A Place for PrayerBy Susan Levine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 3, 1997
Sunday's prayers begin first in Arabic before the earliest hint of dawn, passages of the Koran recited by the devout in the soaring stillness of their mosque. At 6 a.m., it is seven Cambodian monks, with their shaven heads and burnt-orange robes, who chant supplications to Buddha in their temple. Several hours later, the men gathered at their synagogue are putting on the tallis, the fringed prayer shawls that symbolize piety to Jews, as they prepare for their daily worship.
And by late morning, the stretch of New Hampshire Avenue in Montgomery County that sometimes is called the "highway to heaven" is alive with celebration, with liturgies as much cultural as religious, with hymns sung in English, Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese and Ukrainian.
To traverse those 10 miles between the Capital Beltway and Sandy Spring Road is to tour the world's major religions in all their seemingly infinite variations. Nearly three dozen congregations are represented, not counting the Pentecostal, Hindu and other groups that meet in public schools along the corridor. Some are as tiny as 30 members, some as huge as 3,000. Some participate in a local interfaith organization that helps needy families. Others are more insular, focusing on citizenship or language classes for their own members.
It is a striking vision of diversity and architecture -- dramatized by minarets and onion-shaped domes -- equaling, if not surpassing, that found on 16th Street NW in Washington, where some intersections feature a church on every corner.
This major thoroughfare, which narrows to two lanes as it heads north from suburban Silver Spring to semirural Ashton, reflects the shifting demographics of a county in which more than 120 languages are spoken in the schools.
Several of the religious institutions along it draw followers from across the region, and that, coupled with their different styles and messages, has made neighborhood acceptance more difficult.
Critics of an upcoming County Council debate on zoning amendments for houses of worship fear that the proposed rules are a reaction to some people's discomfort with these less-familiar communities.
In fact, New Hampshire Avenue is a window on a changing America, and what it reveals challenges the country's traditional vision of itself.
"Anyone who says this is a Christian nation needs to drive up New Hampshire," said the Rev. Jack Koepke, who until recently was the rector at Episcopal Church of Our Saviour. "Then they'll say no, this is a nation of faiths."
The migration continued through the 1970s, often with smaller, independent Christian churches. Not until the mid-1980s did the road take on an international flair when two Ukrainian groups began building sanctuaries. In the last decade, attracted by the price and availability of land and a central location for followers, new groups staked claims. They included the Cambodian Buddhist Temple, the Hindus' Shri Mangal Mandir and Immanuel's, a fast-growing evangelical Bible church built on a peach orchard in Ashton.
"When I was growing up," said Nathanael Reed, an elder at the Ashton Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witnesses, which sits next door to Immanuel's, "I always used to think of missionaries going to China, India and places to spread the Christian word. Now we've got mosques and Hindu temples and Buddhist temples in our back yard. It's very different than I thought it was going to be."
The two Ukrainian churches offer some of the most unusual architecture on New Hampshire. Holy Trinity Particular Ukrainian Catholic is built entirely from dark hemlock logs held together with wooden pegs. Characteristic of the "hutsul" style of the Carpathian mountain region, it has an octagonal center dome that rises about 80 feet. The Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral of St. Andrews has five gold domes, dazzling fresco paintings and Byzantine iconography.
These are more than storehouses of holy art and design, however. Ethnic and cultural traditions are maintained through some congregations' collective activities. "Nowhere but in America could you keep that," said the Rev. Stefan Zencuch, of St. Andrews.
Varying Acts of Faith
Around the corner is Heritage Christian, part of the Disciples of Christ, and just across Norwood is People's Community Baptist, which has grown to 3,000 members since it was founded in 1978. Three weekend services accommodate that growth, and a new education wing for Bible studies and other classes is rising.
Arvind Patel, one of the officers at Mangal Mandir, explained the importance of this asphalt river of religion: "It shows a lot of different faiths can still be together and can work harmoniously."
Conversation and cooperation, formal and informal, have taken place over the years. The Rev. Charles Schmitt, pastor of Immanuel's, visited Mangal Mandir when its marble statue of the elephant-headed god Ganesh, like statues of Ganesh across India, were said to be absorbing traditional milk offerings.
The mosque's leader, Imam Faizul Khan, has spoken at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Silver Spring, several miles south. Nearly a dozen of the New Hampshire congregations participate in the Colesville Council of Community Congregations, a longtime effort that runs a clothes closet, distributes holiday food baskets and coordinates an interfaith Thanksgiving service among its members.
When Shaare Tefilah was defaced in the 1980s, neighboring churches sent members to help clean the building. When someone painted swastikas and slashed the tires on the car of a Gaithersburg woman who belongs to the mosque, the same outpouring occurred at an awareness program there.
A Fascinating Multiplicity
Given the avenue's uniqueness, Shaare Tefilah's rabbi, Jonah Layman, wishes for even more sharing. "What would be even better is if all the churches and religious organizations would have a way to meet and socialize, to promote this sense of living in Silver Spring." Three years after arriving at the Conservative synagogue, he remains fascinated by the multiplicity of worship.
"When I came here, it was one of the first things I noticed," he said.
But New Hampshire Avenue's diversity is both a gift and a challenge.
"It's a gift in that people are seeing things in different ways and different perspectives," said the Rev. Clark Lobenstine, executive director of the Interfaith Conference of Metropolitan Washington. "It's a gift of different cultures, different things we eat and share. It's a gift that we are one. We're all in this small village together, and it's not just a global village but a multicultural global village, and that includes multi-religious, too."
The challenge may come in terms of language barriers and doctrinal understanding and openness. It confronts not only religious establishments but the neighborhoods in which they locate, Lobenstine said. "We're used to having lots of parking on the street for churches on Sunday, to having cars down our block. It isn't seen the same way when it happens Friday at noon for Muslim prayers."
The council debate on the proposed zoning amendments -- restrictions that would force greater setbacks and more parking for houses of worship in any residential area -- is sure to address this. Few such limits exist now.
Those driving the changes insist that religious discrimination is not the issue. They point out that churches, temples and mosques increasingly serve up daily activity, with schools, child care and weekday meetings. Traffic can become constant; lights may shine late into adjoining homes; bigger buildings are erected with little input from those around them.
"We want churches in neighborhoods. We just want them to be good neighbors," said Dan Wilhelm, who lives less than a mile from New Hampshire Avenue. He volunteers that he is a Christian and that he believes people ought to practice their faith. "It's very good for the fabric of our country. We need more of that."
Council member Isiah Leggett (D-At Large) opposes the zoning amendments. "What we have to do is craft a solution that allows the community to embrace those who may be different, those who may not be part of the traditional religious mainstream," he said.
'A Nation of Seekers'
"We are, let's face it, a nation of seekers," said William Stuart, a University of Maryland professor who studies comparative religions.
The seekers at the Cambodian Buddhist Temple -- the first to be organized in the United States -- light incense as an offering and bow to the monks amid a profusion of flowers and candles and gilded statues. "When something happens, we can turn to the temple and pray," said Chhun Lim, who travels from Sterling.
The seekers at Shaare Tefilah help Philip Bufano, 13, of Burtonsville, practice rewinding the long leather straps of the tefillin, small boxes that contain Hebrew scriptures, which he has worn for morning prayer. Two days later, he will be bar mitzvahed.
The seekers at Sung Hwa Presbyterian Church raise their voices in praise, the cadence and consonants of their native Korean turning "Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken" into a vastly different tone poem. Sung Hwa only moved to New Hampshire Avenue in 1994 after 15 years of borrowing other people's churches.
"And now we have our own here," said Nancy Koh, of Potomac. "We're very proud."
© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company