`Glorious' expansion at interfaith center

Worship: Owen Brown Interfaith Center has undergone a renovation that includes expansion of first- and second-floor lobbies and more meeting and office space.

January 09, 2004|By Michael Duck | Michael Duck,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Scores of people flow out of Owen Brown Interfaith Center's glass-enclosed worship space as an undulating cork wall bursts open, revealing a pantry filled with refreshments. A curtain of stained-glass towers overhead, sunlight streaming through its geometric patchwork of blue and red rectangles.

"It's glorious," says Ruth Smith of Dayton, who has worshipped at the center for 17 years as a member of Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia. "It's just gorgeous."

The interfaith center's newly expanded lobby is the centerpiece of a $1.6 million renovation spearheaded and funded by Smith's congregation - one of two religious groups that own the facility. Many who use the building say the improvements will help meet their needs, attract new members and create a better worship atmosphere.

"Now I think it has more of a personality," said the Rev. Gladys Joyner Hubbard, pastor of Christ United Methodist Church, the center's other owner congregation. "It looks more like a religious center. Before, most people thought it was a community center."

The Unitarian Universalist group raised nearly $900,000 in pledges from its members in 2002 and last year to fund the renovation, according to Gail Thompson of Clarksville, a congregation founding member and former co-chair of the fund-raising committee. The rest of the project's cost is mortgaged.

"We simply had outgrown the facility," Thompson said.

After the congregation decided it wanted to stay at the interfaith center, members began making plans for the expansion. Workers broke ground in March, and the building has been in normal use throughout the renovations.

The undertaking was "huge, in terms of marking this congregation's commitment to being a part of a specific interfaith community," said the Rev. Paige Getty, the Unitarian Universalist group's minister since August.

The improvements include expansion of first- and second-floor lobbies, increased meeting and office space, an upstairs pantry, more bathrooms and an elevator.

"They've done a very nice job," said Kelsang Osel, who holds Buddhist meditation classes at the center. "It's a nice open space now on that first level."

"We see it as a wonderful addition to the community," said Neil Dorsey, Owen Brown Village Board chairman. The improvements make the building more attractive and support the diverse religious groups meeting there, he said, and "those groups certainly add to the whole community."

The center is host of Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist and Christian groups, as well as several secular organizations.

"I would challenge you to find another interfaith center in the country ... that attempts to serve as many different religious congregations," said Rich Dean of Columbia, president of the Unitarian Universalist congregation.

The religious diversity holds particular appeal for Unitarian Universalists, Getty said, because they recognize religious truths in a wide variety of spiritual traditions. "Interfaith comes very naturally to us."

But all are glad that the sheet-rock dust is starting to settle. For example, going to weekly services during renovations became an adventure, as the route through the construction to the worship space changed often, said John Harris of Columbia, a two-year member of the Unitarian Universalist congregation.

"It was hard, but we knew there was going to be an end - and it was going to be a better end," said Joyner Hubbard, adding that contractors worked hard to make sure the building was always usable.

The renovations were also a challenge for Lornwood Child Development Center, which is on the center's first floor.

"We had to be very flexible, but we survived it," said Tristan Rynn, Lornwood's director. "I think it's turned out wonderfully."

While the Unitarian Universalists were growing and could afford to pay for the project, co-owner Christ United Methodist Church has not been expanding as rapidly. But Joyner Hubbard said she hopes her congregation can carry out the next phase of the center's renovation - an expansion of the worship space - within the next five years.

"It's my hope and my prayer that we can do the next one," Joyner Hubbard said. "That's something we really want to shoot for."

Groups using the building will celebrate the renovations with a ribbon-cutting at 2 p.m. Sunday.

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