Keeping the Faiths

Frederick's Houses of Worship Often Work Together Despite Their Differing Beliefs

By Kate Poindexter | Photography by Turner Photography Studio | Posted on 03.22.16 – Feature, Lifestyles, People & Places

Rev. Barbara Kershner Daniel, Evangelical Reformed United Church of Christ
Syed Wasimul Haque, Frederick County Muslim Council
Rev. Helen Smith, Centennial Memorial United Methodist Church
Rev. Carl Gregg, Unitarian Universalist Congregation
Rabbi Jordan Hersh, Beth Shalom Congregation
Rev. Eric Myers, Frederick Presbyterian Church

It must’ve been quite a sight for some, seeing the Rev. Barbara Kershner Daniel of the Evangelical Reformed United Church of Christ preaching to the members of Congregation Kol Ami on West Patrick Street on a Friday evening last August. Of course, Rabbi Dan Sikowitz returned the favor and gave the message to Daniel’s West Church Street congregation on Sunday.

The “pulpit exchange” is just part of the special relationship the two houses of worship enjoy. Their respective youth groups have traveled together to North Carolina to perform service work on Martin Luther King Day for the past seven years. The United Church of Christ also hosts an annual MLK Day potluck dinner and panel discussion, featuring church leaders and elected officials. “We have to be involved with others. Other Christians, other faiths, those who identify with no faith,” says Daniel. “Whatever we can do together is just as valuable as what we do in our separate churches.”

“If you live in Frederick, you are a lucky person,” says Dr. Syed Haque, a physician and president of the Frederick County Muslim Council. Haque says that when he arrived in Frederick in 2001, he found the local residents to be very loving and welcoming. Many of the pastors and leaders in the local faith community agree with him. They get together often to discuss Frederick’s good fortune along with its challenges, issues and solutions. And, more often than not, they find common ground.

Some leaders meet monthly as part of the Frederick Area Ministerial Association, whose mission is to provide fellowship, inspiration and cooperative planning.

Frederick’s faith community reaches far beyond its storied clustered spires. Activities continue far past Friday, Saturday or Sunday prayer and worship services. On any given day of the week members of many congregations meet and tackle difficult social problems together. Some leaders meet monthly as part of the Frederick Area Ministerial Association, whose mission is to provide fellowship, inspiration and cooperative planning. Many also maintain close ties with Frederick County’s Religious Coalition for Emergency Human Needs, an organization that provides emergency shelter and financial assistance for homeless prevention, healthcare and food. These leaders also plan fundraising events, organize volunteers and share meals and pulpits.

That cooperative spirit surfaces to tackle problems on the churches doorsteps, including the twin social maladies of hunger and homelessness. A multi-faith network springs into action to provide emergency shelters and serve meals. Much of the activity takes place under the watchful eye and roof of the Rev. Helen Smith, pastor at Centennial Memorial United Methodist Church on West 2nd Street and continues in church basements, kitchens and offices throughout the city.

“We work at radical hospitality,” Smith says. She and her congregation work with the nonprofit Second Street and Hope, whose staff coordinates with other religious groups and civic organizations to prepare and serve two meals a week—Wednesdays and Saturdays—at the church. Anyone is welcome to share in the meal. “We don’t ask questions. We just greet them where they are,” says Smith. She and associate pastor Leo Yates work closely with addiction recovery groups, providing support and meeting space for Celebrate Recovery, a spiritual 12-step group and the Credo Recovery ministry.

In addition, the church provides a food pantry and offers clothes and toiletries (including diapers) to homeless individuals and families. One cold weather item offered by the church is an innovative, multi-functional garment—a coat that transitions into a sleeping bag. Other popular items are shoes and sturdy construction-style boots.

In conjunction with Calvary United Methodist Church, the sister congregation up the street, Smith organizes The Lord’s Laundry, a team of volunteers who wash, dry and return clothes to homeless individuals who have no other access to laundry facilities. The church works hand-in-hand with the Religious Coalition and other churches to provide emergency shelter and other services.

Another Kind of Activism

The Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Frederick’s building sits atop a hill on Elmer Derr Road near Jefferson. Even on a Thursday morning it’s a busy place, a cluster of offices, meeting spaces and a preschool buzzing with activity. The Rev. Carl Gregg says the congregation is very much keyed into service and cooperation with the larger community, splitting the proceeds from its collection plate with another cause or congregation every third Sunday. “We are about a three-part journey of spirituality, community and justice,” he says.

The congregation engages in many activities centered on social justice issues and political activism. Through the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of Maryland, the congregation works on issues concerning the environment, economic justice, criminal justice, gun violence, healthcare, immigration, LGBTQ, and death with dignity. In addition, each year UU congregations share a “common read,” studying and discussing a selected book. This year’s selection is the New York Times best seller The New Jim Crow—Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander.

Gregg says the UUCF cares about theology, but behavior is emphasized more. “We care about ethics and behavior. Deeds, not creeds. Behavior is believable,” he says.

Daniel and her church members have a similar attitude regarding social justice and outreach. She worked with former Gov. Martin O’Malley’s administration to pass marriage equality legislation in Maryland and says she was the first to preside at a same sex marriage ceremony in a Frederick church. Her congregation has a growing LGBTQ community. “We are called to be the voice for those who have no voice, or whose voice has been silenced or ignored,” she says.

“We are called to be the voice for those who have no voice, or whose voice has been silenced or ignored,” —Rev. Barbara Kershner Daniel Evangelical Reformed United Church of Christ

At the heart of the Roman Catholic community’s outreach efforts is a ministry founded by St. Vincent de Paul, a French priest of the 15th century. According to the Rev. Stephen Gosnell, the St. Vincent de Paul Society in Frederick is funded by “poor box” donations from four local parishes: St. John the Evangelist on 2nd Street, St. Katherine Drexel on Opossumtown Pike, Holy Family Catholic Community in Middletown and St. Peter the Apostle in Libertytown. Gosnell says the group helps individuals and families facing eviction notices, utilities, emergency housing and other needs. It also coordinates efforts with other churches and the Religious Coalition.

St. John’s parishioners are engaged in a range of activities including the Boys and Girls Club of Frederick County, the annual March for Life, the Bereavement Ministry, the Catholic Daughters and the Peace and Justice Ministry that promotes educational awareness and legislative advocacy. The Knights of Columbus provide an annual free spaghetti dinner and are involved in Frederick’s July 4th and In the Street celebrations. Gosnell says, “I think the community is very open and always generous with their giving.”

St. John’s congregation hosts a growing Hispanic population, providing Spanish-language mass, prayer groups and a music ministry. St. John’s also reaches out to the hearing-impaired community with a signed mass at 9 a.m. on Sundays.

Last summer Gosnell was a featured speaker at a local interfaith forum, The Spiritual Path and Environmentalism. He reminded participants that “we’re not the center of the universe” as he summarized Pope Francis’ encyclical on caring for the environment.

Rabbi Jordan Hersh and the Beth Shalom congregation actively participate and support the work of the Religious Coalition. They work in the soup kitchen and assist in interfaith efforts to provide emergency shelter. They operate a preschool and open their facilities on North Market Street to the public when they host speakers on a variety of religious and cultural topics.

There is a vibrant tzedek community in Frederick, according to Hersh. He uses the Hebrew word meaning social justice as he describes the work his congregation does in conjunction with other area churches. “It’s part of our mission in the world,” he says.

Hersh asserts that community involvement and service work is a way of reestablishing balance. “God created a world that is sufficient. We as humans created systems of inequality,” he says. So, the work continues.

“Social justice is very important though we use the term compassion, peace and justice,” —Rev. Eric Myers, pastor of Frederick Presbyterian Church

The Rev. Eric Myers, pastor of Frederick Presbyterian Church on West 2nd Street talks about outreach in two ways: evangelism and service to someone in need. He says successful evangelism takes place when a member of the congregation invites a friend or coworker to come to worship, Bible study or a youth activity. He describes service by pointing to the support his church gives to 15 local agencies through financial gifts and tangible offerings such as toiletries to the Religious Coalition and other volunteer efforts. He says one of the biggest social issues facing Frederick County is homelessness and affordable housing. “Recently, we were one of a few congregations which strongly encouraged the Religious Coalition to begin an emergency shelter for families. Our congregation hosts the shelter and supports it financially,” he says.

“Social justice is very important though we use the term compassion, peace and justice,” he adds. “The constitution of our denomination makes it clear that the whole church gathers in worship and its corporate life for the purpose of being sent out into the world to engage in the reconciling, healing work of God through Jesus Christ.”

Haque remains optimistic, saying he’s proud that the 400 families who worship at the masjid—the term he prefers for place of worship instead of mosque—on Key Parkway are involved with their own community and with those of other faiths. They work together on the annual Hunger March, volunteer in the soup kitchen, supply local food banks, support Heartly House, a shelter for abused women and children, and contribute to a wide variety of charities. He explains that charity is an integral part of a Muslim’s life, along with prayer, the teachings of the prophet and honoring parents and family. He is a medical doctor who says his patients have rallied around him during times of political and social uncertainty. “Patients said, ‘If you have any problems, you come talk to me,’” he says. He has embraced the community and it has embraced him back.

Frederick’s faith leaders and their congregations gather in houses of worship during particular hours on the weekends, but there’s a full flurry of activity on every other day, around the clock.  Many communities and congregations dot the skyline of Downtown Frederick and stand out as landmarks on county roads. While orientations, beliefs and traditions vary widely, members of these disparate groups say they come together, focused on the future with the goal of making this community a better place for all. Where government services fall short, they say they try to fill the gaps. And, along the way they meet their neighbors and respond to the level of need as they are able.