illuminare series: Alan Graham, president and CEO of Mobile Loaves and Fishes
WELCOME HOME(LESS )
A man who is not only living out his calling but living IN it.
Alan Graham is the president, CEO, and a founding member of Mobile Loaves & Fishes, a social outreach ministry committed to providing permanent, sustainable solutions for the chronically homeless, with compassion, love, and dignity. Since 1996, Alan and teams of over 18,000 volunteers have delivered over 5 million meals with a side of hope to the homeless and working poor on the streets of Austin and have empowered other cities across the U.S. to do the same. Today, MLF is the largest prepared feeding program to the homeless and working poor in Austin. Since 2005, Mobile Loaves & Fishes has also been providing housing to the homeless through its Community First! program. Many of MLF’s volunteers describe their experiences as life-changing. Perhaps the program has changed no one more than Alan Graham himself.
We met Alan recently onsite at the Community First! village to discuss his ministry and his new book “Welcome Homeless.” The conversation was a surreal moment in time, for Alan’s passion and authenticity go above and beyond to serve His kingdom. We are thankful for the opportunity to interview someone who shines their inner light so brightly.
Alan, your story is so compelling and your new book is a wonderful message of vision and persistence. For our readers who are not as familiar, tell us a little bit about the missions of Mobile Loaves & Fishes and Community First?
To begin with, there’s clarity in the mission and vision of the work we do. However, no one ever really knows what that journey is when they start. Usually, there’s zero clarity. Nobody can ever really say “I’ve got this clear call from God” – what you have is one little moment in time: a call from God to go out and do this one thing. And then over time, God brings you clarity.
But today, 20 years later, we understand that our vision – the why we exist – is to empower communities into a lifestyle of service with the homeless. We don’t feed people, we don’t clothe people, we don’t house people, we don’t employ people. We only use those tools as conduits to connect human to human, heart to heart, because our fundamental philosophy is that the single greatest cause of homelessness is a profound catastrophic loss of family. Period, end of story.
It seems some kind of nuclear bomb has been thrown into the middle of our family structure here in the United States. When we fail as humans, which we all do at different degrees, if there’s no family there to come up underneath us during those moments of strife, what happens? What we see standing out on our street corners without exception are men and women that come out of catastrophically broken families of different degrees, some of them profoundly. And nobody’s there to pick them up.
Americans today have done exactly what Adam did back in Genesis Chapter Three when he was confronted with the fact that he was standing there naked. God asked, “How did you know you were naked?” It’s a phenomenal question. And Adam’s responded: “That woman, that YOU sent me.” He blamed it on somebody else. This is what we’re doing today. We’re doing the Adam-caught-with-our-pants-down deal and blaming the government for not stepping in, expecting them to solve a problem that is, in fact, a human problem that you and I need to be in the middle of, in the grittiness of solving it.
So that’s our mission – to connect people to the work we do so that they know that it’s really up to the community to care for its neighbors, its brothers, and sisters. Those too, who like us were made in the glorious and divine image of the creator. That’s what we did here at Community First. Housing will never solve homelessness, but community will.
You mentioned that God planted that first vision in your heart. Many of us have those visions, but what did you do to make it real? How did you take those first steps?
Well, it’s important to go back a little bit in time and understand who Alan Graham is. I come from a phenomenally dysfunctional family. I’ve always been an optimistic guy. You’ll hardly ever find me depressed and those rare moments have been like once or twice for 30 seconds to a minute in the past 50 years.
As an early adult, I wanted to be successful, to learn everything I could about being successful. I read and went to seminars and did whatever I could. My suburban back in the 1970s and 80s was loaded with the “Power of Positive Thinking” audio cassettes, my bookshelves were loaded with books like “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” And then there was one book called “Think and Grow Rich” published in 1937 by Napoleon Hill. In this book, there were 13 principles associated with successful people. One of those was a chapter on your subconscious which said that suddenly, and often times randomly, these things pop up out of your subconscious coming from seemingly nowhere into your conscious mind.
I believe those are thoughts that are coming from the Creator.
This is the way God communicates with you unless you’ve got an e-mail account, or a Snapchat, or an Instagram, or Facebook deal going with Him.
So I locked onto that, plus several other of those major principles. When these ideas come popping into your head – go act on them! That’s what we should do. Go do it. It’s not just a fluke that the idea is there.
So a few years ago I was having coffee with my wife Trisha and her friend. Now, I have to tell you there’s some controversy on where we actually were. My wife believes we were at home and our friend thinks we were at church. But since I tell the story more often, I say it was Jason’s Deli.
We were talking about this ministry in Corpus Christi our friend Maryanne was part of, where multiple churches come together on cold winter nights and pool their resources to take out to the men and women living on the streets. It was in that moment the image of a catering truck popped out of my subconscious. That image got up in my head, this image of a distribution vehicle for those of us that have an abundance to share with those who lack.
Now, I’m a serial entrepreneur. And entrepreneurs have these dreams, and then take those dreams to places that maybe go they might otherwise never go. That’s just the nature of our optimistic way of thinking. I didn’t share the idea at the time, but when I went to bed that night, I couldn’t get off my mind. I woke up the next morning feeling “My God I think I have an idea here” – I thought we could put this in every church in every city and every state that’s got a homeless and indigent working poor population. That’s how our sick little brains operate!
About two weeks into this I’m online looking at catering trucks and it just was permeating every ounce of who I was. I went to my wife Tricia, my best friend and partner in everything. It turns out, while she’s married to a serial entrepreneur, that’s not who she is. Over the years I’d taken her up and down the roller coaster of my entrepreneurial life, but by this time, I’m in my 40s, all my kids are born, and we’d lived through the swings of the real estate market. And I come to her to say “sweetie, I have an idea,” and laid it out for her. She looked at me and she said: “Oh my God – here we go again!”
It was funny because she knew that I was on point, she could see it burning in my heart. She’s one of the most obedient humans on the face of the planet and just said “I’m going with you on this journey. You’re taking me a to place where I’ve got to get on this rollercoaster and go downhill at 150 miles an hour.”
So, I just encourage people to pursue those little things that pop up into our brains. You have to decide to respond to God’s call. Of course, you can choose to say no and we probably do that a lot. I try not to say no anymore. When you say yes to God He starts moving you in a direction. And He may have to move you again. He’s going to have to make course corrections many times.
There’s no way that in 1998 when this vision came to me I could fathom sitting where we’re sitting today, it’s not humanly comprehensible. That can only be related to God’s navigating, and our allowing God to navigate. We have free will – we can say “I’ve got this God.” But, in reality, no, we don’t really have it.
By the way, I’ve had a pretty good ass whipping a few times over the years. You have to listen and respond. I’m 61 and still learning. I know so many people my age and younger who I’m sure are not fulfilled. They went on that quest that they thought was the best path, then they find themselves not very happy nor very purpose-driven. Not fulfilled.
As a visionary and entrepreneur, you’re obviously motivated to take risks and try new things, but all of us have fears or uncertainty. Did you ever have moments after that initial vision where you said “Oh, God – what were you thinking? I’m not equipped to do this!”?
Well, the not-equipping part was clear. There were elements of God choosing me to lead on this that were very clear: I’m a real estate developer, I came out of that. Obviously, God was going to have me do another real estate deal, which is what we’re sitting on here, this property we call Community First. The deal needed a real estate developer and it needed the relationships developed by a real estate developer over a career of developing real estate. On that side of the equation, there was some pretty solid equipping.
That was in 1998. The idea comes and God knows we’re going to go build this movement called Community First. He knows there’s going to be a book – He knows all that. But what does He have to do between 1998 and now to make sure that I’m equipped to pull it off?
He didn’t put me through any more real estate development training. I had all that. But, there was a lot of other equipping He had to do like my relationship with homeless people: understanding who they were, spending a hundred and fifty nights on the streets with them, learning their names personally, having them steal from me, and watching them shoot drugs under bridges. Giving them money and knowing they were going to go buy dope…there were many things God had to move me and us through in order to equip us. But being ill-equipped was never a fear of my life. I’ve always recognized where I fell short on the equipping side.
One of my gifts is recognizing my own limitations and then figuring out how to “bolt on” that equipping. For instance, I’m not an accountant. At some point, you need financially-oriented people to run your business, somebody that you can trust. I’m tech savvy but I’m not a geek. I’m not in the weeds of technology and I need someone to manage all the technology we have. Equipping never ends and I tell people all the time don’t stop, no matter how old you are. I still go to conferences and watch podcasts, to learn as much as I can.
Along the way on this journey, have there been any moments that particularly stand out, moments where you just know God is providing?
Yeah, about five hundred million of them stand out! It flows from a philosophy I acquired over twenty years ago called “just say yes.” That philosophy is now inculcated in our entire organization. The “just say yes” part is always listening to what God is asking us to do. He’s given us a particular vision, and He’s not going to ask me to go save puppy dogs and kitty cats. I’m not here to rescue women out of the sex trade. I honor all that, but our ministry is focused on the single men and women standing on our street corners. Those are our people. Our vision, mission, strategy, core values, and goals are not changing. In the context of “just say yes,” and staying focused, we try to respond to those yes’s.
Over the years this has evolved into what we now call “Yes, and.” The “Yes, and” flows out of Chicago’s Second City comedy troupe. In a comedy-improv routine, if you want the routine to move forward you can’t just say “yes” or “no” because that stops the bit in its tracks. By the same token, in real life, if you come to me with an idea and enthusiastically say: “I have this great idea for a meat flavored water,” my response should be “That’s an awesome idea! And …” Then we start moving through the idea.
I don’t say, “that’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard on the planet and nobody is ever going to buy meat flavored water.” Because then what happens? My relationship with you gets smashed right then, your spirit gets squashed and the creativity completely stops. What might happen when I say “yes, and” is that we may end up with a raspberry flavored water instead of a meat flavored water because we collectively took it on and begin to move that idea around the table.
So we have a “Yes, and” type of philosophy and that “Yes, and” or “Just say yes” philosophy attracts people. They want to be involved in an organization that inspires them.
In starting this ministry, I brought to the table a mustard seed of an idea, the tiniest little seed, and I put it out there. I can tell you that what you’re looking at right now doesn’t look like what I brought to the table all those years ago. Through a series of “Just say yes” or “Yes, ands”, a lot of people have been pouring into this.
For instance, we have a blacksmithing shop. Now, how dumb is it to put a blacksmithing shop in the middle of a community where chronically homeless people are going to live? That would have been laughed off the business page – “hey, we’re going to build an outdoor Alamo Drafthouse movie theater in a community meant to lift the crack heads, the glue sniffers, and the prostitutes off the streets. We’re going to have a full-blown working farm in the middle of a community meant to lift the chronically homeless, and an art house, and a store.”
What we allow and what my what my spirit allows – what all of our spirits allow – is to take that mustard seed of an idea, allow people to come in and nourish that seed, and bring their gifts to the table. If they’re artistic, if they’re farmers, if they’re musical, if they’re writers, if they’re lawyers, or if they’re in hospitality … whatever, it doesn’t matter. Whatever those gifts are, bring them.
I can only imagine how many people have filled Community First with prayers – for the buildings in this community, for the work your ministry is doing on the streets. Can you share with our readers what your personal prayer life looks like?
Like probably everybody else, I’ve struggled with my prayer life. But in November of 2016, I went to a silent retreat, my first silent retreat ever, and basically was released from trying to figure that out. I believe I’m in constant communication with Christ now. I love my hikes early in the mornings and there’s prayer time going on there. But most often I can be in prayer and then the next thing I know I’m off on a different tangent that’s always related to what I do here at Community First. This is God communicating to me through prayer, saying “hey, you need to be thinking about this issue .… or this issue right here.”
So, if I go off into an evil thought, you know wherever our sinful behavior is, then I’m out of prayer at that moment. But as long as I’m not in those thoughts, I’m in prayer. For example, I drove in from my house this morning, it’s about a half an hour drive. I got my coffee from Starbucks, never turned on the radio. I just kind of sat in the car like I’m in a conference room with Christ, going through my thought process of the day. In these moments, I’m in prayer. I try to live, breathe and eat in my relationship with Christ every single moment of every single day.
I’m Catholic and one of my favorite stories is about this guy named Bill who, every day at 5 o’clock, would come into his local church, do the holy water thing, and sit down in the back. At 5:15 he would get up and leave. He did this every day for years. Finally, the Priest went to Bill and said “I see you in here every day. What are you doing, what are you saying?”
Bill said, “Well I come in sit down in the pew and I go, ‘Hey Jesus this is Bill’ and Jesus goes, ‘Hi, Bill this is Jesus.’ And we just sit there with each other.”
Most of us are accustomed to prayers that go something like “Oh Lord, I need guidance.” Well, He knows you need guidance! “Lord I need to get a job.” He knows you need a job! He knows he knows all of that.
One of the greatest books I’ve ever read was The Circle Maker by Mark Batterson. More people should read that and then just go do it! Stop begging Him for crap. Just go to God and say I have this vision for this thing we’re doing here, then bless Him and thank Him. You asked Him once and then go to Him in gratitude for all the awesomeness He does in our lives.
We always like to end these conversations with a couple of final questions. First, can you share with us a specific answered prayer, possibly one not related to your ministry?
Well, as you know, I grew up in a dysfunctional family. My mother was profoundly mentally ill and institutionalized a lot, assaulted by psychotropic drugs and electric shock therapy. My father left when I was four, essentially abandoning me and my three brothers. He was there, but it was just every other weekend. There was no real presence of him in our lives as we grew up.
I think, in the aftermath of that, my greatest answered prayer would be the fact that God blessed me with a long term partner, bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh. And then from that, He blessed us biological children, and then a niece we raised. The fruit of that the rootedness is in such contrast to where I came from, and has been revelatory to what I’m doing today.
One last question. We may never know how many lives your ministry has touched or how many hearts have been changed. However, we were wondering if you might share with us how your life has been touched and how your heart has been changed by this calling from God?
It’s obviously brought me deeper into who Christ is. Mother Teresa once said that when we all get to heaven we’re going to owe a great debt of gratitude to the poor for having brought us so close to Christ. It’s penetrating through that distressing disguise of poverty, drug addiction, mental illness – what we call the “bouquet of Christ,” which is a combination of urine and feces and crack cocaine and multi-day-old body odor all rolled into one pungent salty smell.
To learn that when I smell that, to turn around and look at the awesome love of the risen Christ that’s waiting for me right there – that’s the transformation. And when I’m able to be a tool that God uses to take other people into that transformation, that’s the true glory. You know, so often we’re taught to repel from that, to run away from the tattooed gang member, to fear. When we really recognize that all fear really is – period – is a separation between us and God. Nothing more, nothing less. When we learn that, the door opens for multiple encounters with the risen Christ.
That’s the transformation that’s happened in my life and I believe that’s the transformation I get to witness in people that intersect with the work that we get to do.
photo credit of home page photo: Ilana Panich-Linsman/KUT