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Interfaith Centers Are Still a Good Idea


Like many people of my generation, I went through a period where I lost touch with the church, only to return to it later with a renewed sense of its importance in my life.

Marriage, children -- so many factors led my wife and me to begin our search for a spiritual home more than a decade ago.

Like a lot of us who come to Columbia from elsewhere, we began at one of the city's interfaith centers.

Among the ideals on which Howard County's planned city was founded, the idea of diverse congregations under one roof had enormous appeal. And diversity offered choices.

Our first stop was the Unitarian Church at the interfaith center in Owen Brown, where we found a lively, large congregation.

We stayed for almost a year, but then found ourselves drifting away to a church that was -- for want of a better word -- more traditional. Not in ideology necessarily, but in ambience.

For my wife and I, the transition from childhood cathedrals with organs and steeples to the austere contemporary setting of the Unitarian church could not be bridged.

What we found instead was a church outside the interfaith center that fit our perceptions of what a church should look like.

I say that not only with a sense of how superficial it may sound to some, but also with concern that it might be taken for a criticism of the interfaith idea, which I support 100 percent.

If there is any lesson to be taken from this experience, I offer it to the residents of River Hill, Columbia's newest and last village, where officials are talking about not having an interfaith center at all.

As much as I understand that an interfaith center does not work for everyone, it would be a tragic mistake for village officials not to reconsider their position.

A "family fun center" may sound like an attractive alternative, but it could never replace what an interfaith center can offer by anchoring a community and serving its residents spiritually and otherwise.

With only a fifth of the village's residents currently settled there, it would be premature for a very few residents of River Hill to make decisions of this magnitude for the majority of those who have yet to move in.

In my mind, there is still a place for interfaith if we realize what it is and what it can offer.

First and foremost, like so much of what Columbia founder James Rouse attempted, criticism of the interfaith centers is based on some fundamental misunderstandings about what the centers are and what they can offer.

It is almost as if some have decided that because the interfaiths don't always work as well as everyone would like, they should be scrapped altogether. If all of our ideals were treated so cavalierly, I shudder to think what institutions would be left at all.

Of the four interfaith centers in Columbia and the 13 congregations they house, there is no question that some are thriving better than others.

But all have a purpose, not the least of which is to fulfill Mr. Rouse's dream of promoting religious tolerance under one roof.

Not only do the interfaith centers offer a less expensive home to congregations, they have often served as a springboard to religious orders that have gone on to build their own facilities.

They are also a real focal point for their communities, even as they serve as a symbolic reminder of the diverse and harmonious community Mr. Rouse wanted to create.

Has Columbia lived up to all of its ideals? Of course not, and the interfaith centers are not without fault. But most of what is perceived as wrong is either a function of personal taste or the natural tendency for human endeavors to wane from time to time.

At the Wilde Lake Village Interfaith Center, where Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran and Roman Catholic denominations are housed, church leaders are developing ways for the congregations to work together more closely. A "new contract" is expected shortly. This after more than two decades of existence for the center.

Is that a sign of failure? Only if you see the glass as half empty.

According to the Rev. Barbara Jones-Hagedorn, of United Methodist Presbyterian USA, the goal is what it has always been for the interfaith center, to be a "non-competitive witness to the church in a larger sense.

"We are trying to live out what it means to be multicultural."

Nothing could be more in spirit with what Columbia is supposed to be all about.

The beauty of it is that, like anything worth achieving, it is always a work in progress.

"The model isn't perfection," Ms. Hagedorn says. "It never has been.

"It's only people with a passion who are living it out."

Any institution that can harness that passion is well worth preserving.

Kevin Thomas is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Howard County.

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