Columbian goes to churches, religiously In 2 years, he visits 130 congregations

December 06, 1998|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

Many Catholics go to Mass on Saturday night so they can sleep in Sunday morning.

Not George Martin.

He attends Mass on Saturday so he can spend Sunday morning going to church -- and not just one church. He might go to an African Methodist Episcopal church service at 7: 45 a.m., a United Methodist service at 10 a.m. and a Korean church service at 1: 30 p.m.

Martin's goal is to visit every religious congregation in Howard County at least once. Since the Columbia resident started his project two years ago, he said, he has gone to about 130 services and has about 100 to go. He has attended as many as five services a weekend -- and claims he has fallen asleep only once, during an especially long sermon.

"I hope I didn't snore," Martin said. "I wonder about that sometimes."

4 There's another purpose behind Martin's project.

In honor of Howard County's sesquicentennial, to be celebrated in 2001, he is helping coordinate a book on the history of churches in the county. He and about 10 others working on the book hope to collect as many two-page church histories as they can by this month for a book to be published next year.

"We felt that this was going to be a way of sharing between congregations," he said.

Martin, 68, a retired mathematician and one of the earliest residents of Columbia, believes in Columbia founder James W. Rouse's vision of bringing diverse people together to create a more tolerant society. He has made it his mission to bring Howard County religious groups together to worship and work for social justice.

About 10 years ago, he became president of the Columbia Cooperative Ministry, an interdenominational faith group, and he has also created a directory of Howard County congregations that he updates every month.

"We're trying to get people to come together in fellowship, whether they are Jewish, Islamic, Korean or Haitian," Martin said. "I really want us to be able to communicate without saying, 'Well, you've got to become Catholic, or you've got to become Jewish.' It's just that we accept people for who they are and where they are at, so it's reflecting our diversity."

Those who know Martin say they admire him for his commitment.

Bev Wilhide, assistant to the county executive and a sesquicentennial committee member, called him a "quiet hero" and a "community resource that you don't want to do without."

Noting his extensive volunteer work, Wilhide said, "He makes no fanfare out of it, and he expects no fanfare out of it."

"He's very nonchalant about what he does," said Rabbi Murray Simon, pastor at Congregation Shalom Aleichem in Columbia. "He does so much so quietly."

The Rev. Lyle Buck, a retired Presbyterian minister who is working with Martin on the history of Howard churches, said: "I'm confounded by how he's able to have his fingers in so many things."

Buck also said Martin is one of the biggest pack rats he has met.

"He sees himself as a pioneer, one of the few who has continued to collect records from the early days," Buck said, noting that Martin's tiny home office is filled with material from Columbia's early days and from the church project.

Betty Martin doesn't go along with her husband on his church visitations, but is tolerant of his dedication to the project.

Martin has been interested in religion much of his adult life. At 26, he said, he entered a seminary in San Diego to become a priest but decided midway through that it wasn't his calling.

"It just didn't seem that this was the way to go," he said. "I just didn't feel good about it."

Instead, Martin worked as a mathematician for 40 years, spending the last 30 years of his career at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, south of Columbia.

But Martin never lost his interest in the church, and at 36 he became a deacon and began officiating at baptisms, weddings and funerals.

When he retired six years ago, he was looking for even more church involvement and turned his attention to all congregations in Howard County, not just his own -- St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church at the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center and at the Oakland Mills Interfaith Center.

At every service he attends, Martin participates in all the prayers -- often praying for people he has never met -- sings all the hymns, sits though all the sermons, even gives money when the collection plate is passed.

Martin said he's sometimes tempted to receive communion at other churches -- but avoids it for theological reasons. He knows the Catholic church wouldn't appreciate such behavior from an ordained deacon.

Besides working as a deacon and attending several church services every weekend, Martin volunteers once a week at the Maryland Correctional Institution at Jessup. He said he ministers to prisoners and teaches about Catholicism.

None of this visiting and bridge-building comes easily to Martin, who calls himself an "extroverted introvert." He has attended Toastmasters, a public-speaking group, for 25 years to help him overcome his innate shyness.

But the hardest aspect of his religious work, he said, is the little time he has alone to pray and meditate.

"There should be a balance there, and I don't know these past two years whether I really have had balance," he said.

But Martin stays involved because he sees work to be done.

"Many individual congregations are doing things in their area, but there's a broader perspective," he said. "I think we could do a better job of working together."

Pub Date: 12/06/98

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