The Story of Emmaus House

Twenty-five years ago, in 1984, a mission group formed at Pullen Memorial Baptist Church to explore ways to alleviate Raleigh’s critical shortage of housing for the homeless. Spurred in part by the death of a homeless man on a Raleigh street, the group began meeting weekly to pray and to plan, and also to become change makers, volunteering at the Ark Shelter and setting up an overflow shelter at Pullen. Then in 1986 a place on North East Street came up for sale, and by spring the next year a rundown rooming house had been transformed into a comfortable transitional residence for low-income men struggling to put their lives back together. As they are the first to insist, Paul Carr, Larry Highfill, and Jim Hutchby are three among many instrumental people who began their faith journey to North East Street a quarter century ago. These three, nonetheless, have been given unique recognition with their designation as the Founding Directors of Emmaus House. Recently, they generously shared some stories from the road.

Paul Carr, Larry Highfill, and Jim Hutchby came to the new Pullen mission from markedly different directions. Larry Highfill was Professor of Religious Studies at N.C. State, where for thirty-some years he taught an introductory survey as well as advanced classes in Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. His retirement in 1986 allowed him to offer the full force of what one friend calls his "radiating" presence to Emmaus House. Paul Carr, who earned an undergraduate degree in English and advanced degrees in Theology and Business, left an active post in ministry to become a fund-raising consultant, work that took him to the Development Office at UNC-CH. Although there were reports of a "retirement" in the mid-90s, he continues to assist many educational and non-profit causes. Jim Hutchby, with degrees in Electrical Engineering as well as a minor in Physics, left a longtime position at the Research Triangle Institute in 1998 to establish a research center that still keeps him going around the globe, working "half-time" now as senior scientist for the Semiconductor Research Corporation.

The three founding directors’ different careers became complementary gifts for Pullen’s housing mission, in part because the three shared a common element. "Each of them," as their colleague Alan Reberg puts it, "has a pastoral heart." While from their leadership roles they might remember different key moments, today they all name one particular experience that above all determined their unwavering commitment to a new call. In June of 1986 they were able to put the "foundation" under their "castles in the air," as Henry David Thoreau advised, by going on a retreat visit to three church-run housing programs in Washington D.C. All three sites were inspiring, yet particularly valuable was what they learned from the initiative begun by The Church of the Saviour, an ecumenical church that started its housing ministry in a poverty- worn neighborhood two miles from the White House. The Pullen visitors came away energized and united, not just by the models they saw but by the spirit of love, hope, and calling they witnessed. This, they all have separately affirmed, was the "high point" in terms of the group’s bonding.

When Paul Carr saw an ad in the newspaper listing a likely property for sale, finding the money first to lease and then to buy the place on North East Street and make it livable became, as Larry Highfill says, "a challenge to our faith." There are many memories of events, both large and small, that make up the early Emmaus story. Paul Carr remembers scurrying to turn Pullen’s day care center into a shelter at night and back to its daytime purpose early each morning. Larry Highfill remembers his granddaughter urging him on as he carried a heavy box up the steps of Emmaus House I. Jim Hutchby recalls the thirty-some layers of paint that hid the beautiful natural wood of the banister of Emmaus I, a banister that now serves as an icon for the determination of the volunteers who hammered and painted through the summer and fall of 1986. All three remember when representatives from the Stewards Fund came down to the basement meeting room of Emmaus I and, after asking many probing questions, made a key commitment of funding when it was desperately needed.

Paul Carr, who led the board for Emmaus House’s first five years, emphasizes how the three founding directors "reinforced each other" when the tasks of finding money, or residents, or residence managers could make for discouragement. Even a fire on Thanksgiving Day in 1987 could not shake their resolve, for as Jim Hutchby said, the miracles have always been more plentiful than the obstacles. Alan Reberg, who came on board to help with the drive for Emmaus House II, has been able through his associations to assess what the three founding directors have meant for the Emmaus mission, defined not just as shelter but as "hope incubator." He stresses the consistency of leadership that each director has provided at different times and the sense of purpose that their risk-taking courage continues to provide. Summing up what makes Paul Carr, Larry Highfill, and Jim Hutchby so worthy of their unique title, Reberg applies to them a phrase he especially likes: "they are not the end users of their faith," he says. Twenty-five years after their mission group first envisioned a unique place to welcome and warm the struggling stranger, the founding directors are still keeping, and passing on, that faith.