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In Columbia, an ecumenical champion celebrates 30 years of parish leadership

The Baltimore Sun

At the beginning of Mass, the Rev. Richard Tillman usually welcomes the congregation of St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church of Columbia, talks about the Scripture reading for the day and makes one of the corny jokes for which he has become well-known.

He also asks if anyone is visiting from outside the parish so he can personally welcome them.

"I think that is a really nice touch," said Anne Brusca, a former president of the parish council.

Tillman's congregants say that welcoming touch along with his approachability and his respect for people of all faiths have been hallmarks of his 30 years in Columbia.

After the Sunday noon Mass at Wilde Lake, Tillman's congregation, -- at the Wilde Lake and Oakland Mills interfaith centers -- will celebrate his 30th anniversary leading the parish. His three-decade milestone coincides with the 40th anniversary of Columbia and of the parish.

Derek Coelho, a current member of St. John's pastoral council, said such a long tenure is unusual in the Catholic Church, where parish priests and pastors tend to stay for seven or eight years.

"To have had him in Columbia and St. John's for 30 years is a wonderful gift," Coelho said. "He has been in the forefront of ecumenicalism. He was the right man for the interfaith center because of his relationships with [other faiths] and because he works collaboratively with his peers."

Tillman, 67, came to St John's in June 1977, a few months before the parish's 10th anniversary. When he arrived, there were about 1,500 families that belonged to the church. Now there are nearly 3,000.

Tillman said he was open to the assignment because he felt the draw of the still-developing community, "that openness, excitement or wonder about what was going to develop."

He had been involved in interfaith activities before his move to Columbia, and he says such connections are a valuable part of religious life.

"Interfaith happens when different faiths get together to share their wealth," he said. "We have something we treasure and value, you have something you treasure and value, let's talk about our values."

He added, "You have to know your faith to do interfaith."

His congregation shares Wilde Lake Interfaith Center with St. John the Evangelist United Methodist/Presbyterian Church, although plans are in the works for that congregation to move into a new building on the same property. Tillman's congregation is one of nine groups at the interfaith center in Oakland Mills.

It is not unusual for religious congregations to share space, said Carolyn Arena, a 20-year member of the Columbia Religious Facilities Corp., but Columbia may distinguish itself in providing prime locations at reduced costs for the construction of interfaith buildings.

The corporation arranged agreements between religious groups and the Rouse Co. to build six interfaith centers from the 1960s to today, first with money contributed by national denominations, and later with money from the congregations themselves.

Arena said it was part of James W. Rouse's initial plans to help religious groups have an economical way to be a central part of the new community. "The idea was they would be in one center and it would be a larger facility than any small congregation could afford on their own," she said.

Wilde Lake and Oakland Mills were the first two centers built. Later, centers diverged from the original model. The Long Reach center ended up with only one tenant, Celebration Church. The last center, being built in Kings Contrivance, will have two buildings on one campus.

Tillman said some churches see the interfaith centers as an incubator, and have, in the past, used them as a place to get started until the congregations can move to their own buildings.

St. John's, among other congregations, sees the interfaith center as a permanent home.

"We value the fact that we share this space," Tillman said. He noted a youth service project rebuilding homes in Appalachia and a biweekly hospitality night to provide meals and support to needy people as two projects his parish shares with the Methodist/Presbyterian congregation at Wilde Lake.

Brusca said that in 1980, "I was looking around for a Catholic church that was progressive and open-minded and had a social conscience. She recalled that at the first Mass she attended at St. John's, Tillman congratulated an assistant pastor who was leaving the priesthood and getting married.

"I thought, 'He didn't sweep that under the rug. I'm coming back next week to see what happens,'" she said.

She drove from Randallstown to Wilde Lake Interfaith Center for 15 years before she was ready to move, and then "Father Tillman is the reason I moved to Columbia."

She added that Tillman, who weathered heart bypass surgery and the loss of his home to a fire in recent years, has remained "very down to earth. ... He's not the kind of person who stands on formality."

She said he was also characteristically low-key about the Catholic Church's decision to name him a monsignor (a ceremony is planned in Baltimore this month), insisting his parishioners continue to call him by his name, and not by any title.

"He's inclusive," said Paul Gifford, a St John's deacon. "He has a way of communicating with people on a spiritual level that I just think is phenomenal. ... I think he carries that into his Masses. The homily is very personal. He doesn't talk down to you, he talks with you."

Tillman said he could retire at age 70, but "If I can remain effective, I want to stay."

Using his anniversary as an opportunity to look at the past and the future, he said, "I think the congregation still maintains an intellectual vibrancy, a sense of ownership and an appreciation of depth as well as an excitement about new trends."

The celebration for Father Tillman will be held from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. at Wilde Lake Interfaith Center, 10431 Twin Rivers Road, Columbia. Information: 410-964-1436.

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