Johns Hopkins Magazine -- February 1999
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A Spiritual Home

Photo by Mark Lee
Walking through the large wooden doors of Wilson Memorial Methodist Church on a crisp December morning, I find the scene inside to be anything but the reverential, pine-bough and Advent-candles one you'd expect this time of year. Dozens of workmen, some on ceiling-high scaffolding, others toting planks and wielding power saws, fill the sanctuary with sawdust and booming noise. Beside me, university chaplain Sharon Kugler is beaming. She's brought me to the 80-year-old church, which sits on the corner of Charles Street and University Parkway, for a tour. By February, she tells me optimistically, the renovations will be complete and the former church will be transformed into a spiritual focal point for Hopkins students of all faiths.

The need for such an interfaith center is acute. Over the past six years, the number of religious groups on the Homewood campus has grown from eight to 20, mirroring a trend seen nationally. Spiritually, "it's been a situation of nomadic existence," says Kugler. Muslim students have worshipped in a multipurpose room in McCoy Hall, and Catholic students have held mass in the Glass Pavilion. Hindu worshippers have stored their gods and incense in the trunk of a student's car, while a dorm kitchen has been serving as a synagogue for some Jewish students. "The good news," says the chaplain, "is that people didn't stop worshipping."

As we thread out way among the planks and stepladders, many of the workmen stop to chat with Kugler and give her updates on their progress. She points up front, where three rows of pews have been removed to make room for prayer rugs; up to 80 Hindu students will have room to worship. Downstairs, in a room with a window facing northeast toward Mecca, Muslim students will finally get their permanent prayer space. In the entryway where we stand now, a glass wall will soon be erected. Visitors walking into the center will have a chance to pause and survey the worship service taking place; prominently displayed brochures will explain all the various rites and rituals--and invite visitors to take part. For Kugler, that's what's most exciting about the new center. "Everyone benefits from understanding the stranger," she says. "You can't fear what you've come to know."

Gesturing upward toward the graceful lines of the ceiling, Kugler says she's glad that Hopkins hasn't adopted the "lowest common denominator" approach in designing the interfaith center. Too many planners, in an effort to provide a versatile space, wind up with an architecturally bland, movie-theater-type site, she notes ruefully. "You don't have to be a Christian to appreciate this space and seek it out," she says. Converting the 1919 church to its new use has called for some ingenuity. What to do about the beautiful stained-glass windows, for instance, that depict the life of Jesus Christ? Jewish and Muslim believers are prohibited from worshipping in the presence of faces, or "false idols." The solution: Install frosted glass shutters that can be used during non-Christian worship. Even the color of the building's front doors has been reconsidered. The bright red hue (symbolizing the blood of Christ for some believers) will be repainted a more neutral burgundy.

Outside, the chaplain and I pause to say our goodbyes. She points to the spot where a sign will soon go up, marking the building as the Bunting-Meyerhoff Interfaith and Community Service Center. By spring, she says, the big stone building will become "a spiritual home" for Hopkins--"a centerpiece in the life of the community."

Sue De Pasquale, Editor