In 2003, two Howard County rabbis objected to the Emmanuel Messianic Jewish Congregation as a partner in the River Hill center. Both were quoted in a Sun story criticizing Messianic Judaism for conducting a Christian conversion campaign behind a Jewish facade.

Rabbi Barry Rubin, who still leads the Emmanuel congregation, dismissed the criticisms at the time as antiquated. His congregation now shares the River Hill center with the Oak Ridge Community Church, an evangelical congregation affiliated with the Great Commission movement.

Some Jewish congregation members at Oakland Mills raised red flags a few years ago around Christmastime about poinsettias being moved from a sanctuary into the lobby, where sectarian symbols are not permitted.

"That's part of those learning moments," said Rabbi Sonya Starr of the Columbia Jewish Congregation. "For Christians, they're flowers. For Jews, they symbolize Christianity, especially that time of year."


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She recalled that the Christian congregations agreed to not display poinsettias in the common areas.

"It wasn't a horrible problem," said Starr, who has been leading the reconstructionist congregation since 2000. She calls the center a "gift and a blessing ... an incredible atmosphere of sharing and experiencing each other's world view."

Clergy members at the centers meet regularly for both business meetings and theological study.

Stancil, who came to Oakland Mills in 2011 after stints in southwestern Virginia, Louisville and Indiana, said the center has allowed him to have his first theological discussions with Jews, particularly Rabbi Seth L. Bernstein, who leads the Bet Aviv reform congregation.

Bernstein said the center allows him to continue interfaith discussions he's been engaging in for decades. At last Friday's service, he said, he spoke on the parallels between the birth stories of Moses and Jesus.

"I believe Jewish and Christian beliefs and practices are not formed in isolation," he said in an email. "I find interfaith dialogue helpful in understanding the other person and in clarifying my own faith and theology."

Mike Splaine, a member of St. John's Catholic Church, said he feels his three daughters benefited from being raised in the interfaith setting.

"They've had many experiences of seeing their friends from other traditions having the experience of church," he said, and they grew up without an attitude of "bias, triumphalism. 'My God's better than your God.'"

Rose Waters, who attended the early Catholic Mass on Sunday, acknowledged she sometimes misses the imagery and the atmosphere of an exclusively Catholic church, but she's found Oakland Mills welcoming.

"I love it. I love the community," she said, adding she'd be back on Christmas Eve.

Catholics will celebrate Mass in both sanctuaries simultaneously at 4 p.m., switch with the United Christian Church in the smaller room and the Baptists in the larger, then return to the larger sanctuary for the night's final service.

Sparks of the United Christian Church will be there as the wooden cross is raised and lowered once more. He calls himself an "evangelical" on the interfaith concept.

"'The rabbi, the priest and the minister walk into a building' — it's not a joke, it's every day," he said. "It's neat, it's just neat."

arthur.hirsch@baltsun.com