Austin family lives out call to be missionaries
By Ricardo Gandara
When Kate and Aaron Barta’s green Ford Econoline van pulled into a cul-de-sac at Community First! Village, Aaron helped a woman out of the van to her small recreational vehicle. Two of the Barta children, 8-year-old Mercy and 4-year-old Hosea, darted out and raced to the end of the street for a game of kick ball. A neighbor on his bike pulled up to greet the Bartas, and his small dog chased the children.
It’s a scene common to any Austin subdivision, but this place is not your ordinary neighborhood. Welcome to Community First! Village, Austin’s master planned community that provides affordable, permanent housing for formerly homeless and disabled people. It sits on 27 acres in far east Austin, in the vicinity of the Travis County Exposition Center. It’s the brainchild of Alan Graham, the founder and CEO of Mobile Loaves & Fishes, a group that provides homeless people food, clothing and shelter.
Simply, it’s a place where people live life together in a spirit of sharing and love, and the Bartas, not homeless, have deep roots here. They’re what Graham calls “missionals,” outsiders who live in the community and are charged with being intentional neighbors who help formerly homeless people transition into a neighborhood.
The Bartas, both 39 and members of St. Louis Parish in Austin, moved into the village last August with their six children ages 10 months to 10 years as part of a program that calls for the missionaries to live in the community. They joined the 130 residents who live in recreational vehicles and micro-houses.
“We’re here to be neighbors and love them,” said Kate about the couple’s purpose at Community First! Village. It fits perfectly with Graham’s mission of integrating formerly homeless people with folks from around Central Texas, like the Bartas, who have a servant heart to serve the less fortunate, exemplified by Jesus.
The village has 30 “missionals,” who make a one-year commitment to be there. They live in their own RVs and are called upon to be visible in the community, commit to the mission and be accountable to each other. Nurses, teachers, architects, a retired Episcopalian priest and his wife live at Community First! Village.
“Larry Smith, the president of Tokyo Electron America, and his wife, Wendy, are missionals,” Graham said. “We’re tired of the paradigm that the rich live here and the poor over there. Why not meld them into one body of Christ? It creates one of the most gorgeous human mosaics.”
And the Bartas are right in the mix, kids and all (the older children are enrolled at St. Louis Catholic School). However, the family has hit a bump in the road in their service to Community First! Village. Their fifth wheel RV took in rain water late last year and mold developed. By January, the family was forced to move out. Still, they continue Saturday potluck dinners and prayer services for their neighbors. In their roomy van, they transport neighbors to run errands to the grocery store.
What would propel a young family to assimilate into a community many people would shy away from? Aaron, a firefighter by profession, acknowledges the move raised eyebrows among friends.
“My firefighter friends thought it was cool; my other friends thought I was nuts. People’s first concern is the safety of our children, but the residents are heavily screened to live here. In the process, we’ve gained many friends who are another set of eyes on them,” he said.
Clearly, their path is guided by church teachings to serve the poor and Pope Francis’ call to evangelize.
“As Catholics, we bring a Catholic presence to the community through our Saturday evening prayer service and meal,” Aaron said.
“The pope has talked about mobilizing the family into a lifestyle of service and friendship with the poor. For us, that’s the homeless of Austin,” Kate said.
The village has its roots in the Catholic Church. Graham is a parishioner at St. John Neumann Parish in Austin, where the Bartas met him in 2012. Aaron served as youth minister at the church.
In 1998, Graham and four friends had a dream to feed Austin’s homeless. From the back of a van, they began passing out sack lunches to the homeless at street corners and in parking lots. Today, the dream has exploded. Community First! Village, which officially opened in 2016, has acquired an additional 24 acres that will accommodate 350 more permanent residents by the end of 2018.
“Total, that’s a $20 million project, and we must raise the money for it. And there will be a phase 3 and phase 4,” Graham said.
The Bartas, who have been married 12 years, jumped on the bandwagon early. When work crews began clearing the grounds for the Village in 2014, Aaron took his youth group from St. John Neumann on field trips to volunteer. The Bartas were living at Canyon Lake at the time.
“We’d become friends with the Grahams. One day he just asked us to join him at the village,” Aaron said.
As is customary for all missionals serving the village, the Bartas began a six-month discerning period. There were logistics to consider about a family of eight cramming into a 400 square-foot RV and living among people who had spent years on the street. Some had drug abuse in their background. But, staying true to their Christian values and Catholic teaching, the Bartas prayed and accepted the challenge. They also became a part of Adore Ministries, a community of lay Catholic missionaries who work in neighborhoods and spread the Gospel. They established a link at www.adoreministries.com, to chronicle their life at Community First! Village.
They call it the best decision they have made for their growing family.
“It was easy to come here and love,” Kate said.
“It was easy to accept a ministry of being neighbors,” Aaron said.
It fits well with Graham’s assertion that homelessness is a primarily the symptom of the loss of family. And that housing will not fix homelessness, but community will. At Community First! Village, the missionaries immerse themselves in the daily life of all residents. The amenities — a meditation garden, an amphitheater, a vegetable garden and a playground — give the village a real sense of community. Graham’s newly released book, “Welcome Homeless,” chronicles this journey of faith.
Melding with their neighbors has been a blessing.
“We’ve been so saturated with love. We came here to give but have received more,” Kate said.
The Barta’s baby got a Fedora hat, which a resident found discarded in a dumpster. A resident named Helen brought children’s books. A couple gave the children art lessons, and another resident, Papa Don, likes to hand out candy.
The Bartas have seen the benefits in the children. When the family is in their van and encounter a homeless person at an intersection, the children reach for water and chewy snacks.
“The kids see them as people with a story and children of God,” Kate said. “Joseph’s teacher said he explained his neighborhood in class. He said he lived at Community First! Village to love his neighbors.”
Ironically, the Bartas are in a way homeless themselves. With their RV not livable, the family temporarily lives with one of Aaron’s relatives. The Bartas know they must find a permanent home.
“A priest told me that God is telling us to trust in Him. He is showing us what it’s like to be homeless,” Kate explained. “We want stability for the kids, but we’re here for a reason. God, in a specific way will respond. You have to have boundless faith.”
For more information about the Mobile Loaves & Fishes ministry and Community First! Village, visit www.mlf.org.