Center's name speaks to some of Morgan spirit Identity: A proposal to change the name of the Morgan Christian Center has led some students to protest.

March 12, 1998|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

A struggle is under way over the name -- and soul, some say -- of the Morgan Christian Center, where Morgan State University students have gone for nearly 50 years to pray, study or just think in peace.

About 30 students took time out from lunch and classes yesterday to protest a proposal to remove "Christian" from the center's name and to take down the tall wooden cross standing on its front lawn.

"You can't take our history without us protesting," said junior Shonda Gladden, as she and the rest of the group braved a frigid wind to chant and pray on the pedestrian bridge over Cold Spring Lane at the heart of the university's Northeast Baltimore campus.

The center, the last vestige of the university's founding in 1867 as a Methodist seminary, is seeking more than $1 million from the state to fix the decaying stone building it occupies on the southwest corner of Morgan's campus.

Partly to get government money, but also to reflect changing times, the center's board of trustees is considering changing its name and removing the cross, said Edgar D. Draper, the board's vice chairman.

"We have a great variety of religious faiths on campus, and we open our doors to anybody," said Draper, 76, a former Morgan business manager who is now retired. But he also acknowledged that the board wants to overcome the constitutional barrier to government funding of religious institutions.

"What we were thinking about is calling it an ecumenical institute, rather than Christian Center," the vice chairman said. "We certainly want to impress the state with the fact that we don't just propagate one faith."

The board has not acted on the changes, which were recommended last week by a board committee. But word leaked out, prompting yesterday's rally to keep the center's Christian identity.

"They're trying to secularize it to get funding," said Brian Johnson, a protest organizer and member of Alpha Nu Omega, a Christian fraternity and sorority. "We're trying to save Morgan's heritage."

The center has been open since 1950, when the Methodist Church turned the financially strapped seminary over to the state. The old school's Methodist board acquired the land and started the center as an entity independent of the state-run Morgan "to perpetuate some of the ideals that were behind the founding of the school," according to Draper.

Now those ideals are bumping against fiscal realities. Yesterday, Irvin Sutton, the center's custodian of 13 years, showed a visitor peeling paint, buckled walls and a warped wooden floor, which he said were caused by rain cascading through a hole in the roof two years ago. Rickety windows have been nailed shut to keep them from falling on anybody; the ladies' restroom is a shambles, and the plumbing and wiring need upgrading.

"It's definitely in bad shape," acknowledged Sutton. But even so, he said he can't go along with the changes the board is contemplating.

"I might lose my job, but I'm not taking that cross down, no way," said Sutton, who attended the rally. Three years ago, he said, he helped erect the symbol, since adorned with bunting and a thorny wreath. A time capsule containing poetry, prayers and other writings is buried at the base.

When the university is in session, as many as 100 students and alumni attend religious services at the center every Sunday morning. Though its name and activities are geared toward Christians, nonreligious groups also use the building for activities such as a luncheon held yesterday for the aged.

A pair of local ministers turned out to support yesterday's protest.

"When you remove the name 'Christian,' you remove the identity of the population," said the Rev. Cameron Carter, associate minister for New Shiloh Church in West Baltimore.

Tina Miles, president of a group called Black United Methodist Pastors, pledged to raise $5,000 toward the center's repair.

"Taking down the cross is like sending a ship out to sea without a sail," she said.

The Methodist Church subsidizes the center, paying half of the director's salary and a portion of its $100,000 operating budget, said Draper, the board vice chairman. But even so, the institution is deeply in debt and cannot raise the $1 million or more that a consultant has said is needed to fix the center and the director's residence nearby.

State Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden has sponsored a bill that would provide up to $1,005,000 in matching state bond funds to repair, renovate and furnish the center. The legislation, which is due for a hearing in Annapolis on Saturday, stipulates that the center be used as a "community outreach center" for students and the surrounding community. It also prohibits spending any state money for the furtherance of religious worship or instruction.

Changing the name and removing the cross may not really matter for getting state money.

The First Amendment bars government from establishing any religion, said Jack Schwartz, chief counsel in the Maryland attorney general's office. But state funds can be used to renovate those portions of the center not used for religious activity, such as the ground floor, which once housed a day care center.

Schwartz has written state Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman that there is precedent for spending state money on the secular portions of a building that also has a religious portion.

"We can save the center without state funding," said Shonda Gladden, the protester. Last Friday, after word of the changes got around campus, she noted, students organized a gospel concert to raise funds. The audience chipped in $257.

"I don't attend church there," she said as she asked passing students to sign a petition. "But we know we can go there if we need to."

Pub Date: 3/12/98

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