‘Small house’ has open doors
La Casita’s mission and effectiveness in the community depend on the support and collaboration of congregational and community leaders.
By Wendy Healy
Artists and activists, yoga students and youth, community organizers and cultural organizations all call La Casita home.
La Casita, which means “small house” in Spanish, is a ministry of Trinity Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Brooklyn, N.Y., that shares its space with community organizations that need a place to meet and work.
“Many churches are gifted with large buildings that remain closed many days a week,” said Vanessa Cardinale, associate pastor at Trinity. “We didn’t want our building to sit empty.”
The ministry’s full name is La Casita: The Center for Arts, Education and Social Justice, a name that defines it well, according to Vanessa, who oversees the ministry. “We see our ministry as organizing and helping do advocacy and the organizing work in our community.”
Once empty space now busy with activity
One of Trinity’s two parsonages was unoccupied, so in 2012, the church opened it to the community as La Casita.
Artists exhibit there; students take ESL, yoga or music classes; tenant organizations meet to discuss rising rents; and neighbors gather to discuss neighborhood issues seven days a week. Trinity asks groups for donations, but none are turned away if they can’t contribute.
Vanessa describes the ministry as an “interfaith social justice collaborative that provides a gathering place to empower the community through arts and to cultivate leadership and commitment to service and social justice.”
The congregation reflects the changing community of Sunset Park, said Vanessa. Trinity has about 150 to 200 members who attend Sunday services in English, Spanish or both.
La Casita’s ministry, according to Vanessa, grew out of the Occupy Wall Street movement that quickly spread from Manhattan to the city’s other boroughs. “Trinity had the first ‘Occupy’ meeting for Sunset Park,” she added, “to discuss what was happening in our neighborhood, police treatment of youth and the increase in housing prices. It mirrored a lot of community issues.”
Building partnerships and community
Adelante Alliance, a cultural and advocacy organization, collaborates with Trinity on La Casita. “It has been a fruitful experience,” says Karla Quinonez-Ruggiero, who is director of Alliance. “We’re extremely thankful to Trinity for the space to continue to advocate education and prospering, but above all, community unity.
“Both parties bring skills to further empower and educate the Sunset Park community. Adelante seeks to cultivate and support the working immigrants that make up this community. With the help and support from La Casita, we have been able to continue providing literacy skills classes in Spanish and ESL, and other things.”
Other things, according to Vanessa, have included prayer vigils and press conferences surrounding news events, including police use of violence on a teen last year.
The ministry has been a dream come true for her. “On a personal level, this has been amazing. Pastors sometimes struggle with wanting to do ministry to the parish and do the piece that feels more missional and social justice-like. Often in churches, that can be tense. Our membership is clear on what it means to follow Jesus — to be in the community and invite people in.”
“La Casita reflects who we are as a community,” said Vanessa, “helping us to understand why and how we live out our gospel mandate.”
Wendy Healy is an ELCA member, owner of Griffin Communications in Danbury, Conn., and author of “Life is Too Short: Stories of Transformation and Renewal after 9/11.”