Greenbelt's Religious Communities Celebrate the City's
Sixty years ago, the planned community of Greenbelt welcomed its first residents and endured what would become a lengthy onslaught of media attention. Among the matters that received heavy press scrutiny was Greenbelt's peculiar religious life. Because Greenbelt was a town made from scratch, and because the federal government which built it made an effort to ensure religious diversity in the community, Greenbelt's religious life was both odd and ground breaking, creating interfaith ties that endure to this day.
Sadly, none of these facts could have been guessed by visitors to the Greenbelt Community Center's sixtieth anniversary exhibit on the city's religious communities. While the local religious communities are to be admired for contributing to the anniversary celebrations, the exhibit that was on display from October 17 to 19 gave visitors little sense of the originality of Greenbelt's religious history.
The exhibit consisted of framed montages contributed by the individual communities. The displays showed a natural and refreshing variety in their approaches to their subject matter; most were composed of photographs and newspaper clippings that highlighted the communities' histories.
Greenbelt Community Church, for example, demonstrated the makeshift nature of its early services by displaying a photograph of its first Easter service at the Community Center in 1937. The participants sat on metal folding chairs. Fifteen years later, the congregation moved to its own building, and a 1952 photograph showed the first Easter service in the new church. Again, the participants sat on folding chairs.
Bits of the past flashed past the viewer's eyes in the exhibit: the original church of Mowatt Memorial United Methodist Church, with its tower built like a lookout tower; Mowatt's roll of pastors, inscribed with 21 names (including that of its newly arrived pastor); the Marketplace 29 A.D. living history exhibit held by Holy Cross Lutheran Church; mementoes of the charitable work undertaken by the Catholic Community of Greenbelt; and Cardinal James Hickey's recent visit to St. Hugh's Catholic Church.
The exhibit did not dwell on, or even allude to, controversies that have taken place during Greenbelt's religious history, but this is hardly surprising. What is more surprising is that the exhibit said so little about Greenbelt's interfaith history. Only two displays touched on the matter.
Mishkan Torah Synagogue devoted most of its display to the building of the Jewish Community Center in 1953; a newspaper clipping reminded viewers of the participation of Greenbelt's Protestants and Catholics in the project. Even without this participation, the project itself – a community effort to create a building from the ground up – was a high point in Greenbelt's history. "I do not flatter myself to think our Jewish Community Center is a great project of history," said Abe Chasnoff, president of Mishkan Torah at that time. "Nevertheless, it is a great project for us in Greenbelt, a test tube of democracy and of people working together."
The Greenbelt Bahá'í Community's attractive display was the only one that contained several allusions to Greenbelt's interfaith projects over the years. The city's interfaith baccalaureate service and Thanksgiving service (as well as its ecumenical Easter service, unmentioned by any of the Christian displays) continue to this day. Less familiar to newcomers are two episodes described by the Bahá'í Community. In 1982, the city's interfaith Greenbelt Clergy Association held a World Religion Day at St. Hugh's; the program was introduced by Greenbelt's Catholic priest, moderated by Greenbelt's rabbi, and included three speakers on Islam, Buddhism, and the Bahá'í Faith. A similarly striking episode took place in 1987, a year in which the Christian holy day of Good Friday, the Jewish season of Passover, and the Bahá'í season of Ridvan coincided. Greenbelt's religious communities marked this occasion with an interfaith walk.
These recent episodes are reminders of the most admirable feature of Greenbelt's religious history. The fact that the religious communities joined together to mount this exhibit is testimony that the interfaith tradition continues in Greenbelt, but the exhibit makes no effort to trace how far back this tradition goes. Three important facts are omitted from the displays: (1) that Greenbelt's Protestants joined together in a single congregation in 1937, (2) that Greenbelt's religious communities all worshipped in the same building at the beginning of the city's history, and (3) that the religious communities began working together on interfaith projects very early on, and that this cooperation was considered by residents to be an integral part of the Greenbelt experiment.
Indeed, the impression left on the visitor after viewing this exhibit – with its separate displays on each religious community and few references within each display to other communities – is that Greenbelt's religious communities know little, and care little, about each other. This is a direct contradiction of the facts, but outsiders cannot know this. Even a joint time line showing the major events in Greenbelt's religious history might have saved the exhibit from giving a misleading impression of the city's religious life. Perhaps in 2012, when Greenbelt celebrates its 75th anniversary, the religious communities will cooperate to mount an exhibit that is truly interfaith.
World News: Too Many Bibles, Good News Party Told in England. By Peter Linford.
© 1997 Heather Elizabeth