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November 9, 2015 | Volume 91 Number 1

ARTICLES

photo: Casa Alma, the Catholic Worker House near Charlottesville.

Casa Alma, the Catholic Worker House near Charlottesville.

Catholic Worker House in Charlottesville Continues the Mission of Dorothy Day

In Pope Francis’ speech to Congress during his recent visit to the U.S., the Holy Father cited Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, saying, “A nation can be considered great when it “strives for justice for the oppressed,” as Day did.

Many may not be aware that there is a Catholic Worker House in Charlottesville — Casa Alma — which strives to achieve Day’s mission every day by building a sense of community through fellowship opportunities and hosting homeless families in the two guest houses on the property.

Laura and Steve Brown, along with their three daughters, are the founders and resident volunteers of Casa Alma. Laura and Steve give of themselves in every aspect of their daily lives while maintaining a strong sense of family for their children.

The couple met in a one-year volunteer service program after college through the Archdiocese of Hartford. They had the shared experience of inner city work, and personal beliefs of simple living, personal service, and personal and spiritual growth.

Right after they got married, they were interested in going overseas for missionary service. When they applied, however, they were told to wait so that they could focus on adapting to married life first. “That was good advice,” Laura said.

They started a family right away, focusing on that for a few years before deciding to apply as missionaries. They got the word that they were going to Marisol, Chile, on the same day they found out they were expecting their third child. Laura believes, “That was God’s message of ‘Don’t be afraid.’”

The Brown family spent three years in Marisol before moving back to Charlottesville. In 2009, when they established Casa Alma, their children were 4, 9, and 11. Laura remembers, “the renovation was monumental; we removed 2,000 pounds of trash at the beginning.”

Steve recalls, “It felt like we were being pulled along toward brick walls, but we kept running and it came through. To me, that’s grace.”

“It was an effort of faith,” Laura said, emphasizing how much the power of prayer helped them through. “Like Dorothy Day, we thought, we can begin right now, where we are,” Laura explains. “If we waited for everything to be in place, we may never have gotten here.”

Since beginning Casa Alma, the Browns have expanded the main house to create a larger space for community events. They hold morning prayer every Wednesday, a monthly open house, and community suppers.

Steve and Laura are looking for ways to expand, but they have no equity because of their less-than ideal mortgage situation. Another non-profit owns the three houses; Casa Alma pays expenses, upkeep, etc., plus mortgage. While Steve and Laura raised enough money for the down payment back in 2009, the other non-profit secured the loan. Casa Alma’s mortgage was $275,000 in 2009. Today, only $80,000 remains. They have been, and continue to be, very diligent in paying the mortgage as quickly as possible so that they may receive the title to the property.

“We are tenants with the responsibility of owners,” Laura explains, saying the mortgage situation is yet another motivating factor to incorporate volunteers, use repurposed materials, and to be good stewards overall.

In addition to providing low-income housing to homeless families, Casa Alma is a functioning urban farm. There are goats, chickens, beehives, fruit trees, a berry patch, and a large vegetable garden. “It is amazing what you can grow in a small space,” said Laura.

Tending Casa Alma’s crops has taught Laura a great deal. “Everything in the garden is seasonal, a time for growing and a time for resting,” she says. “Spring, summer, and fall are busy times for us, so we scale back in the winter to rest, just as the garden does.” The benefits of their urban farm go beyond food production. “It connects us with the neighborhood,” Laura explains.

That neighborhood — an interesting mix of group homes, low-income housing, and long-time residents provides the backdrop to Casa Alma’s mission. The Browns take community building seriously and they work hard to encourage relationships with their neighbors. “We bring our faith into all parts of daily life and how we’re interacting with people,” Laura explains.

“Casa Alma believes in an emphasis on community and people reaching out to meet each other’s needs,” Laura continues. “We ask each guest to enter a covenant with Casa Alma, which means they agree to give in some way of their time to help in whatever way they can.”

Inside the family home, where the Browns host monthly community gatherings, they have reminders that this is a place of faith: framed scripture verses, photos of volunteers and their “Catholic Worker Family.” Being in a separate house helps the family have some sense of privacy. They make a conscious effort to go off-site regularly to spend time together as a family.

Casa Alma requires many hands in order to keep things running. Steve is in the trenches, fixing leaks and dealing with whatever else comes up. When something goes wrong, he is the one who fixes it. “We don’t put any barriers up for anyone who wants to be involved,” Laura asserts, noting the variety of groups that have come to volunteer at Casa Alma: agricultural groups, UVA students, Eagle Scouts, and Catholic Student Ministries, to name just a few.

Getting the word out that Casa Alma exists is a challenge. Laura and Steve go offsite to give presentations about their mission. Laura remembers, “At one of these presentations, a minister asked, ‘Why don’t we see more projects like this happening?’ The answer is, if people don’t see it, they don’t know it’s there.”

Also challenging at times is the emotional investment required. “It is hard to be close to people who are struggling, dealing with serious issues like domestic violence. (The work here) is beautiful, but you get close to their suffering, and that’s hard.”

Steve agrees, saying, “It’s a bit of a reality check” in terms of how much need there is out there.” He quickly reminds himself, “This may be the most stable place (our guests) have been in their lives. Casa Alma is a success every night someone sleeps in one of our houses.”

“I’d like for Charlottesville Catholics and others nearby to know there is a Catholic Worker House here,” Laura says. “Anyone who wants to help build this up is welcome to come help.” She and Steve would encourage anyone who may be interested in volunteering to come visit one of Casa Alma’s upcoming events.

Steve believes that “God never calls us to solve all the problems,” but rather to do something to help in whatever way we can, no matter how small.

Dorothy Day once said, “We can throw our pebble in the pond and be confident that its ever widening circle will reach around the world.” More than a favorite quote of Steve and Laura, it is a belief they have put into practice.

Visit Casa Alma on one of their upcoming Open House dates: November 1 and December 6, from 2-4 p.m. For a full list of upcoming events and activities, visit www.casa-alma.org.

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