Plan for Cross Shakes Columbia to Its Core Values

"It's not pleasant to . . . hear people talk about the death of diversity and exclusivity," parishioner David Douds said.
"It's not pleasant to . . . hear people talk about the death of diversity and exclusivity," parishioner David Douds said. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
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By Mary Otto
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The founders of Columbia were convinced that religion, like everything else in the planned community envisioned as a suburban utopia, should be harmonious and inclusive. So instead of a welter of churches all vying for space within the model township, the founders opted for interfaith centers.

Now, one congregation's plan to place a 16-foot cross on a new building at the town's oldest interfaith center in Wilde Lake Village has stirred an anxious response. Some guardians of local tradition see the cross as a challenge to the core values of Columbia.

"I think it's just wrong," said Robert Tennenbaum, a planner and architect who helped design Wilde Lake. "This is Columbia -- you are talking about a special place."

Since the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center opened in 1970 with a feast of bread and honey, St. John United Church and St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church have shared the discreet low building, which has no outer markings to distinguish it as a house of worship. But after several years of planning and fundraising, St. John United, a congregation that melds Methodist and Presbyterian traditions, is expanding to provide more room for its flock.

The Rev. R. Whitfield "Whitty" Bass, pastor of St. John United, said he doesn't see why anyone would be offended by a cross on the exterior of a building. "The cross is a symbol of freedom," he said.

But others feel just as strongly that the cross will be an offense to the idea of interfaith centers as sanctuaries of inclusion.

"A number of people are really disturbed about it," said Rhoda Toback, a village resident and former member of the Wilde Lake Village Board.

Columbia was designed as village centers surrounded by shops and community buildings. The town's interfaith centers were another innovation. Instead of selling building sites to individual religious groups, the Rouse Co., which developed Columbia, made land available at a fraction of its market value to groups of at least two denominations that agreed to work together and build the centers.

The shared spaces have allowed congregations to take turns using the sanctuaries and meeting rooms while providing opportunities for fellowship and shared projects.

Yet the ebb and flow of unity and separation between religions is a pattern woven through the centuries, said James Grubb, a professor of history at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. Sometimes entire denominations have moved toward mergers, only to split again.

The cross on the interfaith center might be a mark in Columbia's history, too, Grubb suggested. It could become a fault line in the suburb's ideal of inclusiveness.

"The Columbia experiment has done better than most, but after 40 years of ecumenism, I'm not surprised it's fragmenting," he said. "Ecumenism is often followed by identity politics -- people adhering to their differences."

Bass, however, sees the cross as the fulfillment of an idea of interfaith cooperation that is less about buildings and more about a spirit of community. "We have a 40-year history of inclusion," he said.

There are six interfaith centers in Columbia, encompassing Buddhist, Catholic, Jewish and Protestant congregations. Some have remained in the centers for years, while others have left to build free-standing facilities. At the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center, the Catholic congregation that shares space with St. John United has grown in recent years, adding a Hispanic ministry.

Bass's congregation is eager to stay in Columbia and continue to work with its Catholic neighbors but just needs space to thrive and a little understanding, he said.

"It's like Columbia is locked in some timepiece and can't change," Bass said. "But Columbia has changed enormously in 40 years."

The changes have taken many forms. Columbia has more than 100,000 residents, far removed from its rural beginnings. The community built upon diversity has become even more so in recent years, with growing Asian and Latino populations. Visionary developer James Rouse is gone, having died at his Wilde Lake townhouse in 1996. In 2004, the Rouse Co. was purchased by General Growth Properties, a Chicago-based shopping center firm. And Columbia is experiencing some signs of age, especially in its oldest villages.

Wilde Lake's once-vibrant village center has lost its grocery store and gourmet shop and is languishing. Kimco Realty, now the owner of Wilde Lake Village Center, is planning radical changes, including hundreds of new apartments and an avenue of new stores. The cross at the interfaith center is simply another sign of changing times, said Vincent L. Marando, chairman of the Wilde Lake Village Board.

Original plans called for St. John United Church to erect a 27-foot cross with backlighting. But as a result of discussions -- and objections -- the lighting plan was dropped and the size of the cross was reduced. Hearings on the plan were at times heated. Questions were raised about the propriety of the cross.

"It's not pleasant to sit in a meeting and hear people talk about the death of diversity and exclusivity," said David Douds, a St. John United parishioner and building committee member.

Columbia Archives Director Barbara Kellner said she has thought a lot about the cross and the town.

"It represents a whole philosophical change," she said. She added that she wonders whether the decision to place a cross on the interfaith center might represent another step toward making the unique community of Columbia more like every other place.

"Religious buildings have interesting architecture. In the old cities, they form the core," Kellner said. "But maybe that's why Columbia doesn't have them -- so that you could develop in an ecumenical spirit."

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