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Baptist church thriving in town Interfaith centers didn't suit Harvester

THE BALTIMORE SUN

At first blush, Harvester Baptist Church and Columbia appear to be a mismatch.

The planned community had strongly liberal roots, and it has the nation's largest concentration of communal interfaith centers instead of churches and temples. In fact, there's no land within its planned borders for separate church buildings.

But Ed E. Simpson, founder and pastor of the conservative Baptist church, figured the new town was ripe for some harvesting.

So in 1984, he moved his then 8-year-old church to Columbia and Old Annapolis roads, on the edge of west Columbia -- the first church to be built on the planned community's borders since it was established in the 1960s.

And despite the apparent mismatch, Harvester has prospered, growing to a congregation of about 300 members and an average attendance of 125 worshipers at each of its three Sunday worship services.

This growth has occurred without the support of the major Baptist governing bodies, from which Simpson's church is independent. And it is testimony to his aggressive marketing skills.

Simpson, 45, is a religious entrepreneur who is unflagging in his outreach efforts -- to the point of sending buses Sunday mornings to pick up children for religious school, even if their parents prefer to sleep late.

Among Howard County's 300 religious congregations, Harvester isn't one of the largest. It isn't even one of the largest among the county's three-dozen Baptist congregations. But it strikes a higher profile in the county than its size might suggest.

During election seasons, for example, Simpson sponsors "Good Citizen Sundays," during which political candidates are invited to worship with his congregation.

In September, all four candidates in the county Circuit Court race and the two in the county school board contest attended that service -- along with some congressional candidates or their representatives.

Civic duty

"Normally, churches stay out of politics," says the successful school board candidate, Jane B. Schuchardt, who has attended Harvester for years but is not a member. "But Harvester saw it as its civic duty in presenting the candidates to the congregation."

"The very fact that all of the candidates showed up was surprising," Schuchardt says. "It's not that large of a congregation, but I find [Simpson] is in touch with the community."

Another of the church's outreach efforts is its bus ministry -- one of the two most extensive in the county, local clergymen said.

In an effort that began in 1979, parishioners canvass Columbia during the week, knocking on doors and asking parents -- most of whom, Simpson says, haven't gone to church in years -- to sign permission slips so their children can be bused to Harvester Sunday.

Children are sought out because "many of them are more open than adults," Simpson says, adding that the larger goal is to have their parents come to the church to see what their children are doing.

Bible study

On average, about 40 children -- from first grade through high school -- board the bus for Sunday morning Bible study.

The church owns three buses and had bus routes on the east and west sides of Columbia, but only one bus is in operation

now, and the east-side route has been temporarily suspended, Simpson said.

Three adults, in addition to the driver, ride on the bus to supervise the children, lead them in church songs and teach them about salvation on the hourlong route around west Columbia and back to the church. Only a driver used to be on the bus, but that changed after a driver was accused in 1994 of fondling a girl; he was acquitted.

On a recent Sunday, children and teen-agers emerged from the white, converted school bus and headed to the church's basement for Bible study. Some of the youngsters later were brought into the church's services, but were taken back to Bible study when they became unruly.

"Some children get saved on the bus -- we introduce them to the Bible message," says William Lee, a church member for seven years and a Bible school teacher there for three years. "Others, we spend time trying to transform them -- so they could go from the [Bible study] environment to a church service."

Holiday display

All of Simpson's efforts to proselytize in Columbia haven't been successful. He has failed in his three-year battle to de-secularize Howard County General Hospital's annual Symphony of Lights holiday display in Columbia Town Center's Symphony Woods.

Last year, about 33,000 vehicles visited the drive-through, illuminated display of toy soldiers, animals and Santa Claus scenes. But Simpson says the display is offensive in its absence of Christian and Jewish holiday symbols.

Simpson annually appeals to the hospital to include "symbols of faith" in the display. An offer early this year to provide a life-sized Nativity scene in lights was rejected by hospital President Victor A. Broccolino.

In a written statement, hospital officials say the light show was designed to be a "family-oriented, entertainment event" that was not intended to "supplement any religious activities or celebrations."

But Simpson says: "It used to be that people of faith were respected. Now, people of faith are suspect. They wouldn't dare offend the atheists, but they don't mind offending the Christians, it sounds like."

Other local clergy say they agree with Simpson's stance, but none has joined him in the fight. That may be a sign that he is more conservative, if not more outspoken.

"I'm not trying to paint horns on the hospital. This situation is reflective not only of Columbia's community, but of the nation," Simpson says. "The fields are ripe to harvest. The need is here right now."

Simpson first visited Columbia's ripe fields in 1976 from Miami -- where he was an assistant pastor -- intent on finding a city to start a church and a home for his wife and children, all in three days.

First service

Within a month, he presided over Harvester's first service -- which convened in the basement of a Seventh-day Adventist church in Columbia's Hickory Ridge village, one that was founded before the new town. Other than Simpson and four family members, 18 people attended that service.

Attracting those members -- and planting the seeds for more later -- was a grueling daily task that started at 9 a.m. and continued for 12 hours, Simpson says.

Within a year, he says, he had "knocked on at least 70 percent of the doors in Columbia." He then developed a mailing list from his visits, sending a church newsletter to his new contacts.

Harvester moved into its own building in 1984. In 1989, it added 100 seats to its sanctuary and added space for Bible classes.

In 1998, the church plans to double the size of its sanctuary to 600 seats and double its education space, where it plans to start a Christian day school for kindergarten through high school, Simpson said.

No easy task

Harvester's pews may be overflowing now, but building a church near Columbia was not easy, Simpson says.

When Columbia's developer, the Rouse Co., bought about 14,000 acres in the 1960s, it reserved land only for interfaith centers -- where congregations would share facilities -- not individual churches.

lTC The centers, intended to promote religious understanding, were designed to save space and money.

A Virginia native, who earned degrees from conservative colleges in Tennessee and Louisiana, Simpson said the interfaith center concept was foreign to him. Over time, he says, he developed a dislike for it.

"Our program didn't fit with a interfaith center. We have a more conservative theology that might make some interfaith center congregations ill at ease," Simpson says. "Separate churches are much more free to pursue their own convictions without the entanglements of interfaith centers."

Literal interpretation

A conservative doctrine in Baptist terms means a church takes a literal interpretation of the Bible as much as possible.

But Steve McNeely, pastor of Columbia Baptist Fellowship, which worships at the Oakland Mills Interfaith Center, says the concept of the centers is to prove that religions with different views can cooperate effectively.

Columbia Baptist was one of the congregations that helped build the Oakland Mills center, which it now shares with two other Protestant parishes, a Catholic church and two synagogues. "Interfaith centers have thrived and survived," McNeely says, "and it meets a certain number of people's needs."

Nonetheless, Simpson says he prefers a freestanding church.

He bought the church's current 12-acre plot in 1979, but because of high construction costs and delays in approval from the county, the church rented space in local schools or other secular settings for five years.

Then it grew rapidly.

But over the years, the growth of his congregation has lessened as a priority for Simpson, he says.

"It's not the numbers that impress me anymore," Simpson preached to his congregation one recent Sunday morning. "It's what we do with those who come in. We have to minister in every possible way to the community."

Pub Date: 12/08/96

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