Religious diversity, growth mark county


Ten years ago, Rabbi Mark Panoff told his Temple Isaiah congregation in Columbia that one day their children would return to the planned community to raise their own families -- but the worshipers didn't believe him.

Today, not only have a number of grown children returned to the temple, but so have their grandparents.

"We've all settled down. We love Howard County and made our lives here," Panoff said. "We're becoming multigenerational. This is something new for us, something I think is a positive trend."

But now the temple, in Oakland Mills Interfaith Center, does not have enough room for its 500 families.

The congregation, which is constructing a 30,000-square- foot building in Fulton, is in a situation that is not rare in Howard County, where the numbers of worshipers are growing so fast that many congregations are outgrowing their buildings.

With about 260 congregations encompassing more than 30 denominations, Howard County is so religiously diverse that many of its religious institutions are struggling to keep up with the influx of worshipers.

George W. Martin, president of Columbia Cooperative Ministry, said Columbia's openness contributes to the religious diversity in the county. Residents started moving to the planned suburb in 1967, and developer James W. Rouse promoted the area as a place where people of all races and economic backgrounds would live together.

"The way that Columbia was set up, it attracted people to say, 'Hey this is a place for our family to grow,' " said Martin, one of Columbia's first residents.

Panoff echoed Martin's comments, saying that Columbia "prides itself on being a diverse, religious community."

"We're a group that is mixed religiously, ethnically, culturally," he said. "I think that diverse environment is attractive."

Columbia's four interfaith centers -- in Long Reach, Wilde Lake, Oakland Mills and Owen Brown villages -- are key institutions for fostering religious diversity. An average of about 5,500 worshipers -- including Buddhists, Christians, Jews and Muslims -- attend services at the centers weekly, Martin said.

Two other interfaith centers are being built, in Kings Contrivance and Oakland Mills.

Owen Brown Interfaith Center -- owned by Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Columbia and Christ United Methodist Church -- is being renovated to better accommodate its eight congregations, which among them practice six faiths.

Expected to be completed in the fall, the remodeled center will include two new classrooms, an elevator and new offices. Now, the center is crowded on Sundays, when two congregations meet.

"There is not one spare room for either of our congregations, other than religious education for children -- no adult education, no Bible study, no meeting opportunities," said the Rev. Richard A. Nugent, minister of the Unitarian congregation, which has about 500 members.

Growing ethnic communities also add to the county's religious diversity. The county's Asian population, for example, has more than doubled since 1990, from 8,098 to 19,124.

That could contribute to the need for Bethel Korean Presbyterian Church in Ellicott City to expand. When the church was built in 1988, it had about 500 members, and church officials expected it to grow to about 1,000, said the Rev. Billy Park, the pastor of English ministry.

But now, the church, on St. Johns Lane, has 2,000 members attending English and Korean Sunday services or Bible study for children.

"Parking is a huge problem for us," Park said. "Our neighbors complain about the traffic. It's a small road, and we're a large church."

The church holds multiple services in its sanctuary that can comfortably accommodate about 800 people, Park said. The main problem is the church's small educational facilities. Some of the classes are held in two trailers behind the church, and the space is tight.

The proposed expansion -- a multipurpose educational building with additional classrooms, a smaller sanctuary and a gym -- would be on a 1.5-acre field north of the main church and could be completed in five years.

"The education facilities are not nearly sufficient," Park said. "We've gone into a real education crunch."

Noting the growing Korean population, Martin has learned to speak the language to some degree so that he can better communicate when he visits Korean congregations. In the past year, he went to about 16 Korean churches, he said.

Martin, also deacon at St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church in Columbia, said he has visited about 160 congregations in the county, trying to bridge gaps among cultures. He estimated that his church includes more than 50 ethnic and cultural groups and that he does not want people to remain in fractured segments of society.

"One of my things is trying to get people to talk to one another ... trying to build bridges," Martin said. "And that's one of the things that also involved in building diversity."

Religion Resources

The Columbia Cooperative Ministry: This organization maintains a directory of Christian, Jewish, Islamic and many other congregations in Howard County.

Columbia Interfaith Centers: Interfaith centers are in four of Columbia's villages, with a fifth planned for the Village of Kings Contrivance. Each center provides facilities for one to six religious congregations,

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