There is a rich and varied tapestry of faith in Prince George's County.
Every week, more than 800 religious congregations hold services in everything from storefront churches to elaborate multimillion-dollar sanctuaries. The denominations include traditional Catholic and Protestant churches and Jewish synagogues and ethnic congregations serving the Hispanic, Hindu, African and West Indian communities.
Many participate regularly in community service, as congregations across the county raise money for the homeless, give gifts and meals to needy people and volunteer time to help people trying to get off welfare.
Others are working to make the religious community economically sound and to attract new followers, particularly among younger people by combining religion and entertainment.
From Jericho City of Praise in Landover to National Church of God in Fort Washington, thousands are gathering to hear gospel music on evenings and weekends, when the churches aren't holding regular services.
County officials say that they welcome the congregations whose members want to settle and build in Prince George's County and that they fully expect the religious institutions to play a role in the leadership of the county.
"We want churches to come, but we want them to come and help us," said County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D). "People welcome and applaud churches as soul-saving institutions, but there is some tension when the mission of the church runs into economic realities." There continues to be tension among some congregations that seek to build large churches and neighborhoods that don't want the increased traffic and a county government that is trying to make sure the churches live by local growth management rules.
Some county churches are thriving without sanctuaries. Capital Plaza Mall in Landover used to be a half-vacant, partly boarded-up retail space. But last year, Church of the Lord's Disciples began renting six store spaces that included an old drugstore.
The Rev. Deron Cloud, pastor of the 1,700-member church, is part of the new generation of ministers that is attracting thousands of teenagers and young adults with a hard-core gospel mixed with scripture and taboo issues that other ministers don't touch, such as homosexuality and masturbation.
"We are just trying to reach people who are not being reached in the traditional church," said Cloud, whose church began with 30 members in 1996.
The Rev. Kerry Hill, pastor of New Chapel Baptist Church and a member of the Maryland House of Delegates, said the religious groups are making a contribution to the social welfare of the county and should be given credit by political leaders for having a social conscience.
"When you look at the counseling, job training referrals and mentoring the churches are providing, the benefits far outweigh what they don't pay in taxes," Hill said.
"I would really like to see the faith community in this county lead the way so that people in need can be helped in their own back yards," said the Rev. Jack VandenHengel, executive director of Community Ministry of Prince George's County.
Community Ministry feeds hundreds each week at First United Methodist Church in Hyattsville. During the winter months, the nonprofit group organizes a network of more than 30 churches to shelter the homeless.
The Rev. Jonathan Weaver, of Greater Mount Nebo AME, of Upper Marlboro, is also on a mission to organize pastors in order to build bridges between the churches and the financial community. Last year, the Collective Banking Group formed a partnership with five area banks at which bank presidents pledged to invest more than $100 million in African American communities.
"We really believe that our purpose and mission is to see more people empowered economically," Weaver said. The group has grown into a coalition of more than 200 churches.
The Rev. Grainger Browning, pastor of the 15,000-member Ebenezer AME Church in Fort Washington, is another in the vanguard of change in the county. Ebenezer has a strong men's ministry that is attracting thousands of men who don't care about hugging each other and crying for Jesus in public.
In November, US Airways Arena was filled with more than 10,000 people attracted by Ebenezer's revival, which was designed to give men time to focus on their faith, families, finances and fitness.
Browning said the church's goal this year is to have a greater impact in the community and bring families together. "My goal is to speak a word of life into the brokenhearted and to empower brothers in unity in the body of Christ," he said.
At least two large county churches enter the new century locked in battle with their parent organizations.
With 24,000 members, two sanctuaries and corporate office headquarters, From the Heart Church Ministries is the largest church in the county. And it is out on its own. Last summer, the Rev. John A. Cherry and his Temple Hills flock gave their church that name after they broke from AME Zion Church.
Cherry, in a series of sermons, said that he was forced to leave the denomination because church leaders were more focused on money and property than doing the will of God.
Last November, the Rev. C. Anthony Muse and most of his 3,000 members broke from the United Methodist Church to form Ark of Safety Christian Church in Oxon Hill.
Some say the dispute between these charismatic ministers and two traditional organizations is over doctrine and issues such as speaking in tongues, but Bishop Milton A. Williams of the Mid-Atlantic II District of the AME Zion Church said the dispute in both cases boils down to greed over millions in church property.