Many people dedicate their holidays to giving, but one Charlottesville family has built a life around it. Laura and Steve Brown, members of the worldwide Catholic Worker movement, are live-in hosts at Casa Alma, an urban homestead in Belmont that offers housing and community support to families in need—and a home and way of life for the Browns.
Now three years old, Casa Alma is situated on just over half an acre behind Rives Park on Nassau Street, and consists of three neighboring houses and a micro-farm with organic vegetable gardens, beehives, chickens, and baby goats. Two houses provide rent-free refuge to low-income or homeless families. A third is home to Laura and Steve, who both juggle jobs as well, and their three daughters, Emily, 15, Anna, 13, and Ella, 7.
None of the houses have central heat or air; the community house generates heat from a single wood stove. The five Browns share one cell phone, two laptops, and strive to grow and preserve as much of their own food as possible. They eschew appliances—no TVs, dishwashers, or microwaves—and line-dry their clothes.
“We want to be a community of justice here,” said Laura, her soft voice filling her whitewashed living room. “For us, justice means right relationships. So we’re trying to practice right relationships with God, right relationships with others, and right relationships with the earth.”
When they met more than thirteen years ago, Steve and Laura both knew they wanted to integrate Catholic faith with their daily lives. “For us that meant living simply and serving others,” Laura said. In 2009, the couple left the impoverished region of Chile where Laura volunteered at a women’s shelter and Steve at a farmer’s cooperative. They looked for a way to bring their young family to the U.S. without returning to their former mainstream lifestyles. Inspired by Catholic Worker, an ecumenical program that aligns faith and social renewal, the Browns began to speak with friends about Charlottesville’s greatest needs.
“We wanted to respond to the local need for more affordable housing for families, and we wanted to raise our own family in an integrated way—meeting the needs of others, remaining rooted in faith, and living in harmony with the earth,” Laura said.
When a parcel of land with three neglected houses went up for sale in Belmont, the Browns collaborated with other nonprofits and donors and raised enough money in three months to make a down payment on the property. Volunteers from UVA, Habitat for Humanity, churches, and surrounding neighborhoods helped renovate the plot, replacing asbestos-lined floor tiles and ancient windows, insulating walls, and removing thousands of pounds of trash.
The sense of community surrounding Charlottesville Catholic Worker—now called Casa Alma—impressed Steve. “I was initially very frightened of one person with these views meeting this person with these views, and I’ve been amazed by how open and receptive people have been of one another—and how respectful.” He’s a perennial fixture in the homestead’s gardens, and his affable hellos invite conversation with passersby. In this slow and steady way, Casa Alma’s ripples continue to spread.
Over the past three years, Casa Alma has hosted thirteen guests, including single men, volunteers, and families, like their firsts guests, three generations of Mexican immigrants who stayed with them for nine months while they paid down debt on a single minimum-wage salary and honed their English language skills. Renovations on the third house finished in May 2012, and all three are full. Local congregations and social service organizations act as referrers and transition service providers for guests, who may stay at Casa Alma for up to two years.
In addition to hosting families in need, Laura hopes Casa Alma will deepen its Belmont-Carlton connections in the coming years. Visitors are welcome from 2-4pm on the first Sunday of every month, and Laura plans to host community roundtables and potluck dinners in a collective approach to the homestead’s future. “I’d like this to be a place for people in the neighborhood to come to learn new skills, to learn how to live in a way that’s sustainable,” she said. “When you’re living on a tight budget, that can be the best time to produce your own food, and I think that’s knowledge that sometimes is not readily available.”
“Laura’s made this decision to take an alternative path in the way they’re living,” said Christine Hitchens, one of Casa Alma’s first live-in volunteers. “It’s especially alternative in our American culture to live a really simple life. And it’s a great paradox—a life of simplicity but also abundance. You get that sense being here.”—Elizabeth Derby