Wandering flocks find a place to call home

Columbia's fifth interfaith center to hold its grand-opening celebration on Sunday


Rabbi Barry Rubin used to joke that the 50 families in his congregation were like the wandering Jews of the Old Testament. For five years, since the Emmanuel Messianic Jewish Congregation sold its temple off Liberty Road in Baltimore County, the congregation had been without a home, meeting at various churches in Howard County.

The Rev. George Sebek, pastor of Oak Ridge Community Church, was wandering, too. For the past four years, his congregation of about 300 had been meeting at Wilde Lake Middle School.

"We're grateful that we've been able to find places to stay, but at the same time, it gets a little tiring," said Sharon Wong of Highland, a member of Oak Ridge's congregation. The group would bring a truck full of supplies, including a sound system, each week, set it up, then tear it all down when services were over, she said.

Now, both congregations, a Montessori school and several other organizations, have a new home at Columbia's fifth and newest interfaith center, the Gathering Place in River Hill.

Construction is not complete - the doors on the ground floor have only been roughed in - but the temple and the church have been meeting there for about a month. On Sunday, Oak Ridge is holding a grand-opening celebration that is open to the public. The service will start at 10:30 a.m., and there will be drinks, food and gifts after the sermon.

Part of Columbia founder James W. Rouse's vision for the planned community was the establishment of interfaith centers that would house more than one religious organization. If the goal was to foster understanding among different religions, then it's working, say Rubin, 60, and Sebek, 54.

"Basically, I see it as a marriage made in heaven," said Sebek, an energetic, talkative man, using one of his favorite characterizations for the relationship.

Rubin's congregation has been without a home since the mid-1990s, he said, when it sold its synagogue off Liberty Road in Baltimore County. The congregation could not afford to buy land in Howard County, so it wandered from church to church while working to create the interfaith center. Most recently, it was at the Linden-Linthicum United Methodist Church, a short distance from its new home.

"That was kind of neat in a way to look out the window during services and see our building," said Mike Doyle of Eldersburg, a member of the congregation.

But moving around was frustrating, he said. "It was good that we had places to go to, rather than trying to cram everybody into somebody's house. But it was very inconvenient because it was never ours, and we knew that. ... Nothing was permanent, and that was the biggest issue."

The first steps were to form a nonprofit corporation and to find another religious organization to share the project, Rubin said. Another church originally had been interested, Rubin said, but it opted to move to Catonsville. That was in 2001. Construction had begun, but it came to a halt until a new partner could be found, Rubin said. For a long time, there was a big hole in the ground and part of the foundation, both men recalled.

Rubin found another church to fill the void. "Through word of mouth, I knew of Oak Ridge," Rubin said. The rabbi and the pastor met several times, discussing their respective religions, their views on Israel and other topics. They decided they were compatible. "I felt a real affinity for Barry and got real excited," Sebek said. "We felt a real oneness."

Emmanuel and Oak Ridge are somewhat eclectic, attracting many families of mixed faith. Both gained popularity in the 1970s. And both were too small to need or afford a space of their own. But sharing a building also brings challenges. "Nothing bad has come up; it's just now we need to set up a system," said Wong.

Members of all the organizations in the building are working to set up rules for everything from landscaping to scheduling to safety policies, said Doyle. "We're asking everybody to help out with writing these policies," he said. "We've been doing it, now we just have to get it down on paper."

The building's architect was Scott Grice of Columbia and the interior designer was Portnoy Levine of Baltimore, said Wong, who was chair of the design committee.

The 25,000-square-foot, three-story building, constructed for an estimated $5.7 million, still smells of new carpet and fresh paint. It has nine classrooms and three sanctuaries, so three services can be held simultaneously. The top floor holds an administrative office and Rubin's publishing company, Lederer Publishing, which prints religious materials. The lower level houses classrooms and a sanctuary with room for about 120.

The temple uses the sanctuary, which seats about 500, on Saturdays and the church uses it on Sundays. The space is neutral - a large, open room with chairs lined up in rows and a small stage in front. There are no stained-glass windows, no crucifixes, no Torahs, nor other symbols of any particular religion. Each organization has a storage room behind the stage for easy set-up. A third sanctuary seats about 250.

The basement is used by the One World Village Montessori School, which also has a small play area outside. Sebek said one of the property's strengths is that the ground around the lowest floor has been landscaped so sunlight comes in. Several historic tombstones from the Ridgely and Howard families are on the property.

The site also is available for functions, including weddings and meetings. "There's something about a church having a home," said Sebek. "You're part of the community."

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