It looked like any other rowhouse rehab in East Baltimore.
Sweaty people, donning tool belts, hoisted the skeleton of a wall around second-floor windows in just 15 minutes, while others in the basement covered holes in the exposed brick veneer, working around several layers of wallpaper and plaster that blanketed the interior.
But the T-shirts of these workers - marked with a peculiar symbol that showed a cross, crescent moon and a Star of David under one roof with a chimney - showed this was no ordinary renovation.
Instead, it was the culmination of a yearlong interfaith project organized by Chesapeake Habitat for Humanity, bringing together Muslims, Christians and Jews from Baltimore congregations to sponsor and build two houses in hopes of fostering greater ties among the three religions, which have some common beliefs.
"In this time, it's difficult for people of different faiths to understand each other," said Jayna Powell, who directs the Chesapeake Habitat for Humanity's interfaith project, dubbed "Peace by Piece." "This is about more than building a home. It's about finding what's common about us, our common call, and then to learn enough about each other to end this ignorance."
The first-ever interfaith renovation, which Powell said she hopes will be repeated annually, started in earnest yesterday morning in the 800 block of N. Washington St., the site of several other rowhouses being reworked by Chesapeake Habitat for Humanity, a local branch of the international nonprofit group.
About 10 volunteers from the Muslim Community Cultural Center in West Baltimore and the Christian Temple Christian Church in Catonsville grabbed hammers and nails from a giant bucket and went to work, taking direction from project manager Ian Bukowski, who is a Buddhist.
"I'm glad I ended up helping with this house," Bukowski said as he described the layout for the three-story rowhouse, which will measure about 1,200 square feet with a 600-square-foot unfinished basement.
Together with subcontractors that will take care of the specialty work, members of about 15 congregations - which raised $50,000 for the houses - will build a living room and dining room on the first floor and three bedrooms and a bathroom on the second. Other funding came from several community foundations, although Chesapeake Habitat is still seeking to raise an additional $15,000 to $25,000 to finance the project.
Jewish participants were not at the site yesterday because they were observing their sabbath; they will begin on the project today.
Powell, an ordained minister whose husband is the pastor of Christian Temple, said all three faiths could come together in their common belief in community service.
"When you're holding a ladder or Sheetrock with someone else, you get to know them as a person, and that's a great way to understand another faith," she said. "You put a face on what you didn't know before."
Lifelong Muslim and Baltimore resident Frank Shaheed, 35, said the project appealed to him as a way to find common ground with other faiths.
"This situation brings out the best in everyone," he said, noting that an important component of Islam is being "neighborly" and helping others. "The end result is something good: We build a house for a family, and we come together to make a better society. You get to learn something and you have to be personable, you can't hide behind your religious identity."
In addition to raising the money to build the houses, representatives from the congregations have given each other seminars about their faiths, attended the meetings of other congregations and met for discussions about social justice.
Debbie Frosch, who sat on the project's steering committee as a representative from Har Sinai Congregation in Owings Mills, which boasts of being the oldest continuously operated Reform congregation in the United States, said there was "quite a bit of dialogue" among those who attended other ceremonies or came to joint meetings.
"Those who went said it was fabulous," she said. "It was a great way to bring about a tolerance - especially with everything that's going on in the Middle East - a tolerance and an understanding of other people. We all saw how similar we really all are, even though [there] are differences."
Chesapeake Habitat, which has completed 121 homes since it was founded in 1981, often buys clusters of vacant rowhouses with the goal of revitalizing communities by creating affordable housing. More than half of the houses have been built in the past year, and this year, the group hopes to complete 16, in addition to the two begun by the interfaith group yesterday.
The houses, which are bought and renovated with $100,000 and volunteer labor from sponsors, are turned over to buyers able to afford a $100,000 mortgage they pay with no interest to Habitat for Humanity. They also have to put in 300 hours of labor, or "sweat equity," and agree not to sell the home for five years or pay a penalty.
Woodlawn resident Jamie Brown, 27, worked yesterday toward her 300-hour total and hopes to be in a Chesapeake-Habitat home with her 8-year-old daughter by March or April.
"The hours can be a drain, but when you look at it in perspective, it's really going to pay off in the long run," she said.