Years Of Faith And Harmony

September 12, 1995|By Alisa Samuels | Alisa Samuels,Sun Staff Writer

When Roger Hultgren and his family moved to Howard County 18 years ago from Prince George's County, they searched for a church to call home. Once they walked into the Meeting House in Columbia's Oakland Mills village, their search was over.

Mr. Hultgren will join at least 100 other celebrants Sunday in ceremonies marking the Meeting House's 20th anniversary. At the 4 p.m. event, adult and children's interfaith choirs will sing, and clergy from the center's six congregations will sign a mission statement attesting to their commitment to the shared religious facility. Donations will be collected to help the needy.

The event -- "Enjoy the Harmony: A Celebration of 20 Years of Practicing Peace and Harmony" -- will be the second interfaith celebration this weekend in west Columbia. Others will celebrate Saturday the 25th anniversary of Columbia's first such center -- the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center. There, religious leaders will discuss the vision of the interfaith center concept and Loren Mead, author of "The Once and Future Church," will serve as the event's facilitator.

Columbia has four interfaith centers -- the largest collection in the country -- where different denominations share sanctuaries and other space under the same roof. In an effort to save money and space and promote religious understanding, the Rouse Co. created the pioneering centers. The walls were to be bare of religious symbols to prevent offending other faiths, and congregations could save money by pooling office supplies and other resources.

But unlike the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center, congregations at the Meeting House had more input in planning and all but one of the congregations had a financial stake in the center. Each congregation paid a certain portion to become part-owner. In November 1997, they will pay off the center's $1 million mortgage. One congregation, Temple Beth Shalom, which wanted to remain on a temporary basis until it could find more space, has since left.

"This was much more grass-roots," said facility manager, Linda Beanblossom. "They worked at planning this facility."

Ms. Beanblossom estimated that 10,000 visitors show up each week at the brick center on Robert Oliver Place, also called the Oakland Mills Interfaith Center.

In addition to having worship space under one roof, business meetings, weddings, funerals and bar and bas mitzvahs are held here. The 32,300-square-foot building also is home for the Howard County Jewish Community School, the Jewish Federation of Howard County and the Bet Yeladim day care center and kindergarten.

Ms. Beanblossom said the Meeting House's name comes from the Quaker tradition and refers to a gathering place for religious meetings. In two decades, not much has changed, she said. In 1985, 5,000 square feet were added for a Sunday school room, office space and Jewish chapel. There's talk about future expansions.

One of the first congregations left, but those who have remained say the center has fostered friendships across denominational lines.

"I like the folks," said Mr. Hultgren, a member of the Lutheran Church of the Living Word congregation. "We're comfortable there. We share a lot of interests."

The setting sometimes triggers humorous situations, though.

"From time to time, you can be doing a service and see . . . folks come in a little bit late looking around," said Temple Isaiah's Rabbi Mark Panoff, referring to people who wander into the wrong worship room. "It's very cute."

But more than anything else, the setting allows the clergy to focus on their services.

"I don't have that kind of pressure of worrying about planning and running a building," said the Rev. William E. Hayman Jr., pastor of the Lutheran congregation.

Over the years, the Meeting House has had one constant: Rabbi Martin Siegel. He is the only original clergy member remaining.

"It's evolved," he said, explaining that in the beginning, congregations focused on the ideals of worshiping in an interfaith center and then began to concentrate on their individual congregations. "Now there's a resurgence" of interfaith activities, he said. "You have a sense of religious community. It's not just your place. You're part of a whole world of diversity. I think this is exciting."

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