You Won't Believe Your Eyes: Community First! Village (Part 1)

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.”

God With Us

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.”

My “Yes” List

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 More by 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.

Christina’s “Yes” List

  • Iced Coffee with French Vanilla NutPods
  • Potatoes
  • Reading by the any body of water
  • 90s music
  • Exercising as alone time
  • Rewatching Gilmore Girls
  • Sparkling water
  • Date Nights with Dustin
  • Buying cute notebooks to contain all of my lists
  • Reading aloud to my girls
  • Breaking tension with jokes
  • Game nights
  • Working from coffee shops
  • Schitt’s Creek
  • Inviting friends into our home

So, what’s on your “Yes” List?

“Maybe God is Like That Too” – A Reflection

 

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,

“Maybe God is Like That Too”.

Noticing God in the Voting Line

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.