By JAY LINDSAY
NEWTON, Mass -- The languages vary from hour to hour, room to room -- songs of praise, words of prayer in Arabic, Portuguese, Russian, Hebrew, Tagalog.
These worshippers do not share an ethnic heritage, but they do share a faith, and because of that, a building.
The Newton Corner Worship Center is an incubator church, home to small conservative Christian churches that need a place to meet and, they hope, grow.
The building, once home to a dying Baptist congregation, has become a sort of a reverse Tower of Babel over the past two decades, where languages mix, but everyone understands the words are being used to worship the same God.
Still, the churches remain as distinct as the ethnic foods served during social times.
"We find it like brothers living in the same house and we are trying, each of us, to maintain this house," said Sinote Ibrahim, pastor of the Arabic Baptist Church of Boston. "We are in unity together as the body of Christ."
The services are scheduled every few hours on Sunday, with different congregations sometimes upstairs and downstairs simultaneously. The languages and music blended into a clamor on a recent Sunday.
"It is noise, but you know, the noise is good noise," said Dimitrios Deligiannides, an elder in a Greek church that originally bought the building. "Both upstairs and downstairs give thanks to God."
The church, designed by prominent architect Henry Hobson Richardson, broke ground in 1885 and survived as a Baptist church under various names for decades. But after the last Baptist pastor died and the congregation dwindled to about two dozen per Sunday in 1990, the church knew it could not continue.
"The members wanted to sell," said Margaret Ohanian, who belonged to the congregation at the time. "I said, 'Oh no, you're not selling the church.' The Greeks were meeting here two or three years. We gave it to them."
Rebirth at the $2.5 million property, it turned out, cost only a nominal fee of $1 and a promise from the Hellenic Gospel Church that the building would always be a church. Opening the church to other groups was part of the deal from the start, Deligiannides said.
Besides a building, the churches must share a belief in the divinity and resurrection of Jesus Christ, as well as a portion of the expenses (about $700 each a month).
The weekend starts with the Beth Yeshua Messianic Jewish congregation, which is Christian by faith but conducts worship in Hebrew and uses Jewish rituals. The congregation meets Saturdays in the downstairs worship space. On Sundays, services start downstairs at 10 a.m. for the Compass Community Church, an English-speaking offshoot of the Hellenic Gospel Church. By 11 a.m., the Arabic Baptist Church of Boston is in the upstairs sanctuary.
The Philippine International Church, where members speak several languages including Tagalog, takes over downstairs by 2 p.m., followed by the New England Brazilian Baptist Church upstairs at 7 p.m.
Each church has a distinct style. The Arabic church has a more traditional Protestant worship, with hymns and sermons delivered behind a pulpit in Arabic and English. The Brazilian and Greek churches are less formal and feature contemporary music.
The differences among the communities can be seen during breaks from worship, when some of the churches socialize around a meal. The Jewish congregation shares gefilte fish or beet salad, the Brazilians a finger food called salgados, the Filipinos a chicken dish called adobo.
Church leaders meet regularly to hash out schedules, service setups and any areas of disagreement. Once or twice a year, the groups join for a multi-lingual service and fellowship. "Even though we might be different in culture, we can put those things aside because of what binds us," said Mitch Forman, the Beth Yeshua leader.
Since 1990, an Indian church, a Chinese church and a Haitian church have used the building and moved on, Deligiannides said. Many church leaders at the worship center say having the building is crucial to growth because it provides space and stability needed to attract new members.
But the ambitions of the churches there vary. The Philippine church is not necessarily aiming for growth and a new address, but rather "striving to do what the Lord Jesus said," said pastor Arnel Dioneda. But the Brazilian church, with about 60 people attending weekly, hopes to draw five times that number within a few years and move out, according to pastor Porfirio dos Reis.
The Arabic congregation started in 2005 with five families and very few children, said elder Samy Ibrahim. Time in the incubator church has meant expansion, he said.
"You can see some of the hatched eggs there," he said as he motioned to several children from his congregation playing among the pews while the Filipino church set up for its service.
He'd like to see the church grow to about 150 people before they consider moving on.
"We have a vision and God confirmed it to us, that the Lord will fill the place with a lot of people," Ibrahim said. "I'm sure God brought us to this place for a reason."