When Steve and Laura Brown (Class of 2005) and their three children returned from their Maryknoll Lay Missioners service in Chile, they wanted to find a way to continue ministry in a community of faith with a focus on justice here in the United States.
They founded Casa Alma, a Catholic Worker community, in Charlottesville, Virginia, purchasing three houses, which were adjacent to each other, that needed quite a bit of work. With the help of volunteers, they fixed up the houses — one for their family to live in and the other two for families needing transitional housing. One of the first things they added was a large garden and goats, for more sustainability. They also have a program called Christ Rooms, where people who have extra rooms in their homes can host families or individuals who need a place to stay.
Last year they had planned a big event to celebrate 10 years of providing hospitality at Casa Alma, but when the pandemic hit, they had to cancel it. Even though their ministry of housing families in need continued, the other community activities such as suppers and gatherings could not take place. Laura said she was able to continue with a women’s prayer group through meeting outdoors until it got too cold and they later moved to zoom.
“The pandemic gave us a time to step back from our routine and gave us more time for reflection,” Laura said.
What came out of this reflection time was a new initiative to provide additional affordable housing to women and children. A member of their community who owns a 10-unit property close by proposed that Casa Alma buy the site. Five years ago, the same person, who did not own the property at the time, suggested that they purchase the property but Steve and Laura thought the time was not right. The down time during the pandemic gave them a chance to think about the offer more creatively and, along with their Board of Directors, develop an approach to make it happen. They hope to have the project off the ground by the end of the year.
Like in other places, affordable housing is a big problem in the Charlottesville area. Laura says having an affordable and safe place to stay really helps families find stability. She says during the pandemic, even more families are feeling the stress of housing costs, often paying more than half their income for rent. This forces families to move in with friends and family in crowded conditions where they cannot control the environment for their children.
Laura says her children have definitely benefitted from their experience of mission in Chile and of being raised at Casa Alma. They are accustomed to living simply and befriending the families who lived next door. The two older children have many memories of their time in Chile. Her younger daughter was only 4 years old when she left Chile, so she does not recall as much.
Laura and Stephen have continued their mission journey by addressing problems in their community and responding to local needs. For more information about Casa Alma, visit casa-alma.org.