Door of faith is open, yet revolving, at Columbia interfaith centers

Lillian Dove removes the cross after the Baptist worship at the Oakland Mills Interfaith Center which serves many denominations.
Lillian Dove removes the cross after the Baptist worship at the Oakland Mills Interfaith Center which serves many denominations. (Photo by Algerina Perna, Baltimore Sun)

Christmas Eve worshipers at Columbia's Village of Oakland Mills on Tuesday will do the interfaith shuffle: Catholics departing the sanctuary with their hymnals, white altar cloth, candles and crucifix; Protestants entering with their own hymnals, white cloth, candles and cross. Then Protestants out, Catholics back in.

So the ritual dance swings on, decades after people of many faiths first gathered to worship under one roof at the Oakland Mills Interfaith Center and similar spots in other Columbia villages. Not always convenient, often inspiring, the centers have been a key part of Columbia's progressive spirit.


"That's the agony and the ecstasy of interfaith, that switching around" of worship space, often with little time between one congregation's service and the next, said Monsignor Richard H. Tillman. He retired in 2010 after 33 years as pastor of St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church, but still presides at services at interfaith centers at Oakland Mills and Wilde Lake.

He celebrated Mass at Oakland Mills on Sunday, as members of his congregation shared the sanctuary with the Columbia Baptist Federation. Meanwhile, the Columbia United Christian Church held services in the smaller of two sanctuaries, having hoisted aloft their nearly 8-foot-tall wooden cross on ropes in front of the closed wooden ark containing Torah scrolls used by two Jewish congregations.

In the larger room, with just 30 minutes between the end of the Baptist service and the next Catholic Mass, congregation members and the center staff swooped in to strike the Protestant set and dress the room for Catholics.

Out with the plain wooden cross standing on the altar table, the white candle, the vase of flowers, the white altar cloth stitched in gold: "In Remembrance of Me." Up with the altar table onto the raised platform where the Baptist choir had stood. In with the altar cloth — purple for Advent — two white candles and a framed painting of the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus.

Just outside the sanctuary, a library cart holding hundreds of Catholic hymnals had been rolled where the Baptist cart stood minutes before, and a dish of holy water placed on a table. With some 200 congregants seated, a girl completed the scene by marching in with a processional crucifix.

The same Advent candle on a stand stood next to the podium for both the Baptist and the Catholic services, the result of an interfaith agreement reached this year. The Catholics provide the stand and wreath; the Baptists provide candles.

Baptist Pastor David C. Stancil said after years of moving their own heavy Advent candle stands back and forth, members came to a practical question: " 'Why are we doing this, moving all this stuff around?' "

Pastor Craig S. Sparks of the United Christian Church explained the compromise using a Yiddish word in his Tennessee accent: both groups were tired of "schlepping."

There's still enough of that and learning how to amicably share space and time, probably more of a challenge at Oakland Mills than the other centers. Oakland Mills, known also as the Meeting House, has more congregations with representation on its board of directors than any other center. The board consists of members of three Christian congregations — Catholic, Baptist and the United Christian Church — plus reform and reconstructionist Jewish congregations. No other center has more than two governing or "owning" congregations.

Columbia's six centers operate independently and not all in the same way. The three oldest, Wilde Lake, Oakland Mills and Owen Brown — built between 1970 and the early 1980s — and the newest, River Hill, all have more than one congregation sharing space under one roof. The Long Reach Interfaith Center for years has been interfaith in name only, as one congregation left, leaving only Celebration Church. In Kings Contrivance, the Orthodox Church of St. Matthew and the Cornerstone Christian Church share a campus with two separate buildings.

In all, the centers are home to 17 congregations, including a Muslim Friday prayer group and a group that follows the teachings of Sri Sathya Sai Baba, an Indian guru.

The number is down from nearly 30 congregations years ago, said Betty Martin, whose late husband, George Martin, for decades led the now-defunct Columbia Cooperative Ministry, established to organize interfaith activities. She's writing a book about the centers expected to be published next year.

Over the years, some congregations moved out to quarters of their own, others disbanded or merged with another congregation. Temple Isaiah, for instance, moved from Oakland Mills to its own building in Fulton in 2004.

"We always had a good relationship with the center," but the congregation outgrew the space, said Diane Neuwelt, assistant to Rabbi Craig Axler, who presides at the reform congregation of 425 families.In particular, she said, the congregation needed more room for a school and to hold events on Sundays, when the largest spaces would be booked for church services.


Originally, interfaith centers were envisioned for eight of Columbia's 10 villages, Martin said, but finances did not work out for the last two, Harper's Choice and Hickory Ridge. She and Carolyn Arena, who volunteered for a corporation established to manage construction of the buildings, said interfaith centers were never planned for Town Center or Dorsey's Search.

The idea of shared worship space was proposed in Columbia's early days in a report completed under the auspices of the National Council of Churches, which entered the discussion after Columbia founder James Rouse called on Protestant denominations to plan for the new city's religious life.

Clergy and congregants have learned a lot about other faiths, but not without a few bumps along the way.

Tillman recalled that a fundamentalist Protestant pastor caused a stir at Oakland Mills in the late 1970s or early 1980s by publishing a letter in the church bulletin saying Jews could not achieve salvation. The church's contract with the center was not renewed.

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."


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."