[Episcopal News Service] Omaha, Nebraska may not be the place that some imagine as fertile ground for the prospect of the three Abrahamic faiths finding common ground but, the vision of such peaceful co-existence has taken a major step towards becoming reality.
The Tri-Faith Initiative of Omaha announced Dec. 13 that it has completed the purchase of four adjacent parcels of land, amounting to about 35 acres, on a former golf course in the heart of Omaha. The course is being turned into Sterling Ridge, a development that will also include single-family homes, an assisted-living facility, office and retail space and a hotel.
Tri-Faith is a partnership of Temple Israel, the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska and the American Institute of Islamic Studies and Culture. Eventually what Tri-Faith calls “a multi-faith neighborhood of collaboration” will encompass a synagogue, a mosque and an Episcopal church along with an ecumenical center.
Each group owns a portion the 35 acres, according to a Tri-Faith press release.
The Omaha World-Herald reported that Temple Israel owns 14 acres while the mosque, church and ecumenical center will hold four acres each. The remaining acres are green space, including the creek, which is called Hell Creek.
Each group said it paid about $4 per square foot for the land, which would be around $170,000 per acre, the newspaper reported. All three faith communities have engaged architects and the first buildings are expected to be completed in 2013, Tri-Faith said in a press release.
The Rev. Canon Tim Anderson, diocesan canon for Tri-Faith Ministries, said in a press release that an Episcopal community that will worship on the site is already organized under the name “Episcopal Tri-Faith Ministries.” The community will eventually choose a name that “clearly identify us as a Christian church, make people of all denominations feel welcome, and reflect our commitment to interfaith work,” Anderson said.
The community began meeting in Lenten worship on Sunday evenings at St. Augustine of Canterbury Church in Elkhorn, Nebraska where the gathering is divided into what Anderson said is “First Table” and “Second Table.” First Table is the Eucharist and the Second Table is a time for a light meal and a discussion, often centering on understanding other faiths. “We regularly have members of the Islamic and Jewish communities drop in to share in the conversations,” Anderson said.
Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori called the Tri-Faith Initiative “one of the foremost examples of what is possible when siblings dwell together in peace.”
“The Abrahamic traditions share a common vision of what a healed world looks like, and this community in Omaha is a living model,” she said. “This story needs to be more widely told and replicated, for when people can engage in deep and holy conversation that encourages the true valuing of difference and treasuring of common vision, we begin to enter the heavenly city.”
Tri-Faith’s goal is greater understanding through greater proximity. “Experience teaches us that interaction can transform intolerance, ignorance and fear into understanding, respect and trust,” Bob Freeman, Tri-Faith Initiative board chairman, said in a press release. “These basic values are shared by the three Abrahamic faiths and are rooted in our Midwestern culture.”
Tri-Faith’s vision statement says that by working together, “our vision is to build bridges of respect, trust and acceptance, to challenge stereotypes of each other, to learn from one another, and to counter the influence of extremists and agents of hate.”
The neighborhood part of the initiative is significant, according to Anderson. “There are lots of great interfaith dialogues which happen around the country and around the world,” he said. “But when the event is over, people leave the hotel and fly home. We’re already home, and tomorrow we will see the same neighbors every day.”
Representatives of the three member faith traditions at a Dec. 13 press conference officially announcing the land purchases said that the initiative fits well with their faith and their communities.
John Lehr, president of Temple Israel, said it is “serendipitous … that on the very ground where Omaha’s Jews once congregated at the only country club that would have us, we are now poised to congregate again, but this time in a peaceful and beautiful multi-faith neighborhood, linked together by bridges of dialogue and mutual understanding.”
Anderson said the venture will give Episcopalians “a unique opportunity” to live out [the church’s baptismal covenant] promises with our new Jewish and Muslim neighbors.”
And Dr. Syed M. Mohiuddin, president of the Islamic institute, spoke about the global urgency of developing interfaith relationships. “In a time when the world is engaged in building walls, this is a celebration of building bridges,” he said, noting that the Quran says “Our God and your God is one and the same.”
Officially launched in late 2006 after years of discussion, Tri-Faith Initiative began as a series of conversations between Temple Israel, a historic Reform Judaism congregation in downtown Omaha, and the American Institute of Islamic Studies and Culture, both of whom want to establish congregations in west Omaha. Temple Israel, having outgrown its current landlocked facility, plans to relocate to the new site, while the Islamic community will start a new congregation.
Early on, the two sought a Christian partner for the initiative so that the three Abrahamic faiths would be represented. After being turned down by one Christian denomination, they turned to the Diocese of Nebraska, which embraced the concept, according to the Rev. Ernesto Medina, rector of St. Martha’s Episcopal Church in Papillion (a suburb of Omaha) and a member of the Tri-Faith board of directors.
— The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is an editor/reporter for the Episcopal News Service.
St. Martha’s Episcopal Church in Papillion