Pastor Dan Winckler is standing on the sidewalk in front of Casa de Luz, looking down the relatively quiet street, once rife with drug deals.
“God loves the Naked City,” he says. “God put his hand on this neighborhood. He loves the people here.”
So does Winckler, who's wearing a Jesus T-shirt and blue jeans and talking about the miracles large and small taking place here beneath the Stratosphere, where families and drug dealers live among condemned buildings and violence.
Locals attribute the declining crime rates to Casa de Luz, overseen by Winckler, one of five pastors with the nonprofit outreach and ministry that operates out of a single-story home just off Sahara Avenue.
Winckler said that he and Laura and Chris Chapel (his daughter and son-in-law) originally planned for the organization to be an outreach center when it opened in 2009. Now worship services are held in a quiet courtyard in back shaded by two giant trees. Casa de Luz’s food pantry distributes about 5,000 pounds of groceries a week, Winckler says. Bible study groups meet throughout the week. There’s an art program for the kids and impromptu counseling.
He and his wife, Melanie, live in a 400-square-foot apartment in the front of the home and answer late-night knocks. All are welcome, even the drug dealers so long as they're not dealing.
“My Casa kids come walking down this way,” says Winckler. “Tam Street is off limits.”
The community at large wants it to stay this way. There have been ongoing community-wide efforts to protect this “house of light” with Downtown businesses, artists and organizations chipping in.
Nick Mamula bought the bank-owned building and deeded it to Casa de Luz. Philanthropists working with the Moonridge Group funded the building project that begins this week under the efforts of developer Trinity Schlottman.
“This is in the shadow of our neighborhoods. A lot of families have lived there a long time. We can’t forget them,” says Steve Evans, the former planning commissioner who came across Casa de Luz when he was campaigning for a City Council seat. He was impressed with their work and introduced other Downtowners to the organization, who then stepped in to offer assistance.
A leaking roof made much of the home unusable for anything other than storage. Winckler says renovations include building a new kitchen with walk-in coolers and a new youth sanctuary.
To him, the project is another miracle, one of many occurring in the Naked City.