God when I am around groups of people, just taking it all in. I love sitting in coffee shops and watching people come in and out, going about their daily lives.
Usually I’m too busy to realize that those around me aren’t just a backdrop to my story, but once in a while, when I give myself the space to just sit and watch I begin to notice what is actually true. The people around me have their own relationships and emotions and real lives being lived right along side mine, intersecting with mine for a moment or two as we wait for our coffee or brush past each other to find a seat.
And today, at my polling place, this was another one of those moments – an opportunity to notice God around me by noticing the beautiful people who are my neighbors.
There was great diversity in that line to vote, and I’m sure our ballots looked much different in the end. But as we waited, before the ballots were cast and our political lines were officially drawn, our shared humanity was most evident. We were just people, waiting to do what we all believe to be important, reaching out to one another by holding doors and giving directions.
And I was reminded that God’s image, the imago dei, is in each of us. That his goodness and beauty and love is there. And one of the things I want my life to be about is noticing, standing up for, and calling forth that image of God in those around me every day. Because the truth is, no matter what tomorrow brings, we’re in this together.