Nobody ever thought that doing the good deed of feeding some homeless people in the Texas capital of Austin would spawn a neighborhood where the homeless are homeless no longer.
But that’s what happened with Community First! Village, the inspiration of Alan Graham, a Catholic who credits it all to a retreat weekend.
“Back in 1996, I went to a men’s retreat call Christ Renews His Parish. It had a profound revelatory impact on my relationship with Christ,” Graham told Catholic News Service during a phone interview Sept. 22 — his 37th wedding anniversary.
“I’ll tell anybody any day that this ministry would not exist without Christ Renews His Parish and my Roman Catholic faith,” he added. “If you look at our vision, mission, values and goals and our core values, five of ’em word for the word are out of the Catechism of the Catholic Church.”
Graham kicked it all off with the help of some friends with Mobile Loaves & Fishes, which operated out of a green minivan, later expanding to a food truck, offering “meals with a side of hope.”
But what about that exclamation point in the middle of the name? To Graham, it really is all about building community first.
“We built this one operation on top of the ‘housing-first’ philosophy. We believe that housing is necessary but insufficient to what humans need. What humans need is human contact. What that means is that you and I need to be connected,” he said.
He added, “The corporate works of mercy are an indelible part of who we are organizationally, but the only way to live out those corporal works, and the only way to restore justice, that will we want to restore together, we must live together.”
Not surprisingly, “one of our heroes has to be Mother Teresa. I flew my entire family to Rome four, five years ago when she was canonized,” Graham said. Caring for the hungry, the naked, the sick and the poor are required, he added, “if we’re really going to live out our Christianity.”
Community First! Village has a mix of tiny homes and recreational vehicles on its acreage in Austin. There’s enough housing for about 150 formerly homeless people as well as close to 40 “missionals,” adults who have a ministry of presence with an open mind and an open door to engage in conversation with the onetime street people.
But in keeping with the notion of building community, there are structures throughout the grounds designed to bring the residents together, including community dining rooms, an amphitheater for movies and live performances, a wood shop, a ceramics shop and a blacksmith shop.
There’s also a chapel, with plans in a coming phase of development to build a 400-seat church for worship.
Residents are required to pay rent, but the monthly rent is as low as $44. There’s a bus stop inside Community First! Village to take residents to jobs, but there are many jobs onsite as well to give residents a sense of dignity and self-worth.
Graham said the village is based on two verses of Genesis: Genesis 2:15, “just after God created the Garden of Eden” with God’s charge to Adam and Eve “to care for it cultivate it. And then the community element of that flows out of Genesis 2:18: ‘God realized it is not good for man to be alone.'”
Ron Whitmer, a missional with his wife, Darlene, said their involvement with Community First! Village started in the mid-2010s.
“Our church that we attend has two of the Mobile Loaves & Fishes trucks,” he said. “We were part of that ministry, and then our mission’s pastor encouraged us to come out here and visit. He thought we might be a nice fit.”
When they said yes, they knew it would mean a lot less time in Ohio to spend time with one of their sons, his wife and the five granddaughters. “It’s really a change of lifestyle. And rather than be here for three or four hours in getting in your car and leaving and seeing it in your rearview mirror, it’s not out of your mind,” Whitmer said.
“We really didn’t decide that this would be the place we would end up until we had been out here volunteering and building some very meaningful and deep relationships with some of the neighbors,” he added. “When people move in, they are no longer homeless. They are residents. I like to call them neighbors, because that’s what they are.”
The ministry of presence requires intention. “All the missionals have a sign in their window with a big ‘M’ on it so the neighbors know if they see that ‘M’ in our window, they’re free to come and knock at our door whenever,” Whitmer said.
Some mornings, the Whitmers will whip up a big batch of breakfast tacos in a community kitchen — and prepare copious quantities of coffee — as Community First! Village residents get their own day started and talk with other residents.
There’s also a Monday night men’s Bible study that usually concludes with food and more talk. And the occasional pickleball game can generate some conversation.
“A lot of their experiences on the street are very transactional. You go to a local shelter, you take a number, they call your number and you get a bed,” Whitmer told CNS in a Sept. 23 phone interview. “Here we want to take that transactional relationship to a heart-to-heart relationship where we know you, we are for you, we look for you to succeed.”
He added, “Our overall goal is modeling Christ to the community, and that type of lifestyle, so that they see in us what we see in Christ.”
Community First! Village is Austin based, but not necessarily unique to Austin. “The model is being replicated around the country. There are about a dozen or so replicators,” Graham said.
“We’re close to actually understanding of what it takes to be community first. Just because we say we’re Community First, it takes time to understand what it means, as we become more equipped by God of what it means.”