Church turns declining membership into gift to the arts, Brooklyn Centre community

Faced with declining membership but devoted to local outreach, the Archwood UCC congregation has entered a mutually beneficial partnership with the Julia de Burgos Cultural Arts Center.
A former prayer room is now home to vibrant art as well as the Center’s diversity and inclusion programs. (Photo by Nate Flauto)

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Since putting down their roots at Archwood United Church of Christ (Archwood UCC) in the Brooklyn Centre neighborhood, the Julia de Burgos Cultural Arts Center (the Center) has flourished. The recreation room is now a dance studio home to Latin dance classes, the basement is now a frequently booked place for celebrations, and the dormant classrooms once used for bible study are now filled with children attending programming such as the Latin Image Leadership Program.

In March 2022 the Archwood UCC transferred ownership of their church and its parsonage at no cost to their tenant, the Julia de Burgos Cultural Arts Center. And on July 24, the two organizations held a ceremony to celebrate the transfer of ownership of the two properties at 2800 and 2804 Archwood Avenue.  

This atypical agreement was executed on the condition that Archwood UCC’s small congregation can share the building’s space so they can continue their usual Sunday worship and semi-monthly community produce sale.

Members of Archwood United Church of Christ gather with staff and friends of the Julia De Burgos Cultural Arts Center for the ribbon-cutting ceremony on Sunday, July 17, 2022, to celebrate the congregation’s gift of its buildings to the Center. (Photo by Angus McCarter)

A dwindling church congregation examines its options

Built in 1900 and 1928, respectively, the parsonage (a house provided for clergy) and church have housed Archwood UCC’s congregation for nearly half of their 203 years as a Brooklyn Centre congregation. Since forming, Archwood UCC’s mission has been to serve the community, and after two centuries of evolution, this mission has held firm as they established a food ministry in the community in addition to practicing their faith. 

After seeing the size of its congregation decrease over the decades, Archwood UCC knew it needed to evolve.

The decision to look for a new owner began in 2014, when members of the Archwood UCC council attended a seminar series with other United Church of Christ congregations that were addressing downsizing and their futures. Many of the churches in attendance at the seminar decided to close their doors or merge congregations. Archwood UCC, on the other hand, decided to remain steadfast in its mission to serve the community through their food ministry and its desire to prevent the significant building from becoming a vacant neighborhood blight. 

“Despite the membership dwindling, we’ve been very committed to our mission in the neighborhood, and outreach in the neighborhood,” said Judy Schumann, the moderator of Archwood UCC’s governing body. “Ideally, we wanted to find someone who was equally committed to service to the neighborhood.”

Not long after the decision to give up ownership was made, Archwood UCC approached Metro West Community Development Organization and offered them the property for use as a headquarters. This offer, Schumann said, was declined since a site study concluded that the building wouldn’t be the best fit for Metro West. Instead, the groups worked together to find the Archwood properties’ future owner. 

Eventually, the Center’s executive director, Letitia Lopez, would be introduced to the property and Schumann through Metro West. 

“We met with them [Lopez] and talked about what was important to each other and what was important for the neighborhood, and how we didn’t want to see the building become a big empty ruin that doesn’t serve the community,” said Schumann.

Beginning with a leasing arrangement, a new phase began for both organizations. 

Artwork by some of the Center’s artists lines the path to the entrance of the Julia de Burgos Cultural Arts Center. (Photo by Nate Flauto)

Building a partnership

Founded in 1989, Julia de Burgos Cultural Arts Center is a nonprofit community center whose mission is to serve Latino families and artists through social and cultural programming. 

Prior to the Center’s move to Archwood, they had rented space in local churches or halls to conduct their programming. This meant that the Center’s staff had to set up and tear down decorations and displays if the host had other groups renting the space when the Center wasn’t scheduled to use the space.  

Almost immediately after touring the Archwood UCC buildings, Lopez recognized that the property had potential to allow the Center to more permanently root their organization and grow. 

The buildings had everything they could want for their culturally minded organization: a large recreation room, kitchen, classrooms, party hall, and plenty of storage. And so, after Lopez got approval from the Center’s board, it began leasing the properties from Archwood UCC in 2018.

Lopez said that since becoming Archwood’s tenant, their organization’s reach has been growing rapidly, so much so that they’re hiring new staff to increase their capacity to serve the community. 

Archwood UCC and the Center have had a great relationship since the get-go because the church has always been supportive of the Center and had given them plenty of liberty as tenants, said Lopez. 

“Moving into this building was very risky for us. We were used to small spaces, and coming here was more financial responsibility, but we had to grow, right?” said Lopez. “Once we moved, everyone saw the growth that came with the building – and it is all about the building and its location … Since moving we’ve tripled our list of community partners. It’s really amazing.” 

Transitioning to ownership

“[Over the years] we’ve been able to serve our community in a lot of different ways. I think that now that we’re owners, we can start dreaming about the future of the building and what we can do here,” Lopez said.

However, costs of upkeep and possible renovations will present new financial demands. 

The 94-year-old building has HVAC and plumbing issues that are common in buildings of that age, said Lopez. While the Center was a tenant, they took time to understand the building and the responsibilities that would come with owning it. She describes the building as “quirky” by design, since it has lots of stairs, narrow passageways, and low ceilings. Making the building ADA compliant is a goal for the Center, which wants to make the building as accessible as possible to community members with disabilities. 

The Center has already completed a resurfacing of their degraded parking lot with the help of a Northeast Ohio Regional Sewer District Green Infrastructure Grant. The 2020 grant of $199,748 allowed the Center to raise the lot and add three bioretention areas that manage the properties’ stormwater runoff

This upstairs art studio, a former parsonage bedroom, is used by participants in the Unidos por el Arte initiative. (Photo by Nate Flauto)

Looking ahead

As owners, the Center has converted the former parsonage into a dedicated art center. Here, the Center offers community art classes, gallery space, and areas for learning and practicing various artistic modes – for example, individuals can learn how to paint, write poetry, or DJ a party all under the parsonage roof. 

The building also hosts their “Unidos por el Arte” initiative, which was established to support artists who would enrich the Center’s services. This program, Lopez said, was made possible by utilizing the Support for Artists Grant from Cuyahoga Arts and Culture. Thanks to this grant, the Center can annually provide a $5000 stipend to ten select local artists to work on projects that engage the Latino community in Cuyahoga County. 

Lopez said that artists from the Center have made their mark on the community with murals on the Weber and Zubal Book buildings on W.25th Street.

 “Art is such an important factor in our community and in our lives … and now, Latino artists are showing in spaces where historically, they haven’t.”

Through Unidos por el Arte, artists also receive access to the building, where they can utilize the gallery space to display or teach art. Recipients also get personal or shared studio space on the second floor since having a space to create is a key factor in elevating underrepresented artists and because access to studio space and materials can be a costly impediment to making art for any artist, said Lopez. 

The Center is also one day hoping to convert the 3rd floor into a loft where they would one day invite an artist to take up a residence. 

With so many possibilities now that it owns the building, the Center has established a “re-imagination committee” to analyze their founder’s intentions and their past and present programs and to create a vision for the Center’s future. Inclusion is the key to their future, Lopez says. 

“The world changes, we have to evolve, and what’s challenging is that we have to ensure that we’re attracting everyone and making this a safe space for everyone. We want seniors to be here. We want everyone to be here.”  

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