Students on mission trip help make difference

Students from Arkansas colleges help out May 16 at a community in Austin, Texas, that offers permanent residence to homeless people. The visit to Community First! Village came during a mission trip organized by the Diocese of Little Rock, Ark. (CNS photo/Arkansas Catholic courtesy of Catholic Campus Ministry of the Diocese of Little Rock)

by Aprille Hanson

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (CNS) — While on a mission trip at a community in Texas that gives permanent residence to the homeless, Arkansas State University student Clare Doss met a resident who touched her heart in a special way.

The man, now in his 50s, was put on a bus at age 8 when his mother’s fiance gave her an ultimatum — it was him or the child. The young boy wandered the streets, was taken in and raised by a prostitute, who helped him find his father at 15 years old. When he went to his father’s house for shelter, he had a gun pointed at him.

He had always lived on the streets until he found Christ, and Community First! Village in Austin.

“He was such a motivator. He’d say, ‘Keep going, you all are doing such awesome work, we love y’all,'” Doss, 21, told the Arkansas Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Little Rock. “I thought you know he was crushed down by the world kind of like Christ was and he has so much joy all the time. I think it just helped me to look at life differently and the fact that the only place you’re going to find joy is when you find Christ.”

This was just one of many life changing experiences that 30 students from four state colleges experienced during a spring mission trip and volunteering at the 27-acre community, part of the Mobile Loaves and Fishes nonprofit.

The mission trip was funded through $29,000 in grants from the Daughters of Charity Foundation in St. Louis and Our Sunday Visitor Institute in Indiana.

“It was an opportunity to make a major difference in the lives of formerly homeless people,” Liz Tingquist, director of the Little Rock Diocese’s Catholic Youth Ministry Office, said of the May 15-19 diocese-sponsored trip

Last year was the first diocesan mission trip, working in Appalachia.

“I wanted the young people who are kind of the movers and shakers for us in the future to see something worthwhile and life changing can be done in their own communities,” she said.

Campus ministry students and leaders from the University of Central Arkansas, the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia and Arkansas State University in Jonesboro attended the mission trip. Mandy Davis, executive director of Jericho Way homeless day center in Little Rock, also attended.

The village, established in December 2015, is a community with 240 low-rent homes, a mix of RVs, micro-homes and canvas cottages, with more than 100 residents. The ministry is part of Mobile Loaves and Fishes, which has given more than 4 million meals to the homeless across four states.

The village includes chapels, a medical facility and several amenities, from an outdoor movie theater to a bed and breakfast for visitors, according to its website, http://mlf.org/community-first. It has several enterprises that include catering and metal craftsman work to train residents in new skills. The bus line also stops by the community for those with jobs outside of the village.

The community is Christian-based, but no one is ever pressured to convert.

“To have a group of students from Arkansas dedicate a week of their lives in Austin, Texas, helping to work on [landscaping around the] kitchens and other amenities at the Village is truly indicative of the level of support and generosity we’ve been blessed with from communities across the country,” Alan Graham, founder and CEO of Mobile Loaves and Fishes who is Catholic, said in an email. “This is a genuine example of what loving your neighbor looks like, and we are beyond grateful.”

The students worked on landscaping projects around outdoor kitchens.

Davis told the Arkansas Catholic that the value of putting community first was an important takeaway.

“I thought I knew what a home meant. Housing someone with four walls and a door is not a home. … You’re housing the homeless, great, but is it a home? I can’t answer that, but that’s still an ongoing quest in my career,” Davis said. “It’s not housing first; it’s community first. It feels more like home than even my own home. There’s gardens, chickens, dignified working wages . . . that’s revolutionary. . . . I was blessed to have the opportunity to go.”

Copyright ©2017 Catholic News Service / U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

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