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Congregations Open Doors To Neighbors Of Differing Faiths

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Pictured: Christ Lutheran Church in Washington, D.C.
Heather Taylor
Pictured: Christ Lutheran Church in Washington, D.C.

If one enters the elegant stone church at the leafy intersection of Gallatin and 16th Street, Northwest on a Sunday, he or she might expect to hear traditional Protestant hymns streaming out of the main sanctuary. After all, the sign carved into stone announces their arrival at Christ Lutheran Church, a member of the denomination founded by Martin Luther in the 1500s.

But actually, the music played and the language spoken will depend entirely on the time of visit.

At 8:15 a.m. one is likely to hear percussive sounds and singing infused with chants, from the Mekane Hiwot Medhane Alem Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. At 10:30 a.m., an organ accompanies the singing of Protestant hymns familiar to a Lutheran congregation. And by 5:00 p.m., the music has changed again. At this hour, one is likely to hear the expressive, up-tempo sound of a full band, complete with a guitar-strumming vocalist during the Vision de Fe's Pentecostal service.

Christ Lutheran Church is just one of many D.C. area churches renting space to other religious groups. In a period of belt-tightening and with mainline Protestant membership in decline, renting space can provide income to cover the cost of a church's upkeep. A sudden trend brought on by the recent recession? Maybe not. In fact, according to Reverend Renata Eustis of Christ Lutheran Church in particular, sharing space is nothing new.

"Since I've been here, we've always had one to two congregations sharing space with us," she says.

Eustis has been pastor at Christ Lutheran Church for almost 11 years.

Throughout her tenure, Mekane Hiwot Medhane Alem Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church has shared space with Christ Lutheran Church.

"They worship before our worship, which means they begin at 5:30 in the morning on Sunday," Eustis adds. "Their service is typically three to three and a half hours long. So they finish with the space around 9:00."

And then it's the host church's turn. The Christ Lutheran Church congregation occupies the space between 10:00 a.m. and noon. And by late afternoon, another congregation is getting ready for worship.

That's a Latin congregation, called Vision de Fe, Vision of Faith, which is a Pentecostal church. The congregants worship in the space beginning at about 3 to 7 p.m. on Sunday.

The economics of sharing space

Finding Christ Lutheran Church was something Vision de Fe's Pastor Heber Velasquez says he had literally dreamt about.

Velasquez told Eustis that he had been looking for space in D.C., moving from a parent congregation in Olney, Md. And he happened to notice the church from a seat on a Metrobus, he realized that the area -- an area of the city he'd never seen before -- was the very same place he'd seen in his dreams.

Considering it to be a sign from God, Velasquez knocked on the door of the church and inquired about renting space. It turned out that another congregation had just moved out of Christ Church, so the space was available for the Vision de Fe congregation.

But while Christ Lutheran Church and other congregations certainly benefit financially from renting out space, is renting religious space solely a question of economics? Edward Taylor, pastor of Sixth Presbyterian Church of Washington, D.C., isn't so sure.

"I don't think that's [economics] ever the sole reason," he says. "It's a question of stewardship, which means how well do we use the things that we've been blessed with. We have a wonderful building here at Sixth Presbyterian, and honestly there are times when it has sat empty six days a week, and that's not a good use of a building. We are stewards of what we have, and we need to use it properly. The founders, I think had the idea of the church, that the building would be a tool for ministry. It's just not the ministry only of Sixth Presbyterian Church."

But while economics may not be the sole reason for sharing space, it's certainly a great benefit, says Craig Sparks, pastor of the Columbia United Christian Church. Sparks shares space with at least four other congregations at the Meeting House, an interfaith center in Columbia, Md.

"We have 75 people on a Sunday," says Sparks. "Relatively small congregation. And we have access to a 32,000 square foot facility that we could never afford. We pay, I think at last check, 12 percent of our total budget. That pays for the lighting, the heat, the air conditioning, the staff to run the place, to keep it clean. And you can't beat that."

Building relationships

In addition to economic benefits, some rental relationships can lead to defining moments in the lives of the congregations involved. That was the case for Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church and Bethesda Jewish Congregation in Bethesda, Md. In 1964, 35 Jewish families got together to rent space from Bradley Hills.

"While that relationship on one level is a tenant relationship — they pay rent — it's much more than that," says Pastor David Gray of Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church.

"Both congregations see it as part of our mission to try and understand the diversity of our world, and saw some of our heritages as being, while different in some ways, also coming from some similar backgrounds that can help us to grow together."

His counterpart, Rabbi Elhanan "Sunny" Schnitzer of Bethesda Jewish Congregation agrees.

"The two congregations have a common philosophy of spiritual siblings sharing sacred space," says Schnitzer. "And that allows us to understand that it's just like a family. When you have different belief systems within the same family, perhaps interfaith families, sometimes there are issues that arise. But because you're family, you always work them out. And we always have."

Over 40 plus years, the relationship has grown into a partnership. Back in 1998, when Bradley Hills decided to renovate the building, it asked the synagogue if it would like to be part of the project. The synagogue said yes it did, if it could build a dedicated worship space for the synagogue. Bradley Hills agreed. Covenant Hall was born.

"Covenant Hall is the name we have given to the synagogue worship space," adds Schnitzer.

The two congregations formalized that partnership in 2003, by jointly signing a covenant, to reflect their common purpose.

"The two congregations actually have a ketuba, which is a Jewish marriage contract, says Schnitzer. "It sits in the lobby of Covenant Hall and it describes the relationship of the two congregations. And that was written jointly by the two congregations in 2003."

For Pastor David Gray, the Hall, "is really a spiritual sibling sharing sacred space, that covenant coming out the Jewish-Christian tradition, of God's covenant with God's people. We're covenanting to be together and learn from each other and work with each other."

Unity from above

One thing that Gray considers worth noting is the view of the sacred space from above.

"If you were to fly from BWI Airport, and the weather is correct," says Gray, "the sanctuary of the church since the 1950s is in the shape of a cross. But Covenant Hall is in the shape of a Star of David. So if you fly over the two buildings, one sees a cross, right next to the Star of David, which symbolizes the two congregations. And I also like to think as we're bringing the mosque into the relationship a little bit, that the whole building as it curves from around is almost like a crescent. If you go from Memorial Hall, pass over to our choir wing, if you look at it right, it's almost all three symbols are present in the building."

And including Islamic neighbors is another part of the partnership, part of efforts to reach out beyond their usual borders. In recent years, this has meant developing an expanded Thanksgiving service.

"On the Sunday before Thanksgiving, you will see all three Abrahamic faiths here," says Rabbi Schnitzer. "We have a joint Thanksgiving service. We include the Idara-de-Jafaria Mosque of Burtonsville," In addition, all three are involved in social action projects in the community. "We're stronger, because we bring the three congregations together."

Sharing space

But what about the basic logistics of sharing space with multiple active congregations? Rabbi Schnitzer reports that the congregations have gotten good at accommodation.

"The church may be having a Good Friday service on a Friday night, which is the Jewish Sabbath," he says. "And we'll move to the other end of the building, or they'll move to the other end of the building. It's not a question of who gets precedent. It's a question of just how do we work out the parking!"

Pastor Craig Sparks of Columbia United Christian Church finds logistics challenging, but fully manageable.

"Friday night, you'll have Bet Aviv [one of the synagogues at The Meeting House in Columbia] in here," says Sparks. "Saturday afternoon you'll have St. John's worshiping in here, twice on Saturday evenings. And then Sunday morning, it's 'Katie, bar the door!' First St. John's and then the Columbia Baptist Fellowship and then St. John's again, and then over in our space [Columbia United Christian Church], where we worship, it's the same way. So it's one right after the other. And we've done this for over forty years. And we've worked it out with each other.

Like her colleagues, Pastor Renata Eustis of D.C.'s Christ Lutheran Church considers these partnerships more than worth it.

"In spite of some of the challenges in sharing the space, I really value that we use the space this way," says Eustis. "We have a beautiful building that we were able to renovate a few years ago. And this is our greatest physical resource. The idea that God is being praised throughout the day on Sunday, and then on Saturday evening as well, is a huge thing for me. I really feel like we're being faithful when we're doing that."

[Music: "Faith" by Royal Philharmonic Orchestra from Plays the Hits of George Michael]


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