Sharing of space by diverse faiths

Religion: While allowing congregations to share expenses and flourish, Columbia's interfaith centers have evolved into something less ecumenical than envisioned.

March 05, 2001|By Laura Vozzella | Laura Vozzella,SUN STAFF

Worshippers at Agape Mission Church tend to get swept up in the service. They weep. They wail. Some fall to the floor and lie there, as if passed out.

If they take a while to come to, worshippers could wake up surrounded by a bunch of Baptists. Or find themselves amid a gay-lesbian-transgendered congregation with puppet and clown ministries.

Agape, a "passionate" Christian congregation mostly made up of Asian young adults, holds its services at a Columbia interfaith center - a place where crucifixes, Stars of David and Muslim prayer rugs get moved in and out faster than scenery in a Broadway theater.

After Agape's services ended one Sunday night this winter, a partition went up and two other churches set up shop. On one side, Metropolitan Community Church celebrated homosexuality in a service that mixed Scripture, club music and a Muppet-style puppet choir. On the other side, children from Columbia Baptist Fellowship rehearsed a traditional Christmas pageant.

"Sometimes when we go in to set up, we're kind of stepping over people," said the Rev. R. David Smith of Metropolitan, referring to Agape worshippers. "It makes it interesting."

That kind of religious variety was precisely what developer James W. Rouse had in mind when he made interfaith centers part of Columbia, the planned community he created 34 years ago.

Rather than individual churches, synagogues and mosques, which tend to sit empty for most of the week, Rouse wanted facilities that people of all faiths would share. It was an innovative concept - one copied in a handful of communities around the country - designed to conserve resources and promote religious understanding.

The experiment has achieved at least part of Rouse's dream: creating a way for diverse faiths to share expenses and flourish.

On average, more than 6,300 Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and Jews pray each week at Columbia's four interfaith centers - in gatherings ranging from serene five-person meditation sessions to exuberant services for 700 with a window-rattling 50-member choir. One facility alone is home to Haitian Nazarenes who worship in French Creole, Methodists, Unitarians, Baptists, Buddhists, Muslims and two Jewish congregations.

Despite that diversity, the centers have evolved over the years into something less ecumenical than what Rouse envisioned. The interfaith experience has become fairly temporary and independent for many congregations, following a trend toward traditionalism in some faiths.

"The bloom is very much off the ecumenical rose," said Dotty Binckley, who moved to Columbia in 1968 to participate in the interfaith experiment. Today, the retired nurse practitioner worships in an 18th-century Episcopal church that she describes as something out of "Jane Eyre."

"It was a very '70s kind of thing, and I think it was the age of experimentation in a lot of things - new lifestyles, new clothes, the Vietnam War," said Binckley, 70. "You had a New Town in which a lot of people came with a lot of schemes and dreams, and some worked and some didn't."

Newer, smaller groups renting space in the centers tend to see the facilities as little more than incubators for religious start-ups. Once they're big and rich enough, they want their own synagogue, mosque or church building.

"It's a steppingstone. It's a rental facility," said the Rev. Tim Rapp of Agape, one of at least a half-dozen interfaith congregations looking for a building of its own.

Even some of the congregations that consider the centers their permanent homes have put a more independent twist on the concept.

A new interfaith center planned for the Village of Kings Contrivance calls for two separate church buildings on the same piece of land.

One of the congregations involved, the Orthodox Church of St. Matthew, considers it essential to have its own richly decorated worship space - a sharp departure from the shared, stripped-down, one-size-fits-all centers. The other church, Cornerstone Community Church of God, has no objections to sharing its sanctuary with another congregation someday. But for religious reasons, its pastor said, it would have to be a fellow Christian group.

In the Village of River Hill, where two congregations plan to break ground for an interfaith center this spring, the partners speak more of their compatibility than of any mission to bridge religious differences.

Rabbi Barry Rubin of Emmanuel Messianic Jewish Congregation said Columbia Church of Christ will make a good match because the church stresses the Jewish roots to Christianity. Church members won't mind, he said, if Emmanuel Messianic keeps a menorah and other Jewish symbols on display.

The Church of Christ, for its part, feels comfortable with Emmanuel because the Messianic congregation believes that Jesus was the son of God. The church would not want to pair up with a group that didn't share that belief, said Elladean Brigham, whose husband, Dale, is a church elder.

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