The Workings of Oakland Mills Interfaith Center

by Rabbi Sonya Starr

Throughout my tenure at CJC, I have learned so much.  One of the important aspects of my stay here I never expected to learn was the difference between interfaith dialogue and interfaith interactions.  Like most progressive rabbis, I have participated in interfaith programs throughout my whole career.  Some of them deepened relationships and changed what I thought about those who were different from me. 

For the first time, starting in 2000, I began to learn how to truly consider Christians an integral part of my work life when I started working at CJC or, more accurately, when I started working at Oakland Mills Interfaith Center (OMI).  OMI clergy meet twice/month:  once to discuss business, including, but not limited to, interfaith programming; and a second time to study together.  These sessions have provided collegial support, theological discoveries, and produced sermons, new interfaith programming and important friendships.   In addition, there have been the amazing OMI staff that make all we do individually and together possible. 

Some years our interfaith programming has focused on our own building (the leaving of TI, art gallery, technology, security, and COVID).  Other years our interfaith programming has been robust (different speakers, Gd in the box, congregational visits, coalition for compassion, clothing, battery and food drives and “Reclaiming the Center,” to name a few.)  And still other times it has been dormant, waiting for the next seed to be planted.  When we can find common ground, the benevolent acts of kindness have been rewarding, and the study has been eye opening.   Unfortunately, praying together has been incredibly difficult.  So instead, we have chosen to witness each other’s prayer style; to see Gd work on a very different path than our own.  Throughout this whole time, I have grown to value, depend on and be encouraged by the interfaith community that does exist at OMI. 

All of this has been augmented by what OMI has continued to do during this horrific pandemic and all the unexpected consequences.  Throughout it all, OMI staff led by Mike Shaw, OMI’s building manager, and all the clergy have negotiated respectfully, talked honestly and allowed OMI to continue to be an active participant in our community.  What follows is a list compiled by Mike Shaw.  I hope it takes your breath away as it took away mine.  If you would like any information about any of the following programs, please let me know.


Oakland Mills Interfaith Center reaches out to community during the covid crisis.

Oakland Mills Interfaith Center (OMIC), located adjacent to the Oakland Mills Village Center in Columbia, has been a vital part of the Columbia Community since 1975.  The Interfaith Center is home to 5 Christian and Jewish Congregations- – Bet Aviv, Columbia Baptist Fellowship, Columbia Jewish Congregation, Columbia United Christian Church, and St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church. The facility has served the community for the last four and a half decades not only as a place of worship. It has served the community through joint programs like interfaith study and dialogue initiatives and social justice events, and through hosting programs such as the Interfaith Coalition for Compassion which assists county residents with food packages, dealing with eviction notices and utility cutoff notices. 

Starting in March 2020, when Covid-19 shut downs began, The Interfaith Center found new ways to assist in the community.  The Clergy of the 5 member congregations began hosting a monthly food distribution, which by the November event was serving more than 200 families with the equivalent of a week’s worth of quality fresh food.  This initiative, led by Columbia Baptist Fellowship Youth Pastor Andrew James, and energetically supported by the OMIC clergy. relies on dozens of volunteers from the 5 congregations to host the half-day event, which has been held in all kinds of weather.  In addition to these large-scale monthly food distributions, the Interfaith Center is serving as host site in a partnership with the Interfaith Coalition for Compassion and the Oakland Mills Local Leadership Team (a pilot project of the Howard Co. Local Children’s Board) to host a February food and winter care package distribution which took place in our parking lot.

Last September the Oakland Mills Interfaith parking lot served as a Covid-19 Test site in a joint program between the Clergy, and the Howard County General Hospital.  The Covid testing was done at no cost, and the outreach targeted the most vulnerable members of our community who did not have the resources for the test, and who appreciated having access to the test at their church/synagogue home.  More than 150 individuals were provided the Covid test at no cost.

In October the Interfaith Center became a designated site location for the Leaders of Tomorrow Youth Center, a non-profit educational organization.  This program is made possible by a grant from the County through the Howard County Local Children’s Board. Under this program, which runs through June, the Interfaith Center is hosting more than a dozen middle school students who participate in on-site learning.

In the fall, the Art Gallery at the Oakland Mills interfaith Center launched an on-going exhibit displaying about 100 photographic images by Jim Auerbach, of blessed memory, with proceeds of sales donated by his wife, Marge, former Cantor at Bet Aviv, benefitting the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network.

In late January Oakland Mills Interfaith made arrangements with Interim Healthcare of Columbia to host a Covid-19 Vaccine clinic on site for eligible members of our interfaith community as soon as vaccine becomes available. In this way, community members of Oakland Mills Interfaith, many of whom are seniors, need only travel to their home church or synagogue to be vaccinated.  The goal is to host this vaccine clinic several times and potentially to serve others in the community.

The Nurturing Nest Montessori school also calls Oakland Mills Interfaith Center home, and although they faced a shut down at the start of the pandemic, they quickly re-opened under emergency use, and now operate on their regular schedule, although with capacity limitations.  Through the pandemic, Nurturing Nest Montessori has continued to provide a valuable service to our community in the care and education of our pre-school children.  Of course, the Oakland Mills Interfaith Center will always be first and foremost a place for worship and spiritual enlightenment, and our member congregations have adjusted well.   All the congregations continue to use digital means such as Zoom, YouTube, and other streaming technologies to make their virtual services available to all of their members.    The Oakland Mills Interfaith Clergy have had to curtail their in-person interfaith programming, but recently held an online interfaith speaker program, the first in a series being planned on racial justice.  More than 100 community members participated which was a record turnout. 

While it’s quieter than ever over the past year within the physical limits of the Oakland Mills Interfaith Center, there has been a lot going on, not only to serve the congregations who share the building as a house of worship, but also in service of our Oakland Mills and Columbia community in a variety of ways to mitigate the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic.