Columbia's interfaith centers lose their luster


They are religious sanctuaries without steeples, stained glass or permanently placed symbols, "interfaith centers" shared by congregations of every stripe. They were a unique tenet of Columbia's planners, but after 25 years they're drawing decidedly mixed reviews.

The Howard County planned community still has America's largest concentration of interfaith centers -- four serving 14 congregations -- but now congregations are sidestepping the social experiment in cross-religion sharing and tolerance.

Critics say that the interfaith centers confine growth, impose inconveniences on congregations and haven't really fostered much interfaith interaction. They also complain of their relative sterility, likening them to nondenominational military chapels.

As a result, growing numbers of Columbia congregations are seeking their own facilities near but not within Columbia's formal boundaries. Since the 1980s, at least seven Columbia congregations have built their own sanctuaries. Many others are meeting in schools and homes until they can get their own land, instead of moving to the interfaith centers.

"They're not quite for everybody," said Rabbi Kenneth L. Cohen, whose Beth Shalom Congregation last month left the Owen Brown Interfaith Center in East Columbia to worship in its own $1.6 million synagogue, the county's first building constructed as a synagogue. "The traditional mode of worship is to have a synagogue and we opted for traditional."

Added D. Walter Collet, senior pastor for the 13-year-old Covenant Baptist Church, whose congregation built in 1988 the first Columbia church after the interfaith centers were founded: "We wanted to be an alternative to that system. In an interfaith center, there are time constraints. . . . You have to kind of get in and get out. We can't be so time-bound."

But many still hold the faith.

"To me, it's always been a great value," says Rabbi Martin Siegel of the Columbia Jewish Congregation in the Oakland Mills Interfaith Center, also in East Columbia. "It allows congregations to focus on the mission of the congregation and not the housing of the congregation. The synagogue is the people in it, not the building."

But even at West Columbia's Wilde Lake Interfaith Center -- the planned community's first such center, which this September will celebrate its 25th anniversary -- there are questions about the future of the concept.

In a show of unity, all four congregations at the center use "St. John the Evangelist" as part of their names. They also will work this year on a formal re-evaluation of their experience together. It's being done "to really ask if the interfaith concept is something just on paper," said the Rev. Robert A. F. Turner, pastor of the 700-member St. John the Evangelist Baptist Church.

Even some of the concept's original backers believe that its era may have passed.

Land is set aside for interfaith centers in three other Columbia villages, but, said Morris Range of Columbia, who was among the religious representatives consulted before the Wilde Lake center was built 25 years ago: "Current history suggests there may not be anymore interfaith centers. Most denominations just want to build their own kind of church."

That hasn't stopped city planners from other planned communities in the United States -- such as a Walt Disney Co. project near Orlando, Fla., and Woodlands, outside of Houston -- from visiting and copying some aspects of Columbia's interfaith centers.

Altogether, there are perhaps several dozen similar centers scattered around the nation, said Christopher Coble, a Harvard University researcher studying the interfaith concept.

Today, the concept's growth is driven by older urban Protestant churches sharing their facilities with other congregations and by different faiths meeting through interfaith councils, he said.

"There are two agendas going on at the interfaith center," Mr. Coble said. "One of the agendas is to try and come together . . . to create a general religiousness. The other agenda is . . . everyone still is worshiping in their own tradition."

The original agenda for the interfaith centers in Columbia was to promote religious understanding and to save land and money. A group of 13 national religious denominations pooled about $2.2 million in 1966 so the first two Columbia interfaith centers could be built in 1970 and 1975.

"The interfaith centers were created so all could share the same space together at different times," said Cathy Lickteig, a spokeswoman for the Rouse Co, which designed Columbia. "The concept was as much efficiency . . . because it's expensive to build a church."

Said William A. Ross Sr., a Columbia businessman who also was among religious and lay people involved in creating the concept: "There was nothing like this in the whole world."

When congregations arrived in the new town, they could move into already erected facilities instead of waiting to build their own sanctuaries. That saved space and money.

"Monies that would be saved could be used for things for a social ministry . . . reaching out to people," said George Martin, chair of the Columbia Religious Facilities Cooperation, which oversees the centers. Today, one to six congregations share space and expenses at each of the four Columbia centers. In turn, Catholic, Baptist, Protestant, Jewish and other worshipers enter halls bare of religious references and set up their particular symbols for their services. Afterward, they remove their icons. Sometimes, as on Easter, they hold ecumenical services.

At the Wilde Lake center, the Rev. Richard H. Tillman, a priest for the center's largest congregation, the 2,650-family member St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church, is happy with the arrangement. "I guess I wouldn't be here if I didn't think it worked," he said. "What we've done is a very creditable way of being churched."

At 10:30 a.m. on a recent Sunday at the Wilde Lake center, worshipers hurried to Room 4 for the low-key services of St. John the Evangelist United Methodist-Presbyterian. A purple and white banner hung on the brick wall; candles and a cross sat on a portable altar.

At about noon, the items were replaced by a Baptist congregation's materials, including banners that showed brown hands in a praying position. The predominantly black congregation rocked and stomped its feet when the choir's voice filled the 270-seat room. Mr. Turner preached about the "real" Jesus. "This Jesus was a man, a man's man," he said.

"I like the concept of the interfaith center," said Doris Brown, a 23-year member of St. John the Baptist. "It gives us a chance to unite with different denominations and that's what Christianity is all about -- Christ. Everybody believes in the same God. It's just a different way of worshiping him."

But because of growth problems and scheduling conflicts at the Wilde Lake center, the Baptist congregation is thinking about leaving the center to build its own church. Said Mr. Turner, the congregation's minister: "I think that the interfaith concept is an ideal not yet realized."

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