March-April 2021

Common ground

Nearly six years ago, a white man walked into a Black church in Gaithersburg hoping to show his support after a national tragedy. Out of that visit came an unexpected gift.

Steve Hudson (left) and Rev. Tim Warner at Emory Grove United Methodist Church. Photo by Skip Brown

The red banner caught Steve Hudson’s eye on his way home from work. In the nearly two decades that he’d lived in Gaithersburg, the father of three had driven past Emory Grove United Methodist Church thousands of times. He’d stopped in at one or two of the church’s fish fries over the years, but beyond that he had no connection to the congregation and didn’t know anyone who worshipped there.

Written in white letters on the roughly 3-foot-high, 25-foot-long sign were the words “Thou Shalt Not Kill. –God.” Below that: #BlackLivesMatter and #PrayersForCharleston.

Twelve days earlier, on June 17, 2015, a 21-year-old white supremacist pulled out a gun and murdered nine African Americans gathered for a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. “It was horrific on a number of levels,” says the Rev. Tim Warner, who put up the sign that faced Washington Grove Lane. “That it was racially motivated disturbed me to my core. Where it happened was important because Emory Grove, the slave-descending African American church that I pastor, is that kind of a church. It is a small church; the doors are open; everybody welcomes everybody regardless of what you look like. The same thing that happened in Charleston could happen at Emory Grove any day. I needed to make some public witness.”

So did Hudson. During a jog that evening, he saw a number of cars in the Emory Grove parking lot, so he thought the church was having a meeting or a prayer vigil related to the mass shooting in Charleston. When he got home, he cleaned up and drove about a mile back to the church. He wanted to show his support.

“As soon as I walked in the door, I knew I was in the wrong place,” Hudson says.

Inside were about 25 Black women who had gathered for the church’s first-ever women’s Bible study. When Hudson entered the sanctuary, the meeting stopped and all eyes fixated on him: a tall, slender white man they’d never seen before.

“Hello,” one woman said, “may I help you?”

“I thought there was a meeting in here,” Hudson replied.

“How can we help you? Do you have anything you want to say to us?” another member asked.

“Black lives matter,” he said. Then he left.

Warner’s wife, Paula, was at the Bible study that evening, and something about the exchange troubled her. She didn’t think they’d greeted the man properly, so she got up and followed him into the parking lot to introduce herself. When she came back in, one woman told her that everybody was worried about her. “Really, why?” Paula asked.

“Because [of] the killings at the church.”

Rev. Warner was at a Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) Board of Education meeting, about to start a presentation. His phone began “lighting up like a Christmas tree” with texts from parishioners, he says. There’s a white man in the church. Nobody invited him in. What should we do?

The horror in Charleston was weighing on churchgoer Rachael Wiley’s mind. After Hudson left, she did, too. “I guess it was just a trigger because it was somebody we didn’t know who just came in,” she says. “I was taken aback. It scared me so bad.”

Paula Warner says she hadn’t made the connection to South Carolina. She just assumed this was a nice, curious man coming by to see the church, so before he climbed into his pickup truck and drove away, she told him about Emory Grove’s services and the men’s Bible study. She had no idea if he would ever return.

Hudson outside of the Gaithersburg house he purchased in 2020. Photo by Skip Brown

More than five years later, Hudson takes a moment when asked what shaped his words that June night. “I thought it was an important thing to affirm,” he says in his measured, reserved manner.

A man of deep faith, the 59-year-old is a longtime member of Shady Grove Presbyterian Church in Derwood. He relishes religion for, among other things, the bonds it creates. “A church takes it from being something individual to something community,” he says. So the next time he was free for the men’s Bible study at Emory Grove—about a month after he stopped in at the church—he went. He was the only white man there, but that didn’t matter to Hudson, who says he was received warmly by the others, including Rev. Warner.

“My initial impression was that he was a courageous and peculiar guy. That he came to the church and now he’s back for Bible study is different,” says Warner, who lives in Derwood. “As we continued to study together, we discovered that we are very like-minded around scripture. We have similar intensity around making sure that it’s real for us—that we’re not just reading and studying, but that it means something on the street where we go.”

Over time, Hudson, a widower, grew more and more comfortable with the men in the Emory Grove group. In late 2015, he invited the Warners and a few others to his house for homemade chili. “I remember thinking how remarkable it was that I was now having dinner at the home of a guy who people suspected was a terrorist,” Warner recalls, laughing. “But God does things like that.”

From there, a friendship formed between the two men of the same age with similar interests but drastically different backgrounds. Warner was raised in a “suburban ghetto” outside of Philadelphia, where poverty was a constant companion, he says. Unlike many of his childhood friends, he made it out. He had been working in the pharmaceutical industry for about 20 years when he was “called” to the ministry. Before becoming senior pastor at Emory Grove in  2013 and at Mill Creek Parish United Methodist Church in Derwood in 2016, he worked in community development for both MCPS and the county executive’s office. “My call from pharmaceutical research and development had to do with God intentionally returning me to communities like the one from which I had come,” says Warner, who would go door-to-door to inform low-income residents of government services available to help them. A father of two, he and Paula became grandparents for the first time in May 2019.

Hudson grew up in Bath, New York, a primarily white town about 100 miles southwest of Syracuse. He and his wife, Martha, moved to Gaithersburg in 2001, where they raised their three children. He likes his Mill Creek Forest neighborhood for its abundance of walking and running routes and its proximity to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, where he researches the properties of fluids such as liquid soap.

Hudson is still a regular at Emory Grove’s men’s Bible study meetings. He and Warner occasionally take walks and discuss their shared appreciation for jazz, science and the Bible. Beginning early last year, their conversations increasingly turned to Hudson’s desire to make an impact in the community they both call home. It was during one of their strolls that they came up with an idea that has changed the lives of a few young women and their children.

An army of volunteers from three churches—Emory Grove, Shady Grove Presbyterian and Mill Creek United Methodist—banded together to renovate the home, which is now used to help housing-insecure mothers and their children. Photo courtesy of Rebuilding Together Montgomery County

The white split-level house on a quiet cul-de-sac in Mill Creek Forest has solar panels on the roof, rocking chairs on the porch, and rose bushes and rhododendrons out front. A slide and swing sit on the patio out back. The lawn, though browning in these early days of December, is neatly mowed. Hudson cuts the grass at the house, which he owns but doesn’t live in.

Inside, one of Hudson’s tenants, a 24-year-old Ethiopian woman who speaks little English, tends to her baby. A 25-year-old African American woman and her 3-year-old and 4-month-old children also live there, and they’ll eventually be joined by a third family in the 2,200-square-foot home, which Hudson purchased last June for $435,000. Coincidentally, the settlement date was the fifth anniversary of the Charleston shooting. “This venture excites me because it is a direct investment in our community and it is an opportunity to gather others to work together,” he says.

The home, which Hudson named Emanuel House to honor the Charleston church, is part of the Bethesda-based National Center for Children and Families’ (NCCF) Young Adult Rapid Rehousing Program, which helps 18- to 25-year-old housing-insecure parents in Montgomery County find an affordable place to live. The tenants, who are referred to NCCF by the county government, pay 30% of their income toward rent for up to 24 months while they get back on their feet. The program provides housing for up to 20 families and is currently at capacity. (Other families live at sites throughout the county.) NCCF, which runs nine housing-related programs in the D.C. metro region, currently works with 277 young adult families who are housing-insecure; 47 of those are in Montgomery County.

Emanuel House is a prototype. It marks the first time a private donor has bought a home and offered it to NCCF to use for the program, says Janice Wellington, NCCF’s family services administrator for Maryland. It’s also the first time the rapid rehousing program is trying the group-living model.

“In a lot of these cases, these are moms who have experienced trauma who may not have any familial support, may not have friends or may be coming out of a situation with an abuser and just need other folks around,” Wellington says. “In this case where we have these young moms, it is sort of like a college situation where you have these roommates you can kind of depend on. ‘Hey, can you watch my kid while I go on this job interview?’ Or, ‘I just need to do some laundry, maybe our kids can play together.’ ”

The project is in many ways a direct result of the brief encounter at Emory Grove in 2015, when Hudson decided to step out of his comfort zone. “He’s very unassuming,” Warner says of Hudson. “He lives very much in his head. He’s deeply committed to community. He’s almost deceptive in that there’s a fire burning inside him that you would not perceive just by looking at him.”

Photo courtesy of Rebuilding Together Montgomery County

The idea for Emanuel House was born on Presidents’ Day in 2020. “Steve said to me that he was interested in helping families. So I began to have ideas about what could be done,” Warner says. He told Hudson about NCCF, where he’s served on the board of trustees for nine years. “Steve related to me at some point that he was interested in buying a house to house some of these folks. I said, ‘If that’s what the Lord is leading you to do, let me see if I can start putting it together to wrap some services around it.’ ”

Hudson knew he didn’t want the project to exist in a vacuum. Bringing people together to make it work was vitally important to him. “When I decided that I wanted to do something like this, I knew that it would be a big failure if it was something that I tried to do on my own,” he says. “Different people have different passions, but for me, a passion is bringing Blacks and whites together to work together to develop these stronger relationships or friendship and trust.”

Hudson became increasingly interested in issues of race and community after Martha died of colon cancer in 2014. Following 28 years of marriage, the loss had a profound and multilayered impact on him.

“It certainly increased my ability to embrace happiness,” he says. “I’m very fortunate to have many things to be thankful for. The pain of her loss is alongside the happiness of what we could share—both of those things are carried together, and neither one is ever very far from the surface.”

Susan Richardson was one of Martha’s closest friends, and has remained close to Steve.  “He’s always been a caring person, but I think he started to look for ways that he could use his time to minister to others,” the Rockville resident says. “You can talk about something and be sad about it, but Steve goes a step further and does something about it.”

When NCCF’s executive director, Sheryl Brissett Chapman, first heard of Hudson’s plan, she was a bit baffled. “It seemed kind of strange to me,” she says. “Who does that? But nothing successful comes out of taking no risks. When we had our first meeting, I saw he was an extremely humble man with a deep heart who really wants to do good.”

After Hudson purchased the house, an army of volunteers from three churches—Emory Grove, Shady Grove Presbyterian and Mill Creek United Methodist—banded together to renovate it. The home was in relatively good shape, but it needed a little TLC. About 20 volunteers and a few professional contractors repainted the walls, installed new laminate floors, fixed up the bathrooms and rebuilt the exterior decks. Workers created three separate units inside the house so that each resident would have a secure door leading to their private living space. The kitchen, main living room and children’s playroom are shared.

Most of the indoor furniture was donated by church members and their friends, an effort Emory Grove member D’Mitra Lofton helped lead. “All of the residents have children, so we wanted to make sure that the mothers felt comfortable with their kids there,” says Lofton, who lives in Gaithersburg. “You don’t want them to feel like it’s just a house. We wanted to make sure it was homely. It’s beautiful. ”

The renovation budget was about $18,000. Rebuilding Together Montgomery County, a nonprofit that provides critical home repairs for the most vulnerable people in the community, contributed $10,000 of that.

“This project was unique for us because during this time of COVID we had to stagger volunteers and clean in-between shifts,” says Maury Peterson, executive director of Rebuilding Together. “Usually we can toss 25 or 50 volunteers into a job site, but for this we had to rotate folks in. It was amazing, given COVID, that we could even do it. At the end of the day, it’s just great to know that those moms and kids had their Christmas there.”

Warner and especially his wife have forged a relationship with one of the residents at Emanuel House—driving her places and helping her around the house—and they plan to organize a mentorship program among the three churches to complement NCCF’s programming. Hudson, who serves as the landlord, would like to get to know the tenants, and hopes that what he did will inspire others to invest in the community.

Lofton happened to be at Emory Grove in 2015 when Hudson walked in. She still recalls a sense of nervousness in the room. “At the time, people were afraid, but I see the good in everybody—that’s what people tell me all the time,” she says. “I don’t have a spirit of fear. I didn’t fear that something was not right. Now that I’ve gotten to know him, the sense was correct. He was not there to harm us; he was there to help us. It was like he was an angel that came in.”

Mike Unger is a writer and editor who grew up in Montgomery County and lives in Baltimore.