At Wilde Lake Interfaith Center, 2 faith traditions work together to plan a new building

The Baltimore Sun

Every Sunday morning, two diverse congregations converge on Wilde Lake Interfaith Center in Columbia. The entrance, said the Rev. R. Whitfield "Whitty" Bass, looks like Grand Central Station.

"The interaction at the narthex and the energy of it, that's just like a huge intersection," said Bass, pastor of St. John United Methodist/Presbyterian Church. "It has its great points and its weak points."

The St. John United Methodist/Presbyterian Church shares the center with the St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Congregation, which includes a large, independent Spanish congregation that meets separately with Masses in Spanish.

"We're both bumping to the capacity of this building, and a building is only so big," said Dave Douds, a member of the St. John United building steering committee.

The overcrowding has led Bass and his congregation to collaborate with the Roman Catholic congregation and plan a new building that will house the St. John United Methodist/Presbyterian Church on the interfaith campus.

Ken Rebeck, chairman of the St. John United building steering committee, said groundbreaking is at least a year away. It is estimated that the new building will cost $3 million. If all goes as planned, the building should be in use by mid-2009.

A capital campaign and equity payment from the Roman Catholic congregation will provide much of the financing for the building.

Architect Steve McLaughlin of ARIUM, a member of the St. John the Evangelist congregation, designed the building.

The plan calls for a 14,000-square-foot structure next to the interfaith center at Twin Rivers and Trumpeter roads. The building will include worship space, a fellowship hall, classroom and meeting rooms, offices and storage space, said Rebeck.

The new building will give St. John United much more space than it has now. "I think it will add to the strength of the congregation in terms of physical space," Douds said.

The building is to have a pointed roof and large cross on the front, which is more of a traditional-church design than the current building.

"We want to make it look more like a church," Douds said. "We want to be more visible.

St. John United has about 400 members and is trying to attract more, Bass said.

"We're pretty stable, but we know [that] in order to grow this new church will be an attractive part of our plan," he said.

Members of the St. John the Evangelist congregation also are looking forward to more space.

"We're busting at the seams," said Bob Bartolo, a member of the congregation.

The Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning has accepted preliminary plans for the building, Rebeck said. A more extensive site development plan will be submitted to in June.

Plans also were submitted to the Wilde Lake Community Association and General Growth Properties Inc., and others, Rebeck noted.

"So far, we have only received favorable responses to our plans," he said in an e-mail.

Leaders of both congregations support the plan and say the center's interfaith approach will continue. "We're not leaving," Bass said. "We're only going to be 50 meters away."

The congregations hold a hospitality dinner Thursday nights, support an interfaith library, collect bicycles to send to Third World countries and inner-city churches and send a group to Appalachia every year to repair homes.

Bass and the Rev. Richard Tillman, pastor of St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Congregation, say these programs will continue.

Bass and Tillman said they first talked about the plans four years ago when they realized the Roman Catholic congregation, along with its growing number of Spanish parishioners, would need more room.

"Should we do this? Can we do this?," Tillman said they asked one another. "We decide yes to both of these."

Bass said he was reassured of the idea when he reviewed the original plans for the center, which was built in 1970 as the first of five interfaith centers in Columbia. The original idea was for the Catholic congregation to use the existing building for itself and other buildings be built on the campus for other congregations.

"Initially they didn't have the money and they didn't have funds to complete the vision," Bass said.

The Wilde Lake Interfaith Religious Center Inc., which is run by the two congregations, owns the campus and decided to divide the land on the campus equally between the congregations, Rebeck said by e-mail.

The committee allotted land to St. John United Methodist/Presbyterian Church for its new building and areas to St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Congregation that could be developed in the future.

The Roman Catholic congregation will also be paying the St. John United $850,000 for its share of the existing building, which will be put toward the new building.

"To see two groups with different needs come together and work it out has just been amazing to me," Bartolo said. "It really was an interfaith effort."

The St. John United has raised about $800,000 in cash and $250,000 in future endowments on its own for the new building through a capital campaign that began last spring, Douds said.

"The response blew us all away," he added.

The rest of the funding for the building will come from a bank loan that will be paid over a period of 20 to 30 years, Rebeck said.

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