By Heather Reynolds, LEO Managing Director
I arrive in Austin, Texas thrilled to be spending the night at Mobile Loaves and Fishes, not the average “on the road” hotel. As I pull up, I see acres and acres of open land dotted with interesting houses, truly an impressive sight. My taxi driver expresses a similar reaction. “Where are we? What is this?” I do my best to explain the mission of Mobile Loaves and describe their ministry of service to the homeless. Before we know it, we’re both holding back tears as we look at the 3-D printed tiny home sitting in front of us.
We sit in silence for a few minutes before I jump out of the car and check into my room for the night. I’m staying in a tiny home on the Mobile Loaves and Fishes property, complete with a view of an old-school outdoor movie theater. It’s wonderful to be back in Texas! I open the welcome package waiting for me in my tiny home. Inside, I find a bright yellow hat with the word “goodness” embroidered across the front. “Goodness” doesn’t even begin to explain what the next 18 hours feel like.
I make my way to meet up with the leadership of Mobile Loaves and am greeted by Amber, President and Chief Goodness Officer (I think we would approach our work a lot differently if we all had titles like this!), and Alan Graham, the CEO and founder. While I had met Alan before, there’s something different about meeting him on his own turf. He describes himself as a laissez-faire serial entrepreneur, and is unlike anyone I have ever met. He’s a visionary, he’s solid, and he doesn’t mince his words. Alan tells me that, about 20 years ago, he felt God calling him to be something more, to do something courageous and meaningful with his life. He responded to the call by starting Mobile Loaves and Fishes, a food truck for the hungry and homeless around Austin. After meeting Alan, I have to wonder--did this man, who is anything but laissez-faire, have any idea what God was planning next?
We talk about a myriad of things, from the life of Vincent van Gogh (the artist who has had such a profound impact on his life) to the story of what happened at Mobile Loaves last weekend. After a night of heavy drinking, one of the residents accidentally left his stove on and burned his RV to the ground. I ask Alan how he responds to such devastating situations. Alan pauses and, looking intent, responds simply, “It’s a miracle that in 15 years, this is the first time this has ever happened. What did we do? We moved our neighbor into another home.”
Alan tours me through 250 homes for the chronically homeless. Some are micro homes, which have electricity but share outdoor kitchen and restroom facilities. Others are tiny homes, which are about 200 to 300 square feet each. We continue through the RV section, which sports a series of RVs that have become permanent homes. It’s hard not to smile as we tour the “McMansions,” the two-story tiny homes built for families. These houses represent something more than housing--they are the very personality of Mobile Loaves, which is all about community. Always, community first. And not just any community, but a community that makes everyone feel like they are coming home.
Along the way, I meet the clients of Mobile Loaves, affectionately called “neighbors.” There’s Sam, who has planted a beautiful rose bush outside of his tiny house. Every week before the roses begin to bloom, Sam buys a dozen roses and tapes the blossoms to the rosebush. He believes his neighbors should always experience the beauty of a rosebush in bloom.
As we walk, I begin to notice that some houses boast small green signs with the letter “M.” These signs mark where the missionals live, those who choose to live at Mobile Loaves though they have not experienced homelessness. They choose to be members of a community where they can be neighbors to those society has deemed unwanted, unloveable, and unworthy. Many of these missionals share what a profound impact their neighbors have made on their lives. Their hearts are so big--they quickly help me understand that their choice to live at Mobile Loaves is not a sacrifice, but rather an immense, enriching blessing.
At Mobile Loaves and Fishes, it’s hard not to encounter joy everywhere. I see stories of Christ, especially the story of the repentant criminal Jesus forgave on the cross. I see a blacksmith shop, a marketplace, a maker space, a food truck, and more. I see people joyfully at work, those who were once homeless now dignified, going to work, and contributing their many talents to the service of their neighbors.
My visit concludes over dinner with Alan and his wife Tricia. We sit in their RV, which replaced their home nearly three years ago and has allowed them to have a deeper presence in the community. Our dinner is continuously interrupted by the revolving door of people who drop by because they need to talk to Alan or they need a hug from Tricia, who they most affectionately call “Momma.” I watch as Tricia calls each by name, asks about their day, and holds them tightly. She is the living definition of “momma.”
At Mobile Loaves, I was moved again and again. I was treated like a donor with a million-dollar donation, and I expressed this to Alan. “You are going to give us millions,” Alan said. “LEO is going to give us research that will change things for Mobile Loaves.” Hospitality is their strength.
Alan and Tricia have already laid the foundation for 350 additional micro homes, tiny homes, and 3-D printed homes. They have a long waiting list, it keeps growing, and they are the most willing partners. It’s exceptional for LEO to be told by the mentally ill and chronically homeless how important it is to partner with the University of Notre Dame. Each articulated why they want to prove the model of Mobile Loaves and Fishes and how much it will mean to learn about its impact. They dream of expanding and replicating. They want others to have the joy they share and experience the community they believe in so fiercely.
Pure goodness, indeed. And for us at LEO, that’s the goodness we get to be a small part of building.