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Monday, July 11, 2011

Is the Interfaith Center Concept Outdated?

One of the most interesting aspects of blogging on Columbia, and the broader Howard County, is to examine the aspects of our community that are unique and separate us as a community from anywhere else.  We all refer to this as the Columbia or Howard County “bubble.”  Our children understand this when they go off to college and meet young people who didn’t grow up with “tot lots”, pools in every neighborhood, tolerance for people of other religions or races.

Today I wanted to blog on one of those distinctly Columbia concepts—the Interfaith Centers.  In doing some research at the Columbia Archives (another unique Columbia institution) I was interested in learning some of the early thinking that went into the concept of congregations sharing a common building.  Any discussion of this concept has to recognize where religion was in the early to mid sixties.  Vatican II was attempting to modernize the practices of the Roman Catholic Church and the National Council of Churches was gaining support for liberalization of the traditional Protestant churches.  In small ways clergy from different congregations were holding joint holiday celebrations and some of the religious beliefs that had separated religions was being re-examined. Overlay this with a rejection of religious practice by many of us baby boomers and you can begin to see how the interfaith concept would logically impact the creation of a modern  new city.  The hope was that if religious congregations shared the same space that they would grow to have greater respect and tolerance for each other.

But the early planners of the Interfaith Centers had to address many of the issues that gave many religious congregations their identity.  How could you worship in a building with no steeple or other permanent symbols that had provided meaning and tradition to so many people?  This was a challenge among the different Christian faiths but was even more challenging in the efforts to be inclusive of Jewish congregations.  Christians didn’t realize that some many symbols that they had were not shared with other faiths.  You mean only Christians called their meeting places churches?  Is stained glass not interfaith?

Then the more practical issues had to be worked out.  Some of which reminded me of the Continental Congress and how power was divided up.  Just as different size states had different ideas on who should control government so did the different congregations.  Would larger congregations have “more power” in the Center decisions?  How would the governing bodies of the Centers be determined?  Would the Jewish congregations have priority over the space on Saturday and Christian congregations on Sunday?  Of course the thought that Muslim congregations might be in the mix was not even thought of in the sixties and that even Friday events could be impacted.

Originally it was thought that every village would have an Interfaith Center but over time the demand for new Interfaith Centers didn’t develop to this extent.  Do you realize that the Bain Center and Winter Growth are on the land originally designated for the Harpers Choice Interfaith Center?  The early planning envisioned the development of fifty new religious congregations as the population of Columbia grew to completion.  What was unknown was how many of the new Columbia residents would choose the interfaith concept or choose to join one of the more traditional congregations already in the area.  As we now know that many new residents did choose these other congregations.  The thinking about this can be seen in the working paper developed in the early sixties by the National Council of Churches,

         Local congregations already in the area may be expected to absorb some of the population increase, but it also seems likely that there will be population in­crease in the areas around the new town which may wish to go to church in the new community.  A reasonable assumption then would be that about 50 new local congregations will be" needed,

            The basic staff needs of these local congregations may be estimated by using the general norm of one pastor or full-time staff person for every 500 members, on this basis, the probable needs per village would be 6-9 staff persons.  The probable needs for staff in local congregations for the whole community would be in the range of 90-110.These might include 50 pastors, 30 associates, and 30 secretaries. Custodial personnel are not included in this projection.  Some of the associates might be directors of youth work or religious education, although the possibilities of shared-time religious education will call for alternative projections.)  Between $800,000 and $1,200,000 will probably be required for support of the basic staff of local congregations.

            The projection of needed seating capacity is rather difficult.  A general formula might be as follows:  A village population of 12,000 might be expected to have 1/4 to 1/5 of the people in Protestant worship services on Sunday morning.  If their attendance were divided between two services in which the sanctuaries were 75% full, then a total seating capacity of 1,500 to 1,900 would be needed.  This is probably an optimistic assumption in two regards.  First, that 1/4 to 1/5 of the population would normally attend Protestant churches, and second, that the attend­ance would be evenly divided between two services in various sanctuaries.  This latter assumption may have greater or less validity depending upon the handling of the facilities problem.”

            The size issue is one that sometimes causes interfaith congregations to move out to larger space.  How to meet the space needs of these large congregations is one that has not been solved.

Tomorrow I will blog on where the interfaith concept 50 years later.

P. S.
For everyone that didn’t read the Sunday blog I wanted to mention it again because of the challenge I had in it.

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