Church services had ended hours earlier on this warm Sunday in February, but a distinctly spiritual feel drifted throughout the Potomac townhouse where dozens of people were gathered. Up for discussion: resurrecting the nearly 100-year-old Scotland African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Zion Church, which had been devastated by a 2019 flood.
Regardless of their race or religion, where they worshipped or lived, what they did for a living or how much their job paid them, this disparate group of Montgomery County residents seemed to share a common virtue: faith.
Faith in the ability of people to work together, faith in the power of their community to make change, and faith that the little white church by the side of the road, as some of its parishioners lovingly describe it, would one day stand proud again.
The Rev. Dr. Evalina Huggins, Scotland AME Zion’s pastor, began the event—part info session, part fundraiser, part pep rally—with a few words. “God,” she proclaimed, “we are finding that we are more alike than we are different.” Over the course of the afternoon there were speeches and songs, history lessons and predictions about the future. Rabbi Evan Krame concluded with a prayer.
“As we move forward from this day, may we all be given the strength, the courage and the wisdom to bring change to this community, to bring hope and love and caring to each other, and to see that new structure built in our days and speedily.”
Already, some prayers have been answered. What in some ways began when a local billionaire saw a TV news report about the destroyed church has developed into the 2nd Century Project, an ambitious $9 million three-phase plan to restore and rejuvenate the church.
“My ancestors—by hand, if you can imagine—built the original Scotland church,” says LaTisha Gasaway-Paul, a leader in the coalition of church members, Glenstone museum leaders, residents, businesses and politicians tackling the project. “They fought to have a church there so that we could have a place to go to every Sunday. This is just continuing what they did. We need to build it stronger so that in 100 years they won’t be in the same predicament that we’re in now.”
The story of Scotland AME Zion Church is inextricably tied to the place from which it got its name. In 1880, Gasaway-Paul’s great-great-great-grandfather William Dove purchased 36 acres and helped to establish Scotland, a community of formerly enslaved African Americans. Work began on the church in 1915 and was completed in 1924. When it opened, it became the community’s epicenter. In the ensuing decades, baptisms, weddings, funerals as well as recovery ministry meetings and food distribution programs have been held in the modest wooden building. It was placed on the Maryland Inventory of Historic Places in 1992, according to David Buck, director of communications at the Maryland Department of Planning.
In the 1960s, Scotland’s homes, to which the county had failed to provide running water and sewer service, were falling into disrepair, and many residents were selling their land to speculators. “The community was full of hard-working people,” says Bethesda resident Joyce Siegel, an honorary co-chair of the 2nd Century Project Capital Campaign Committee. “They were paying their taxes but had no water, no sewer, no trash collection. It was unreal.”
Siegel formed Save Our Scotland, which became Scotland Community Development. After years of political fighting and lobbying, Scotland Community Development took control of the land and built 100 townhouses. (The 25 privately owned units and 75 rentals, which were renovated in 2018, remain today.) “We did everything in the church,” Siegel says. “We had monthly meetings. The kids were way behind, so we had tutorial programs almost every night. We had employment programs. We had county officials speak to the people there.”
When the church was built, it was not in a floodplain. That changed when Seven Locks Road was expanded and raised in the ’60s. From that point, heavy rains caused runoff from the road that flooded the church’s basement. “But for the elevation of the road, you would not have these floods,” says former County Executive Ike Leggett, the 2nd Century Project Capital Campaign Committee’s other honorary co-chair. “Unfortunately, [Scotland] has not been treated with the level of support historically that the county and state and others should have provided. There’s a debt long overdue, and this is compounding many years of neglect that the community has suffered over the years.”
Water damage became commonplace at Scotland AME Zion, but it did not deliver a critical blow until July 7, 2019. That day, strong storms led to flash flooding that filled the basement to its rafters. Worse, water collapsed one of the building’s walls.
Longtime church choir member Chuck Williams was out of town at the time, but he saw the devastation on a video. “You would have thought that the building was in the middle of a river,” says Williams, chair of the Capital Campaign Committee. “You could see from looking at the missing wall, everyone realized that we’re not going to be back in this building for a while.”
Gasaway-Paul felt as if someone had knocked the wind out of her.
“Our foundation is the church,” she says. “The meetings, the events—when you take that all away, it leaves a void. I did not know what our next steps were going to be at that moment.”
Mitchell Rales is the co-founder of Danaher, a science and technology conglomerate that
owns more than 20 companies around the world. In February, Forbes estimated his net worth at $5.6 billion. He and his wife, Emily, opened Glenstone, a contemporary art museum, in Potomac in 2006. Listed among its core values is the phrase “meaningful encounters begin with direct engagement.”
After seeing a Channel 4 report on the damage to the church, Rales began investigating, and ultimately offered the aid of the Glenstone Foundation. Staffers there with backgrounds in architecture, engineering, communications and construction management contributed their expertise.
County Councilman Andrew Friedson has championed the project since its inception. “I’m deeply connected to the community and its history. This is about restorative justice and about righting historical wrongs,” says the Democratic representative of District 1, where the church is located. “We have the opportunity to really work together with the community to ensure that this structure that is such an important part of the fabric and history of our community can stand for another 100 years.”
Among the first steps taken by the church was the hiring of Washington, D.C.-based architectural firm Antunovich Associates to create a blueprint for the future. There are several aspects to the project, says Desmond Grimball, a senior associate at the firm.
First, the church will be raised more than 2 feet, “just enough to align it with the road to mitigate the flooding issues that have been occurring since that road was raised,” Grimball says. In addition, the building is being stabilized to prevent further erosion of its structure, and the surrounding landscape is being regraded to reduce the risk of future flooding.
During the planning, it became clear that the church’s mission had outgrown its space. So when it’s reopened, the old church will serve as a community center, and a roughly 5,000-square-foot building to be constructed on the property will house the sanctuary and offices.
“The biggest challenge of the project is the physical constraints,” Grimball says. “It’s a very long, skinny site. It’s bound on the east side by a roadway that created a drainage condition. On the west side it’s bound by a very steep, heavily vegetated hill [down which water flows] right into it. So this long, skinny property basically sits in a bathtub.”
Addressing the water problem was the No. 1 priority, Grimball says. “Beyond that was just what could be developed on the property while respecting the presence and living memory of the existing church,” he says.
A model of the renovated church and the new building were on display during a groundbreaking ceremony on July 9, 2022, almost three years to the day after the catastrophic flood. It was an optimistic day filled with speeches and shoveling, but more setbacks were to come. In late November, the unoccupied church was vandalized by a group of people who broke doors and windows. The case remained open as of early February, according to county police spokesperson Lauren Ivey.
“The saying is: You don’t kick a person when they’re already down,” Gasaway-Paul says. “It was like, How much more can we possibly take? I know that they might not understand the nature of what they did. But when you do things like that, it’s like another dagger. We need uplifting.”
Still, she refuses to be discouraged. Earlier this year the Scotland community announced an expansion of its annual Juneteenth Heritage Festival. It will begin June 17 with a musical gala at the Bethesda Blues & Jazz Supper Club and conclude on June 19 with a Freedom Day concert at the Scotland community. Highlights of the festival, which will be spread across Cabin John Regional Park, Cabin John Village and the Scotland community, include a children’s carnival and music performance, as well as art exhibitions, food and presentations on Black history. Also on the schedule are the second annual Clarence “Pint” Isreal Juneteenth Classic hosted by Bethesda Big Train Baseball at Povich Field, a 5K run, and a classic car show. All proceeds will benefit the 2nd Century Project.
“We envision this event becoming a preeminent destination for celebrating Juneteenth in the state of Maryland and the DMV,” Gasaway-Paul, the festival’s chairperson, says in a press release.
Work on the church began in February, and the hope is that all three phases will be completed by 2024, in time for its centennial. Williams is confident that will happen.
“The very first time that we [walked] into Scotland I was expecting that we were going to walk inside and it would be a mausoleum, cobwebs all over the place, a small handful of members trying to hold everything in place,” he says. “But it was full of people. I heard one of the best choirs that I had ever heard. I will be ever so grateful to have a building that we can perform ministries in, that we can hold rehearsals in, and that we can worship in. I’m going to be very happy to see the building, but I am going to be even more happy that we’ll be able to reunite everyone again so we can get back to the business at hand of being a stabilizing force to [the] Scotland community.”
Since the flood, the congregation has held Sunday services in spaces lent by nearby churches. At one point, members were meeting at Gasaway-Paul’s former dance studio, and they’ve assembled on Zoom as well. Gasaway-Paul is grateful for every opportunity that her friends and family have to pray together, but to her, like generations of her family before, there’s only one Scotland AME Zion Church.
“When you go to a family member’s house, it’s nice, you have a good time,” she says, “but eventually you want to go back home.”
Mike Unger is a writer and editor who grew up in Montgomery County and lives in Baltimore.
This story appears in the May/June issue of Bethesda Magazine.