Diverse mix among faiths

Worship: Religious communities are among the oldest and newest of county institutions.

March 21, 2004|By Donna W. Payne | Donna W. Payne,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Howard County's religious communities are among the county's oldest institutions, their quaint and elegant churches scattered throughout the area, their cemeteries the resting place of local settlers.

But take a drive around Columbia, and it is easy to find evidence of the county's newest settlers and their worship communities. Small placards appear on weekends, announcing the presence of faith groups in village centers, public schools, industrial park buildings, and in the buildings of older, established congregations.

"People used to live in extended families and they don't anymore," said the Rev. Steven Carter, pastor of Christ Memorial Presbyterian Church in Columbia. "There's a real human need for that kind of support structure. I think the church provides that, or ought to provide that."

Said the Rev. Jose L. Ocasio, pastor of Iglesia de Dios, a Spanish-language church in Columbia: "Everybody has a need to find God."

At least 285 faith communities are in the county, said George Martin, president of the Columbia Cooperative Ministry, a county interfaith group that has tracked area religions since 1968.

Christian churches of many different denominations predominate. But the county also is home to eight Jewish congregations, an Islamic congregation, a Buddhist congregation and other religious affiliations.

Martin said he has attended services at 180 of those congregations and estimates that at least 15 have a weekly attendance of 1,000 or more worshipers. He also estimates that at least 75 percent of county residents are associated with a congregation in some way.

Religious groups are a significant force in the county for social action and charitable outreach. They feed the hungry through soup kitchens, food pantries, hospitality centers, and holiday food baskets. They house and clothe the needy through homeless shelters and thrift shops. They provide social services with parish nurses, immigration and counseling services and tutoring and support groups.

County residents can send their children to religious schools, join choirs, quilting groups, coffee houses, youth groups and participate in many other activities, all under the auspices of faith communities.

Changes in the demographics and size of the county over the past few hundred years are paralleled by similar changes in county religious groups.

At least 50 were founded before 1900, and all were Christian. The oldest church in the county is Columbia's Christ Episcopal Church, established in 1711. All of the county's Episcopal churches were established before 1900. The rest of the 18th- and 19th- century churches were African Methodist Episcopal, Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran and Roman Catholic.

These denominations still claim the largest number of congregations in the county. Baptists and Methodists lead, with nearly 40 churches each. There are about 10 churches each for Lutherans, Episcopalians and Roman Catholics, and at least 15 Presbyterian churches.

But since the founding of Columbia in 1967, the number of worship communities in the county has almost doubled, and their diversity has increased substantially.

All of the Jewish congregations were established in 1970 or later, and all are in Columbia. The influx of residents from other countries has initiated 21 Korean-language congregations, along with Spanish-, Arabic-, Chinese-, Haitian- and Russian-language congregations. The county also is home to at least 40 independent congregations -- most founded since the late 1980s -- that are unaffiliated with any denomination.

Columbia's hallmark religious establishments are its interfaith centers, a conception of founding developer James W. Rouse to promote interfaith communication and cooperation. Martin says that about 5,000 people worship in the 23 congregations that occupy the four interfaith centers in Wilde Lake, Oakland Mills, Long Reach and Owen Brown.

But the interfaith centers also are changing. The renovation and expansion of Owen Brown Interfaith Center is nearing completion, and two additional interfaith centers, in Kings Contrivance and River Hill, are under development by area congregations.

Some of the congregations have outgrown their space in the centers.

This is especially true of area Jewish congregations, said Rabbi Mark J. Panoff of Temple Isaiah. He said that several Jewish groups, including his, are moving or have moved into their own facilities. Temple Isaiah is to open a 21-acre campus in southwest Howard by the end of June.

Graying congregations

Panoff also notes a trend in his congregation, similar to that reported by other area clergy: "As Howard County grays, so our congregation grays," he said. But along with the increase in the older population, Temple Isaiah has seen a rise in young families with children. The new diversity in ages, he said, is "the sign of a strong, vibrant congregation."

The Rev. Gerard Bowen, pastor of St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church in Elkridge, has seen the trend in his parish.

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