The trees surrounding All Saints Church, like the driveway weaving around them, were frozen. A dusting of snow atop the ice made people’s walks from their cars to the church’s side door precarious. None of this is uncommon for Omaha in January. Still, it requires fortitude to brave the bitter temperatures and precipitation for a Monday-night religious meeting. Yet there they were; eighty-plus people—more than expected—walking across the frozen ground to the church’s large first floor meeting room where they chose seats around circular tables in groups of eight to ten.
Leading the throng is John Goldman, an architect from San Francisco who is one of the planners for Omaha’s newest faith community, being built on a 35-acre plot of land west of the city. From landscaping to worship space, playgrounds to bathroom facilities, he is probing this community about their expectations for the facilities and hopes for what the building itself will say to the community at large, leaving nothing to chance.
Understandably, the atmosphere is charged with excitement and flush with expectations at what will arise from the site. But this is tempered by a sense of peace—dare one say, “providence?” For these folks are raising more than a building, they are raising a new way of being religious in America. It’s a reality that some of them have been growing into since the turn of the millennium. Each person is conscious of the significance, and risks, that accompany their plans. These plans will lead to not one but three different houses of worship—a synagogue, mosque, and an Episcopal Church—and a fourth building, an interfaith center, that serves the wider community.
Called the Tri-Faith Initiative (TFI), it is already touted by some as a grand experiment in interfaith dialogue. The facilities that will emerge, however, are not indicative of another experiment in top-down interfaith dialogue; they will be the physical embodiment of a type of local interfaith living that has been developing in Omaha for over a decade. Its unwritten measure for success reflects this. “We will know we are successful,” says the Rev. Ernesto Medina and a TFI board member, “when we know the names of each other’s children.”
One could say that Tri-Faith is already running, and successful. The people around the tables know each other’s children’s names, and more. They are friends, neighbors, co-workers, and fellow parents cooperating on the most important part of their lives and their children’s—the spiritual dimension. And as in the other aspects of their existence, they are committed to living this critical area in a manner that doesn’t divide them and their community, but unites them.
Tri-Faith’s story is a testament to what strong leadership and vision can produce. But to paint this as simply a leadership story both oversimplifies the movement and excludes the story of community commitment and involvement that makes the Tri-Faith Initiative distinctive. The familial relationships gelling around TFI are the fuel that is driving the story in Omaha. And these relationships will ultimately render Tri-Faith a success, or a failure.
Nothing speaks to this emerging community better than Interplay, the first ongoing program developed by TFI, the overarching body that unites the three faith communities. Now in its third year, Interplay is the brainchild of Kimberly Fretz—a graduate of Brite Divinity School and member of the small band of Episcopalians who will launch the Episcopal Church that will rise on the TFI campus. In simple terms, Interplay is an interfaith program for the children and parents of the three faith communities. At a deeper level, Interplay is the heart of the TFI experiment.
Interplay is writing its own rules for interfaith programming and its own curricula. It has to, as Fretz points out, because Interplay is shaped by “parent-to-parent” interaction, which is “a completely different modality than an outsider trying to teach the children.”
The gathering at All Saints puts that parent-to-parent interaction, and the effect it has on TFI, on full display. At the planning meeting, seated around the table discussing the needs of children attending TFI facilities, are two Muslims (a North African native and an American convert); two Jewish leaders; Fretz; and a Christian public librarian from Council Bluffs, Iowa. These individuals are bound above all else by their life experience in the greater Omaha region. They know one another through jobs, through community events, and through their local schools. It’s time, they say through their actions and in private interviews, that their religious lives reflect the same cultural richness they enjoy in their community lives.
In fact, notes Fretz, it is because the community has “moved far enough culturally” that they are around the table as people of faith. Omaha—international headquarters for five companies, including ConAgra and Berkshire Hathaway—has long attracted a culturally diverse population. As racial tensions of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century began to give way to improved relationships, the city has enjoyed a relatively high degree of cultural integration. As the integration continues in the civic, education, and business arenas and people’s children come together on a daily basis, the need to find new ways to interact as neighbors has become more pronounced.
“We’re not trying to create a new religion,” says Fretz. “Instead, we’re trying to build a new mindset” that reflects the cultural reality the children already live in. Some parents may still struggle with the speed with which the country is integrating, but their children are moving comfortably into that new reality.
“When parents watch their children, it’s powerful” says Nancy Kirk, Tri-Faith Initiative’s executive director. Especially when it comes to faith, because faith raises profound questions. “Where, parents are asking themselves, is the God story?” The answer, Kirk says, is the story of the “God we encounter inside us.” By focusing on the God children encounter on the inside, Interplay is able to raise children to embrace their own experiences, while respecting those of their playmates.
Thus, Interplay highlights the differences in the three Abrahamic traditions, while binding the overlap among them with a concept shared in all three traditions—“Love your neighbor.” The expression is spoken and practiced. In addition to attending Interplay meetings together, parents and children are active in community activities, which recently included preparing food for orphans in Sierra Leone.
“We are trying to become children of faith, together,” says Fretz. The parents are buying in—literally. The first two years of the program were funded out of Fretz’s own pocket. In year three, a Muslim group provided a check to cover the expenses.
The essence of this new mindset Interplay is trying to build is captured beautifully in the prayer that begins each session:
Oh, God… / As we begin / Our time of play / Help us to You / Our hopes convey / Of peace and joy / The whole world through / We share with all / Our faith in You. / By being here / We learn to share / To understand / The weight we bear / The world we will change / Through love and light / By the little things / We do tonight. / Amen and Ameen.
Choose Your Neighbors
Religious living lies at the heart not just of Interplay, but the heart of what motivated the leaders of the Jewish and Muslim communities to lay the groundwork for what will be the Tri-Faith campus. The tale of how this occurred has taken on storied qualities in and around Omaha. Talk with people, and most will point first to Rabbi Aryeh Azriel, leader of Temple Israel, who made a stand against religious intolerance when he gathered a group in the hours after the attacks of September 11, 2001, to join hands and protect the mosque against any who might decide to damage it. In that act, the rabbi created a bond of trust with the Muslims.
Four years later, the synagogue made the decision to leave its facility on Cass Street and build a new one. The decision to move was complicated, in part, by the excellent relationships Temple Israel enjoyed with the First United Methodist Church that lies directly across Cass Street, as well as the Omaha Community Playhouse which sits next to the synagogue. The three share their parking lots on high holy days and during special performances. They are, says Rabbi Azriel, “good neighbors.” Freeman concurred and asked a logical question. Is it possible to “select our neighbors and make the land more amenable to us and our partners”?
On a fall morning in 2005, as Rabbi Azriel recalls, Freeman had walked to Temple with yellow pad in hand and hit him with the idea. Azriel, drawing on the good will established in the wake of encircling the mosque in the wake of 9/11, thought immediately of the Muslims and arranged a meeting at Benson Public Library.
Freeman describes the meeting, and the reason for its success, succinctly. “The Muslims came with the right group of people, serious intention, and a plan to go forward.” Heading the Muslim contingent was Dr. Syed M. Mohiuddin, Chair of the Department of Medicine at Creighton University. A highly respected member of Omaha’s civic community, Dr. Mohiuddin’s commitment to the project left little doubt about the seriousness with which the invitation to Benson Library was greeted. Nancy Kirk, who was not in attendance, reflects on another aspect that captures the hearts of those who attended. “Everyone brought food,” she says. “And they came ready to talk about their fears,” she reports.
After the Benson meeting, the two sides were ready to move. But both wanted a third partner. Following considerable discussion, and a friendly suggestion from author Diana Butler Bass, the Jews and Muslims reached out to the Episcopal Church as a partner. The Reverend Tim Anderson, then Canon to the Ordinary for the Diocese of Omaha, was assigned the task of talking with the Tri-Faith leaders. Several discussions and a golf game later between Freeman and Anderson, and the Episcopalians were onboard.
Such is the arc of how TFI came about. But what drove the leaders and their communities? Beyond the benefits of sharing space, why would these prominent people and organizations risk so much for the sake of a Tri-Faith organization? And what, exactly, will life in at the Tri-Faith center look like? How will the communities themselves be shaped by this?
As with Interplay, it comes down to community, and learning to live together.
Temple Israel and Rabbi Azriel
Rabbi Azriel may have opened the door to a relationship with Omaha’s Muslims when he stood in defense of their mosque in 2001, but clearing the path at Temple Israel to make Tri-Faith a reality has taken more time.
Over lunch at Au Bon Pain, Azriel recounts one of the minority voices that confronted him when the concept about building the synagogue’s new home alongside the Muslims and their new mosque became known at Temple Israel. “I was asked by one person an honest question: What will you do when someone rolls a hand grenade down the center aisle?”
His winding answer reveals much about his personal commitment to community, and how TFI is a natural extension of the community he has worked to build at Temple Israel and in greater Omaha for more than a quarter century. “I came to the United States in 1973,” he says, to work at a summer camp. “I discovered liberal Judaism here,” and then returned to Israel in time to witness the October War. Afterwards, “I attended funerals for two of my friends and U.S. travelmates” who were killed.
Azriel was not drafted after graduating high school in Israel in 1967—the year of the Six Day War—because he spent the first 14 years of his life paralyzed by polio. The effects are still visible today in his walk. Unfortunately, the two funerals he attended were not the first, or last, for his classmates.
There is a general “melancholy that is all over the Middle East,” Azriel notes. In America, and through the Tri-Faith Initiative, he sees an opportunity to produce “a great healing for me that isn’t possible in Israel.” The pain that Azriel and others in the Middle East feel is “constantly repeating itself” he says. For that reason, he continues, “we have to live [love of neighbor] every day,” not just at one-time gatherings.
Because his desire to move his congregation toward the Tri-Faith Initiative is rooted in his own experiences of Arab- Israeli conflict and the tragedies he has witnessed, he understands that this has to work at the community level. As a part of what will occur once TFI is complete, he wants to see Jewish scholars come to Omaha and study, to learn from Muslims and Christians, and to develop new ideas for interfaith living. But he is adamant that the effort remain locally focused.
“I’ve never thought about [what we’re doing with TFI] as a light to the nations. Before becoming a light to the world, we must be a light to ourselves.” Ultimately, he continues, “it’s about what the community wants.”
Relationships, he presses, are at the heart of all this. “Jews don’t even know that much about Christians, much less Muslims,” he notes. “That needs to change, and will only happen in community.”
Families at Temple Israel can relate, but early on, several didn’t share his approach to improving Muslim-Jewish relationships. Eventually, however, he won them over. “What people want is a rabbi who knows them and cares about their lives,” he observes. Rabbi Azriel certainly does. Wendy Goldberg, program director for the Temple, says that what most people don’t know about Rabbi Azriel is that through the process of bringing the families of Temple Israel along with the TFI vision he “sat down one-on-one with member after member” to talk about this move.
He promised—and he has followed through on his commitment—that a “Temple first” attitude would be maintained throughout, says Freeman. Nothing was going to happen that wasn’t in the synagogue’s best interest. He’s done the same on the issue of transparency. Goldberg cited that as her major fear, that all parties wouldn’t be open. “That hasn’t been the case.”
Still, when members are asking questions about hand grenades rolling down the aisle, one is reminded that the fears of the community are real. What are Rabbi Azriel’s fears? “I have only hope, no fear” he says. In light of what he has come through, it’s understandable. TFI, he comments, “will be an open door into each other’s lives so that we see each other not through glass as in a zoo, but face-to-face. Then, we will realize the establishment of justice.”
And if the hand grenade comes? “I’ll jump on it.”
The American Institute of Islamic Studies and Culture and Dr. Sayid Mohiuddin, M.D.
Dr. Mohiuddin has traveled a very different path to Omaha and to the Tri-Faith Initiative. Born in India where he received a medical degree, he arrived at Creighton University Medical Center some 40 years ago to complete his internship and, later, a cardiac fellowship.
He and his family were warmly greeted. “We rented an apartment from an Italian family,” he recalls, who made us part of their family. His career enabled him to move among Omaha’s professional class, which, he says, “was more accepting” of his practice of Islam. None of this, however, blinded him to the problems that Muslims in America have to confront, especially since 2001.
“The move to establish a new mosque in Omaha grew from a small group of professionals” who recognized that Islam was growing in Omaha and a new mosque would be required. Beyond this, he continued, we also wanted to launch a “teaching facility for Muslims and non-Muslims … to clarify and correct the many misconceptions about Islam.”
The mosque and American Institute of Islamic Studies and Culture will create a change in Omaha and, Dr. Mohiuddin hopes, across the nation. That change will come, he believes, when people “have a good understanding of their own religion…. Then, you’re more likely to respect the beliefs of others.” For the members leading the movement to build the AIISC, that change will begin with the children of Omaha, as reflected in the organization’s goals:
- Build a unified, cohesive and informed American Muslim community in Omaha, Nebraska.
- Invest in our youth to become agents of change and the leaders of tomorrow.
- Change the paradigm of interfaith dialogue where respect comes first.
Despite the support of Omaha’s professional community, however, and the 100- plus families who will make up the core of the new mosque, the path to build the AIISC has not been a primrose one. When the idea to enter the Tri-Faith Initiative first arose, Mohiuddin notes, the Islamic Center of Omaha—the current mosque in the city—was supportive. A change in leadership, however, caused a rift in the community as more conservative elements worried the Tri-Faith Initiative would “create a new religion.” The same concern that some in the Jewish and Christian communities expressed.
Though this division in the Muslim community has been difficult, it has in no way slowed the movement. “We march forward,” Dr. Mohiuddin remarks, “because of the people; God’s will, I suppose.” And many of these people come from the greater Omaha community. The universities, for example—the University of Nebraska at Omaha and Creighton University, a Catholic university—have encouraged their students to engage in Tri-Faith events.
Dr. Mohiuddin believes the time for the AIISC and Tri-Faith is now: “Islam is growing in Omaha and across the United States,” he says. “Right now, Muslim identity is strong because of the adversity we face, but that is going to change” as the faith becomes more visible and integrated in American society.
“We are very aware of our limitations,” he says, and aware of the work ahead. The most combustible topics between Muslims and Jews in Omaha—Arab-Israeli relations in the Middle East, for example—will be difficult ground to walk, and Tri-Faith isn’t there yet. “We are not going to establish peace or solve the Middle East” problem, Dr. Mohiuddin says. “Our goal is to start a journey to learn to co-exist,” to talk, and more importantly, to live together.”
The Episcopal Church and the Reverend Tim Anderson
On the Sunday before the planning session for the Tri-Faith community was held, some 35 people gathered at St. Augustine’s Episcopal Church in Omaha’s western suburbs to continue an ongoing discussion about the Tri-Faith Initiative. They represent members of several Episcopal congregations in Omaha who have voluntarily agreed to also be a part of what will be the Episcopal presence on the Tri-Faith land.
Leading this group is the Rev. Canon Tim Anderson, who now serves as Canon for Episcopal Tri-Faith Ministries. Unlike AIISC and Temple Israel, the vision for the Episcopal congregation is more externally focused. “We want this to be about the wider church,” Anderson says. “We’re a faith community, not a parish or a mission.”
The need to take this approach is driven in part by finances. It is unlikely that the Episcopal community in Omaha could raise the funds necessary to build a new church building on its own. The moral support and commitment of the larger Episcopal Church in America will be required. And to this point, they have it. Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori has been out front on this issue. With this level of support, Anderson is sure the money can be raised.
But what will be constructed? That’s what the people gathered on Sunday evening are wrestling with. Basic questions, such as will we become a parish or be the keepers of the new facility, and how will we form community if our role is that of keepers, are being explored.
Nancy Kirk, TFI’s executive director and an Episcopalian who worships at St. Andrew’s of Canterbury in Omaha, sees a Christian community grounded in the strength of Omaha’s people. “We want to build a community and not a church as we know it,” she says. “We aren’t interested in taking parishioners from other local churches to create something new.” Currently, most participants in the Sunday evening service worship at a local congregation on Sunday morning. In so acting, says Kirk, “they show remarkable commitment to this project and their local parishes.” Episcopal Tri-Faith Foundation envisions the Episcopal Chuch as the welcome mat for all Christians interested in the Tri-Faith experience.
She also sees a community in which technology plays a significant role. Instead of requiring people to come to Omaha to participate and learn from what is happening at TFI, Kirk would like to see TFI bringing that information to congregations across the country and the world, leveraging the power of the internet.
Anderson sees the value in what is happening as vital to Christian dialogue as well as to interfaith dialogue. In fact, he echoes Dr. Mohiuddin’s concern that a significant part of the new facility will be teaching not only non-members about faith, but members of faith communities about their own beliefs. “We have to raise Christians who can articulate their own faith,” says Anderson. “As they grow in confidence in their own stories,” so too their ability to interact with and live peacefully with their Jewish and Muslim brothers and sisters will grow.
Clearly, the community aspect of the Episcopal community will be different from their Jewish and Muslim partners. The grains of a model are there—an outward focus, a technical orientation, a commitment to teaching peace and understanding— but much remains to be worked out.
All of this is fine with Anderson and the Jewish and Muslim partners. At the end of the day, making Tri-Faith work is more about the ability to talk openly and honestly about creating communities that live into the same space. And honesty, both Anderson and Kirk say, has been the hallmark of everything that has transpired to this point.
“We started with the understanding,” says Anderson, “that we have to deal with the tough questions first. In dealing with these, we’ll build honest relationships. After all, we’re all children of God.”
Right now, he acknowledges, the hard questions are not about religion. Those will come, says Kirk. Right now, the emphasis is more on growing respect and an ability to co-exist.
The fears that had to be settled up front, says Kirk, were two: “Each party wanted to be sure that it owned its own building. And each party owned up to fearing evangelism, so they agreed not to do it on the campus.” For now, TFI has found that honoring these two boundaries has been enough to unite all parties and keep the Tri-Faith Initiative moving toward reality.
If all goes well, the campus will be completed by the end of 2015. Then, the harder theological and political questions will begin as Christians, Muslims, and Jews are able to live into those discussions through face-to-face, community interactions.
Can It Really Work?
Though the Tri-Faith Initiative has come a long way since 2005 when Rabbi Azriel and Bob Freeman proposed the idea of choosing good neighbors, it’s clear that a lot of work remains. Temple Israel will no doubt see difficult days ahead as it begins digging into the hardest questions with their Muslim neighbors about the Middle East. The Muslim community, now at about a 100 families, has set an ambitious goal of growing that number to 1,000 families in the next five years. And the Episcopal community will have to resolve its fundamental questions about what their community will be and how it will work. Moreover, though Anderson is sure the money will be there to build the community, the Episcopalians still have a lot of fundraising to do.
Beyond these pragmatic issues, the three driving leadership forces, Rabbi Azriel, Dr. Mohiuddin, and Canon Anderson will be near retirement age by the time the TFI campus is completed Who will step up to fill their very large shoes, and can they do this with the same spirit of generosity these three men have?
The cynic may well say these obstacles are too big to overcome. But the cynic’s urges should be curbed.
Because TFI has grown slowly over the past seven years, a level of communication and trust exists among these three Omaha faith communities that may well not exist in quite the same way anywhere else in the country. That comes through most clearly when, talking to both leaders and laity, a common language is detectable.
“Love your neighbor,” “talking about fears,” “we’re not building a new religion,” “respect,” and “hospitality” are just some of the shared terms and expressions that one consistently hears. They are not glib; they are an honest vocabulary the community has built while talking through the problems they have faced already.
Difficult conversations lie ahead; leadership issues will emerge. But no one involved in TFI looks worried about these. Why should they? Communication—honest, shared discussion—has been the hallmark of this project from the beginning. So long as this remains at the heart of the project, Tri-Faith can survive and thrive.
How do we know? Because already the people involved “know the names of each other’s children.” And that is an unshakeable foundation upon which to build this new approach to interfaith living.
Martin Davis directs the Congregational Resource Guide at the Alban Institute. Before Alban, he worked as a journalist in Washington, DC, and his articles have appeared in a wide range of publications, including National Journal, Philanthropy, Washington Post, New York Daily News, and PGA Tour Magazine, among other.