Joint worship building is eyed Four congregations plan funds drive for new interfaith center

'We're really excited'

Goal is $400,000 to erect facility in River Hill village

December 08, 1997|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF

Just when it appeared that interfaith centers might be one of those original Columbia ideas whose time had passed, four congregations are trying to start another such center in the planned community's newest village -- River Hill.

Covenant Community Church, Emmanuel Messianic Congregation, Channing Memorial Unitarian Universalist Church and River Hill Assembly of God want to build an 11,000-square-foot space at the River Hill Village Center along Route 108.

In the next month, congregations are planning to organize capital fund drives to raise the estimated $400,000 needed for construction with a target date for completion in spring 1999.

"We're really excited to get this under way and build a place," said Rabbi Barry Rubin of Emmanuel Messianic Congregation. "We can all have the same building and get the same use out of it." Interfaith centers -- shared worship spaces designed to promote an ecumenical religious approach as well as save land and money -- date back to the beginnings of Columbia.

It was in 1966 that a group of 13 national religious denominations pooled about $2.2 million so the first two centers could be built in 1970 and 1975. Today, four such centers exist in Columbia.

Three decades later, some say interfaith centers have become outdated, they have failed in their mission of promoting interfaith understanding while imposing time restraints on congregations and confining their growth.

In October, two congregations -- St. John the Evangelist Baptist and St. John the Evangelist Lutheran churches -- left the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center to build freestanding facilities.

For St. John the Evangelist Baptist Church, the 23,000-square-foot building at Wilde Lake no longer could hold its growing population. St. John the Evangelist Lutheran's slowly growing congregation has trouble making the required payments for the center's upkeep.

Temple Isaiah, an East Columbian synagogue, voted in February to leave its longtime home at the Meeting House interfaith center in Oakland Mills village to build a freestanding building.

"In the early days, interfaith centers were used as incubators for congregations that were not yet strong enough to stand on their own," said retired Rabbi Martin Siegel. "They came together and then moved on. Now, everybody wants their own church."

The four congregations trying to build a center in River Hill -- Columbia's final village -- are a throwback to those early congregations. They are either new or have fewer than 100 members.

"For us, this is totally economical," Rubin said. "We only have to build one lobby, one ladies room and share the meeting space. The compatibility makes it possible."

The River Hill Interfaith Center would have up to three sanctuaries, a fellowship hall and 70 parking spaces.

For now, the four congregations borrow space to meet at other churches, schools or village centers.

"Our people feel like wanderers in the desert with nothing to call their own," said the Rev. Sylvia Howe of Channing Memorial Church, Unitarian Universalist, whose 100 members have met at Pointers Run Elementary School in Columbia for the past five years.

"We'd like to be in some place that we can call our spiritual home," she said. "River Hill is in an area of Columbia that seems right for this kind of thing."

George Martin, chairman of Columbia Religious Facilities Corp. -- which oversees the interfaith centers -- says the growth of religious congregations and the lack of developable land in the Columbia area has left many congregations searching for worship space.

An estimated 60 congregations have formed in Howard County in the past 30 years. According to Howard County school officials, 28 congregations worship in 27 county school auditoriums or cafeterias each week.

Such demand could lead to a revival of the threatened interfaith center concept.

In addition to the River Hill plans, Martin said he is seeking two congregations to develop the 2.5 acres designated for an interfaith center at Kings Contrivance village in Columbia's DTC original plans but never built.

One of the most common complaints about the interfaith concept is sharing space. For example, leaders at St. John the Evangelist Baptist said they were forced to stagger their meetings around other worship services. When one service ran late in the sanctuary, it delayed all the others using that space.

In each interfaith center, the walls are bare of religious symbols to prevent offending other faiths. Without symbols, some critics say a building does not offer its worshipers a sense of reverence and belonging.

Even traffic can be a problem, because parking lots must accommodate members of one congregation departing as a new group of worshipers arrives.

Martin said the key to making the interfaith vision of Columbia's developer James W. Rouse succeed at River Hill will be effort.

"If people are committed, they'll make it work," Martin said. "If they do grow and leave, there will be another [congregation] waiting to take their place."

Pub Date: 12/08/97

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