The aged, dull blue Chevrolet van sat in the Oakland Mills Meeting House parking lot Sunday morning, near shiny Subarus and Saturns.
"Hasta Siempre" ("Until Forever" in Spanish) was hand-painted on its side next to a drawing of Latin American activists Jose Marti and Che Guevara.
A donation to the Pastors for Peace mission group, the van is on its way to Nicaragua, carrying materials to help churches and nongovernmental agencies. After each day of travel, volunteer driver Ellen Bernstein makes a stop to educate, gather spiritual support and rest.
The van started its trek from Nova Scotia and will rally with six other vehicles before leaving the United States for Central America.
In the Meeting House, the Columbia United Christian Church congregation sang "Santo, Santo," a Spanish version of "Holy, Holy," and the pastor read a Chinese parable and two passages from the Bible.
At 11: 30 a.m., a congregation of all ages and ethnicities came through the church door to the parking lot. Circling the van, they offered prayers for the vehicle and its volunteer drivers, who will join other vehicles on the long drive to Nicaragua.
"Bless this vehicle in the hopes that a prayer will allay mechanical problems on the way," the Rev. Beth O'Malley offered, her tongue tucked only partly in her cheek. A previously dispatched vehicle had not been able to leave the country.
Others offered prayers to bring joy to their neighbors to the south and to provide Pastors for Peace volunteers with energy and good health.
Finally, the group gathered for a meal before the van left Columbia that afternoon, on its way to other communities.
Invited by Columbia's founder, the late James W. Rouse, to form one congregation as part of the interfaith concept, CUCC represents three denominations. Church of the Brethren, a traditional "peace" church, United Church of Christ and Disciples of Christ each brought to the union a social conscience that has played well in Columbia.
The Protestant denominations are also covenantal, meaning each has a good deal of autonomy. Members of CUCC, which formed in the early 1970s, believe in simple living, community and a strong family life.
This independent-minded church was influenced by the nature of the Columbia community. "I have members for every major category on the census form," said O'Malley, with a laugh. "Our membership also draws from a rich variety of previous religious experiences, but they're also receptive to trying new ways to worship.
"At the same time, we are very concerned about ministering to the greater community. We help in traditional ways -- providing meals for the homeless and adding to the Meeting House food pantry -- but we also support a 'four seasons family,' providing assistance and resources for one family not only at holiday time, but also throughout the year."
The church also funds child care at the Grassroots shelter to allow women to job-hunt without their children along. And when former Pastor Doug Hunt became concerned about violence in the family, the congregation created a violent toy "turn-in" program, which is being used in some public schools as a culmination of Howard County Peace Week.
Latin America ties
The strong peace and justice bent of this church is apparent to visitors, but equally evident is the church's commitment to HoCoFoLA, or Howard County Friends of Latin America. In the 1970s, the young church and the group were very active on protests to U.S. policy in Central America.
"CUCC is the church most involved with our work," says HoCoFoLA member Lynn Yellott. "We have a special friendship with them because of their numbers."