About five years ago, members of Oak Ridge Community Church said no thanks to moving their growing congregation to the small interfaith center planned for the village of River Hill. Congregants of the young, nondenominational Christian church continued to hold services in Howard County schools, all the while hoping to find a permanent home.
Two years ago, they saw a bigger, better designed version of the center. When Pastor George Sebek presented the proposal to church members, there wasn't a single negative vote.
This Sunday, Oak Ridge plans to celebrate the completion of The Gathering Place, Columbia's new interfaith center and one of the last facilities that embodies the philosophy of different congregations sharing worship space in a spirit of diversity and tolerance.
The latest interfaith center is jointly owned by Oak Ridge, along with Emmanuel Messianic Jewish Congregation and Columbia International Christian Center, a black congregation. It is the fifth such center to open in Columbia in more than 20 years, following Wilde Lake, Oakland Mills, Long Reach and Owen Brown.
A sixth interfaith center in King's Contrivance is scheduled for completion next year. That will end the practice of Columbia's developer selling land for shared worship facilities, said George W. Martin, chairman of the Columbia Religious Facilities Corp.
In the villages of Town Center, Dorsey's Search, Harper's Choice and Hickory Ridge, land for interfaith centers either was never available, or it was used for other community facilities, Martin said.
"Now most churches would like to have their own land and their own property and their own places of worship," said Pastor Maxwell Ware of Cornerstone Community Church of God, which will move into the first of two buildings planned for the center at King's Contrivance.
Interfaith centers best serve their purpose when congregations are newly formed, he said. But Martin said that the concept was still viable and that many free-standing churches lease their space to other congregations.
"You might call that a minor interfaith center," he said. "The thing is, it's shared space."
In the case of River Hill's The Gathering Place, the journey to its opening was long and rocky.
"I told my congregation every year in the last five years it should be ready in about a year, but one thing or another stopped it," said Rabbi Barry Rubin, whose Emmanuel Messianic Jewish Congregation first proposed the River Hill project.
In 1998, Emmanuel Messianic bought two acres in the River Hill Village Center from the Rouse Co., Columbia's original developer. Under terms established in the 1960s, Rouse made land for interfaith centers available at a fraction of its market value to two or more denominations, which would pay for building the center.
Emmanuel Messianic's first partner, a Christian church, pulled out of the arrangement and merged with a congregation in Catonsville. Construction halted while Emmanuel Messianic, a small congregation of about 50 households, searched for a new partner.
Meanwhile, the congregation drew sharp public criticism from other local Jewish congregations, who said it was undermining Judaism by teaching that Jesus was the Messiah.
"We agreed to disagree," Rubin said. "We let it drop."
Emmanuel Messianic and the other two denominations raised cash and secured loans for the 25,000-square-foot, $6 million building. The Gathering Place also houses a Messianic Jewish publishing business that Rubin heads and leases space to a Montessori school and a Christian ministry.
Oak Ridge, with about 300 members, has been meeting there for about six weeks and has seen a regular stream of visitors at its services.
"This type of property is at a premium in Howard County," Sebek said. "Being placed in the middle of River Hill just gives us an incredible opportunity."