25 years of faith in a divine idea

Harmony: Children and adults of various faiths join in a service that transcends religious differences to focus on shared values such as a desire for peace, joy and compassion.

January 26, 2001|By Diane Reynolds | Diane Reynolds,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The Columbia dream was alive and well this week as Catholics, Jews and Protestants joined to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Oakland Mills Meeting House, Columbia's second-oldest interfaith center.

"Enjoy the Harmony" was the Sunday program's theme. The service included songs, Scripture readings and words from diverse religious communities

"It's been fun being here - most of the time," said Rabbi Martin Siegel, rabbi emeritus of the Columbia Jewish Congregation. "We've learned a lot. We've lived together and we've lived separately."

"Are we condominiums or are we communities?" he asked, referring to how congregations in the Meeting House work - or sometimes don't work - together.

He and the Rev. Howard Miller, retired pastor of Columbia United Christian Church, shared stories of the Meeting House.

"There was blood on the moon as to who was to pay for what" in the early days, said Siegel. "There was concern the place wouldn't survive."

However, when a payment formula was finally devised, "nobody was willing to admit they couldn't understand it, and that was how the Meeting House was saved," Siegel said.

"We've had struggles about Christmas trees in hallways. ... It's a credit to us that we're still together," he added. "It's important that we try to bring the glory of God in unity in a new vision to a new town."

Said Howard, "I'd like to see how the vision can broaden. We have stiff walls - but to some degree the walls have been breached. I think we could do more. I don't think we appreciate the unique opportunity we have here."

At the celebratory service, children and adults of several faiths sang songs that transcended religious difference to focus on shared values such as a desire for peace, joy and compassion. A passage from Isaiah was read in English, Spanish and Hebrew, calling for compassionate care of the needy.

Ed Murphy, president of the Oakland Mills Interfaith Board, spoke of the unusual problems an interfaith center faces.

"How do you find a suitable and appropriate container for a sacred Scripture for the Columbia Jewish Congregation in a facility and a room to be used by Christian congregations?" he asked, pointing to the "beautiful ark" created to house the Jewish Scriptures.

How do you find a stained-glass window design that "brings spirit and life" but "doesn't do violence to any of our beliefs?" he said, indicating the solution in the blue and lavender glass windows in the room.

"Our goal," Murphy explained, "is to try to ensure that the physical and financial needs of the Meeting House do not detract from our interfaith goals."

Linda Beanblossom, recently retired manager of the facility, was "a tremendous help," Murphy said.

She ensured that there were "no surprises" by having the various building tenants recognize on a yearly basis the physical and financial realities of running the center.

"Oakland Mills is truly an exemplar of what interfaith centers should be," agreed George Martin, president of the Columbia Religious Facilities Corporation. Other interfaith centers, he said, should take notice of its success.

During a period of silent meditation, guests were asked to write their vision of the future of the meeting house on an index card. "It's important to think not only where we've been, but also where we're going," said the Rev. Beth O'Malley of Columbia United Christian Church.

Craig Spark, the new facility manager, said that while 100 people were expected for the celebration, 122 attended. "Oakland Mills continues to exceed expectation," he said.

At a reception after the service, guests ate desserts and hors d'oeuvres. An ice sculpture in the shape of a 25 decorated the buffet tables.

"I'm really pleased with the turnout," O'Malley said. "We have this great gift. We don't do as much together as we'd like ... but celebrations like this inspire us to do more together. I think this is a good model for sharing faith traditions and appreciating what we have in common."

For Suzanne Waller, a pioneer of Columbia and the interfaith center, "this is a dream come true."

"When I was a little kid," she said, "it used to disturb me that we all couldn't get together. Today was like the realization of a dream."

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