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After 13 years, a 'commencement': Outspoken Episcopal rector retiring but remaining in the community

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The Rev. Bob Hudak, left, hugs Julia Pacheco-Perez after making a donation to her and her family in December 2017. “This is a picture that captures for me what the heart of my years of pastoral ministry is about," Hudak said.

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By Kim Grizzard

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Weeks after college graduations and weeks before high school ceremonies, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church is having what the Rev. Bob Hudak calls a “commencement” today.

It is not a commencement in which diplomas will be conferred but a commencement in the sense of the beginning of something. Hudak, who has served as rector of St. Paul’s for as long as it takes for a student to go from starting kindergarten to finishing high school, is beginning retirement.

“It’s different than moving on to another church,” Hudak, 70, said in an interview. “And so it is retirement, and it is really for me, in my mindset, a commencement into — God willing — the gift of years.

“I’m really trying to find a way, without any drama, to not put the emphasis on retirement but on commencement and the ongoing gift of God’s spirit.”

Hudak, who announced his plans to the congregation in a letter near the start of Lent, chose Pentecost as his final Sunday. The day, which comes 50 days after Easter, is known as the birthday of the church and celebrates the gift of the Holy Spirit.

“The same inner voice I heard exactly 13 years ago prompting me to discern whether or not God might be calling me to be your rector,” Hudak wrote in a letter to his congregation, “is the same voice I hear calling me to a new season of life called retirement.”

Today’s sermon will be his last at St. Paul’s, though he plans to remain in the city where he has served his longest tenure in more than 40 years of ministry.

“It’s our home,” Hudak said of Greenville, where his wife, Louise, grew up. “I think so much more of my heart and soul has been in this church and community this 13 years, which is why I’m glad that we don’t have to wait for a moving truck to come.”

Hudak was just a teenager the first time he made a move to fulfill what he sensed was his calling. At 14, he left his home in New Jersey to attend at Franciscan boarding school in New York.

Hudak had grown up Catholic, the oldest son in a family of three boys and three girls. A treasured photograph shows him in first grade, dressed as a Franciscan to represent the associate pastor at his Catholic school’s kindergarten graduation.

But it was not until middle school when his mother bought him a 95-cent book on St. Francis of Assisi that Hudak began to consider what it might really mean to put on that brown robe. He was ordained as a Franciscan at age 26 and served as a Roman Catholic Priest for nearly 20 years.

In 1990, he was assigned to Greensboro, in part, to work with poor people and minorities, drug addicts and people living with AIDS.

“I don’t see myself as a social activist,” Hudak said in an interview with the Greensboro News & Record, published in July 1990. “My main concern is being a spiritual leader, and my spirituality is basically Franciscan. … Francis saw Christ present in all people.”

It was in Greensboro that he met Louise Moye, who was working with AIDS patients through Triad Health Project. The two married in 1991, a decision that required Hudak to leave the Catholic priesthood and the Franciscan Order. Though he and his wife joined the Episcopal Church in 1992, Hudak spent seven years away from pastoral ministry. The couple moved to Atlanta, where Hudak worked at a home for men with AIDS and later served as a hospice chaplain.

“I was going into places on dirt roads to these trailers and meeting folks that educated me about a whole way of following Jesus that was not culturally a part of my own experience,” Hudak recalled of his days as a chaplain.

His AIDS advocacy work also took him into places he had never ventured as a Catholic priest. Hudak was invited to speak at a synagogue and at Atlanta’s famed Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. once served.

“Seven is always one of those biblical numbers,” he said. “There were seven years where I ended up in places I didn’t expect to be but places where I can speak from my own experience that God does some of God’s best work when we’re in these in-between, transitional places where we’re not sure what tomorrow may bring.”

Returning to the ministry as an Episcopalian in 1998, Hudak saw has roles as a spiritual and social leader intersect again following the 2001 terrorists attacks. Contacting the Islamic Speakers Bureau in Atlanta, he made arrangements to meet with a Muslim family.

“In those days after 9/​11, there was a lot of fear,” he said. “I found myself going to this home in Peachtree City, Ga., which was not far from where I lived. ... I can remember still going up the steps and ringing the doorbell and feeling a little uncomfortable and anxious not knowing what to expect. I was received by this woman and her husband.

“We sat down and we had tea. We started talking just about our families and it was almost 11 o’clock or later when I finally left and made my way home.”

The two families began a friendship that continues today. Members of Hudak’s church were invited to be guests at the Islamic community’s breaking the fast in Ramadan. In turn, a Muslim family brought desserts to Hudak’s church on Christmas Eve.

“When I came here, I was just eager to become involved in the interfaith community and I have,” said Hudak, who started at St. Paul’s on Halloween in 2005. “I feel very much at home at Bayt Shalom and the Islamic Center, with Unitarian Universalists, the Hindu temple. I have a passion for interfaith.”

So does Pastor Rodney Coles, founder of the nonprofit Churches Outreach Network. Coles and Hudak are two of the leaders behind the local Interfaith Clergy organization, a multicultural, multiracial partnership of more than two dozen congregations.

“Rev. Hudak is a man with compassion,” Coles said. “I always believe a personal touch is better than a preaching word, and that’s what Bob has.”

Coles and Hudak met while serving together on the city’s Human Relations Council. Hudak, who joined the council to fill another clergy member’s unexpired term soon after coming to Greenville, also served on the council’s Dismantling Racism subcommittee.

“Rev. Hudak continues to be a well-respected and well-informed change agent, advocating for equality, justice and inclusion,” Community Relations Officer Cassandra Daniels said.

Hudak’s work, which earned him the Human Relations Council’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2017, has included implementing the first race relations community dialogue, “Seeing the Face of God in Each Other.”

“When I first came here I realized that we had only half a street dedicated to Dr. King, and I had come from Atlanta where I was very immersed in working with planting seeds to dismantle racism,” Hudak said. “I decided to see about inviting faith-based people to a luncheon at St. Paul’s to get to know people.”

Media coverage of the event prompted an anonymous, hand-written note full of racial slurs and critical of Hudak, who saved it as a reminder of some of the attitudes he fights against.

“This kind of work is messy work,” he said.

Hudak made the news last fall when he showed support for the family of a local man seeking sanctuary in a church in Durham to avoid deportation. After reading about the family in The Daily Reflector, Hudak sought to make a personal donation to help the family.

“I know we have an immigration system that needs to be fixed,” he said. “I’m not a politician ... I’m a pastor.

“I tend to at times push the envelope, but I don’t push the envelope because I say that I’m going to be a troublemaker or that I’m going to be a social activist,” Hudak said. “What moves me is the spirit that I feel I’ve been given as a gift to love and serve as best I can in the spirit of Jesus.”

It was Hudak’s work in the community that first drew Leigh Cellucci and her family to St. Paul’s. They met through the Ulster Project, which brings teens from the United States and Northern Ireland, Catholics and Protestants, together to help break down prejudices.

“He really is the real deal,” Cellucci said of Hudak. “He lives his faith. He understands that presence matters and he makes time to listen to people, accept people with warmth and generosity.”

Now senior warden at St. Paul’s, Cellucci said she and fellow members of the congregation were somewhat surprised by Hudak’s announcement that he is retiring. (The mandatory retirement age for Episcopal clergy is 72.)

Hudak, who turned 70 in January, is in good health.

“I’m not retiring because I’m exhausted, although I don’t have quite the energy I did at 26,” he said, laughing.

He plans to spend much of the summer in a sabbatical of sorts, tending to gardening and cooking, which he loves. He hopes to spend more time exercising, reading and writing, though he isn’t sure if his longtime passion for journaling will translate into a book. He wants to focus more of his time on his wife and their two sons, both adults.

Hudak has shunned invitations to serve on additional boards, although he plans to continue his work with the Human Relations Council and the N.C. Council of Churches governing board.

“I believe that whether he is leading a church as a rector or whether he is a community member of Greenville, the work continues,” Cellucci said. “He’ll just have more time to continue that work. I think he’s starting his next path.”

It is, as Hudak said, a commencement, a beginning rather than an ending. Like Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter and other leaders referenced in Joan Chittister’s “The Gift of Years,” Hudak expects to find purpose in his new season of life.

“I have grown to love this community and am grateful that it’s not just St. Paul’s that I’ve been a part of these years but that I will be able to be continuing in my relationship to the community,” he said.

“A church should lead us to get beyond the four walls out into the community,” Hudak said. “We often say at the end of a service, ‘Go forth into the world rejoicing in the power of the spirit.’ For me that’s hopefully, if anything, a legacy that I leave.”

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