The Johns Hopkins Gazette: April 26, 1999
Apr. 26, 1999
VOL. 28, NO. 32


Faiths Find a Common Ground

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette
Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

The road to completion of the Bunting Meyerhoff Interfaith and Community Service Center had its share of potholes and hairpin curves, but there were pleasant moments, too. The "glorious moment" for Sharon Kugler came on a rainy Friday winter morning.

Kugler, university chaplain, had been told by the project's painter that the screen panels in the dome above the alter could not be painted blue as she had envisioned.

Sharon Kugler, university chaplain, will now have all religious groups under one roof.

"He told me it wasn't going to work. 'What you are painting is screens; it is not going to show up,' " Kugler said. "But because we had already budgeted for it, and because I was stubborn, I said, "Do it anyway. It can't be any worse than what it is."

Sometime later, on that fateful winter morning, Kugler, who was in her office with a sick child, received a call from project manager Laura Csanady, of Facilities Management.

"She said, 'You've got to come over here. You're never going to believe it. The dome is blue. The dome is blue,' " Kugler recalls. "My daughter and I went tearing across the street. I must have looked like a maniac. But there it was, the most beautiful thing. The painter had this twinkle in his eye and said, 'See. OK, it's blue.' Now that was a really good moment."

The baby blue color of the dome's panels has more than just an aesthetic appeal; it is meant to illustrate a saying from Buddha, that we all look at the same blue sky.

And now, under the same blue dome, the university's student religious organizations and some student community and service clubs have found a home.

The moving is finished, the paint has dried, and the Bunting Meyerhoff Interfaith and Community Service Center is finally open for business.

To celebrate the opening of the new Homewood campus building, located at the corner of Charles Street and University Parkway, there will be a dedication ceremony on Sunday, May 2, at 4 p.m. For Kugler, it's a day she thought would never come.

Renovation work on the former A.W. Wilson United Methodist Church began last August. Three binders of construction notes later, Kugler recalls the many delays such as the steel delivery that slowed construction in the fall and the elevator that took eight weeks to be delivered, and then was the wrong one.

The baby blue color of the dome's panels illustrates a saying from Buddha: We all look at the same blue sky. Front pews were removed to accommodate Muslim and Hindu services.

"Those are the kinds of news that age one," Kugler jokes. "But I'm told by people who have gone through renovation work that this is really par for the course."

Part of what kept Kugler going was the knowledge that, after all was said and done, the student religious organizations would finally be under the same roof, putting an end to their "nomadic existence."

Over the past six years, the number of religious groups on campus had grown from eight to 20. The various groups met and worshiped in the Glass Pavilion of Levering Hall, the multipurpose room of McCoy Hall, Kugler's outer office in AMR1's Wood House and anywhere else they could find a space. Kugler, who became chaplain in 1993, says she had to act as "air traffic controller," knowing which group needed what and where they were at any given time.

"Even as a basic logistical or practical concern, the Hindus never had a place to store their gods, their music and the things they need to set up for their worship. Basically, it was the same thing for everybody," Kugler says. "The wonderment was it didn't take the energy out of any group in terms of wanting to meet and practice their faith. They continued to meet, which was wonderful."

But as the number of student religious groups grew, it became clear that a single worship space was needed.

The building was originally purchased in 1997 for $950,000. Its primary donors were university trustees George L. Bunting Jr. and Harvey M. Meyerhoff, for whom the interfaith center is named.

The renovated 80-year-old building features a street-level worship space, which seats roughly 350 people. Kugler says part of the challenge of the renovation was figuring out how to accommodate all the different religions without creating a sterile environment. Solutions included removing the first three rows of the center section's pews to better accommodate Muslim and Hindu services, installing frosted glass shutters that can close to cover the stained glass images of Jesus Christ during certain non-Christian services and replacing the pinkish red carpet, a color normally associated with the blood of Christ, with a more neutral burgundy.

Careful attention also was paid to the traditions of each religious group, whether it be Hindu, Baha'i or Jewish. For example, the green and rust colors chosen for the fabric behind the organ are meaningful to Hindu and Muslim religions.

The result is a stunning space without a real focal point.

"It's not a movie-theater look; it has a look of gracefulness," Kugler says.

Renovating the downstairs portion of the building, however, was another story.

"The basement was hideous," Kugler says. "The thought of transforming it into a welcoming and homey space was a stretch at the time. But it works."

The downstairs section now includes a multiuse space, a library, a silent prayer room and offices for visiting clergy, student religious groups, Campus Ministries and service groups, including Teach Baltimore, which has already moved into its office.

"We wanted people to understand that one of the important pieces of this center is the link between faith and service," Kugler says.

Input into the building's design came from Kugler, the 35-member student Interfaith Council and those in Campus Ministries, Homewood Student Affairs and Facilities Management.

Kugler says there was much discussion among all these parties during the past year to ensure that they all kept on the same page.

"One of the best stories in the whole process has been that different faith traditions have not vested their ego into any particular element of this project," Kugler says. "It was more about how we collaborated to bring forth this model. I think often when people talk of religious groups, they talk about the differences and the things that fracture us. If this building stands for anything, it stands for the spirit of what brings us together, celebrating those differences and learning about them."

Kugler says a nice by-product of different religious groups sharing the same space will be the breaking down of religious barriers and stereotypes. To facilitate this understanding and appreciation of different religions, several students will spend this summer writing a booklet that will describe the different rituals that might be going on at any given time in the building. The booklets will be prominently displayed in the building's glass-enclosed vestibule.

"So if you come on a Friday afternoon and see Muslims on the floor in front of the altar, you can look at the booklet and see, What does this mean? Why are they doing it? and am I welcome to join and what is expected of me if I do?" Kugler says. "I told the students to write it through the eyes of a stranger, as if you were welcoming someone to your ritual. What would you want them to know so they feel comfortable?"

Although the interfaith center is currently open, Kugler says the schedule for services and activities won't be formalized until the summer. The offices will be open from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Services will be held both in the worship space and in the multipurpose space downstairs, depending on the size of the congregation. There will also be after-hours access to the prayer room.

"I feel like it's putting together a quilt," Kugler said. "We're trying to make sure that we find a good balance so that everyone feels as if they are accessing the building to its fullest capacity but also that the building is not promised for things it can't deliver."

The new interfaith center will be a model for others like it, Kugler says, as many universities nationwide are witnessing an increase in religious organizations and in participation in religious services.

Kugler says she is looking forward to holding special events in the center, such as gospel concerts and a freshman orientation celebration. This celebration, she says, will be a chance for those of different faiths to meet each other and rub elbows in a place that was truly built for them.