Finding Common Ground in Faith
Columbia Pastor Helps Forge Congregation, Community Bonds

By Cathy Lickteig Makofski Special to the Washington Post
Thursday, December 23, 2004.

The Rev. Richard Tillman stands back, respecting your space, arms close to his body, his head tilted slightly downward. His brown eyes look up, as if he were peering over spectacles. The eyes make the first connection. Smiling broadly, he steps closer and grips your hand. A kind of current seems to pass.

“He’s our heart and soul; everyone feels his love,” said Earl Arminger, 62, who’s been a parishioner at St. John the Evangelist Roman Catholic Church for more than 28 years. “He’s the reason our parish is as rich and diverse as it is.

Since 1977, Tillman has been pastor of the church, whose parishioners meet at the Wilde Lake and Oakland Mills interfaith centers. He arrived when the word “inclusive” had come to define life in the planned community of Columbia, then only 10 years old. The Catholic Church, guided by the Second Vatican Council, also was broadening its world view, opening itself to ecumenical relationships within the church and with other denominations. There couldn’t have been a more exciting time for a 37-year-old priest who was becoming the fourth pastor of St John’s.

“What appealed to me was that it was so uncharted, there were no precedents, and I would be involved in community bridge-building,” said Tillman, now 65.

His parishioners didn’t have a church; they met at the interfaith centers in Wilde Lake and Oakland Mills, in space they shared with Protestant and Jewish groups.

Jim Rouse, the founder of Columbia, believed that locating such centers in Columbia’s villages would promote an understanding and respect for different faiths and help attract new religious communities that couldn’t or didn’t want to buy land and build a church in the new town.

“[My wife and I] like the feeling of acceptance in this parish,” said Al Bahr, 59, who said he converted to Catholicism after a serious illness.

Tillman found the dialogue with the other clergy and parishioners stimulating. “Our discussions took me back to the fundamentals of my faith and allowed me to learn about the important beliefs of other faiths,” he said.

Today there are interfaith centers operating not only in Wilde Lake and Oakland Mills but also Long Reach and Owen Brown. Others are being built at River Hill and King’s Contrivance. The congregations have found ways not only to share space but programs as well, without feeling as if they have given up any of their own faith.

Many credit Tillman for much of that success. “Through his extraordinary gifts of intellect and personality, Father Tillman was able to find common ground among the faiths of Columbia,” said Mary Posek, a parishioner at St. John’s until she and her family moved to South Carolina in 2002.

At the same time, she said, he helped “bridge the liberal ideals of the parish with the conservative tenets of the Catholic Church in a way that seemed transparent to all of us.”

A Respect for Differences

Tillman’s ability to appreciate different religious beliefs began at home. He was born in 1939 in Towson, Md., the oldest of five sons of a Catholic mother and a Unitarian father.

“Our parents were devoted to their children, and their religious differences were a creative rather than a destructive part of our family life, ” he said.

He attended parochial schools until high school, when he transferred to Towson High. He liked math and science and first thought he might like to become a surgeon. “That’s when I started praying and reflecting on my future and thought about the parish priests I had known growing up and the important role they played in our lives.”

The night before he entered St. Mary’s Seminary in Baltimore in 1959, his father asked: “Son, do you really want to do this?”

Before Tillman completed his training at the seminary, his father, who had become ill, decided to convert to Catholicism.

The morning of his ordination in 1965, Tillman followed the tradition of every other seminarian and sought the blessings of the priests who had guided him through his six years in the seminary. “Above all, be a good priest,” Jack Canfield, professor of dogmatic theology at St. Mary’s, told him.

His first assignment was a parish in Linthicum Heights outside of Baltimore. In 1968, he went to St. Mary Star of the Sea in South Baltimore, and in 1972 to Holy Cross and our Lady of Good Council, neighboring parishes in Baltimore’s Federal Hill community. During that time, Tillman’s pastoral duties expanded into the community. He worked closely with other clergy, community organizations and small businesses.

“I think my work with the disparate, but not disharmonious, groups prepared me for the work in Columbia,” said Tillman, who describes himself as an introvert in a job that demands an extrovert. “Most introverts learn by thinking and then talking, and extroverts learn by talking. I’ve had to become an extrovert with an introvert’s style.”

The Rev. R. Whitfield “Whitty” Bass is pastor of the United Methodist Presbyterian Church, which like St. John’s has been an anchor of the Wilde Lake Interfaith Center since the beginning. “What I have found with Dick is a bright, humble man committed to doing everything he can to bring people together,” said Bass, who has been an interfaith minister for more than 35 years.

Their parishes are involved in many projects including the Appalachian Service Project, the bi-monthly Hospitality Center and Palm Sunday and Thanksgiving services.

Since Tillman became pastor of St John’s, the number of families in his parish has grown from 1,800 to more than 3,000 families. He supervises two priests, two deacons, administrators and secretaries who are responsible for music, education and social events. He says at least a half-dozen Masses every week, performs baptisms and marriages, meets with parishioners and visits the sick. In addition, he has served as the ecumenical officer for the Archdiocese of Baltimore for more than 25 years.

“His style has brought many Catholics back to the church, attracted more young people to the parish and welcomed a large and growing Spanish community, and he has also reached out to the Christian communities,” said George Martin, president of the Columbia Cooperative Ministry.

Taking Time to Reflect

As he approached 65, an age when priests often leave the daily responsibilities of managing a parish, Tillman wondered if it was time to step aside. “I did not want to be seen as a hanger-on,” he said. Then in September of 2003, he unexpectedly underwent quintuple bypass surgery. His recovery proved to be more than just a better diet and more exercise. “I found I had renewed vigor for our parish and community and decided to remain as pastor of St. John’s a while longer,” he said.

Before Mass on a typical Sunday, Tillman pulls himself away from greeting parishioners, slips into the quiet vestibule where he puts on his vestments and reflects on the day’s Gospel and his homily. He reads widely — the theology of the scriptures, history, popular literature and current events — and tries to blend the realities of life and Catholic teachings into his message.

“There’s a thin line between entertainment and theology, and my hope is that I deliver something that people will get,” he said.

When he’s ready, Tillman bows his head, puts his hands together, holds them chest high and walks into the center of the contemporary open room at Wilde Lake Interfaith Center that is St. John’s “church.” A small band of young musicians plays a modern hymn and the congregation sings. A simple gold cross sits on the altar table in the center of the room. Tillman turns and faces the congregation in the pews. When the music stops, he pauses a few minutes, opens his arms and raises them above his shoulders before speaking in a deep and powerful voice.

Being a good priest, he said later, requires “reflection, compassion, dedication and confidence that good works do make a difference.”

“And,” he said, “there’s more. All of us in the clergy work from the same material, and we can’t take credit for what happens when we bring a spiritual focus to someone’s life.”