National faith leaders model peacemaking at historic interfaith event

March 31, 2009

Saying it was the beginning of a "journey of passage" for Abrahamic people in the United States and beyond, Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori joined with national leaders of Judaism and Islam for an historic "Conversation on Peace" on March 27 at the Qwest Center in Omaha, Nebraska. The conversation was part of "Dinner in Abraham's Tent," the inaugural public event of the TriFaith Initiative, a partnership of Omaha's Temple Israel, the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska and the American Institute of Islamic Studies and Culture.

The primary goal of the TriFaith Initiative is to create an interfaith campus in west Omaha with three separate houses of worship along with a center for interfaith collaboration and learning.

Joining Jefferts Schori in the discussion were Dr. Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America, and Rabbi Peter Knobel, immediate past president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis. All three leaders said the event was historic and had the potential to demonstrate a new model of peace and reconciliation between Jews, Christians and Muslims, not just in Omaha, but throughout the world.

"I think that initiatives like this in Omaha can change reality on the ground here in the United States," said Jefferts Schori. "When Americans believe it is possible for Jews, Christians and Muslims to live together in peace in their very own community, they can begin to challenge their legislators to make that reality a reality in the broader society."

"I think the world can be challenged by the witness that is happening in this very place," she said.

Knoebel said it is possible for people to "draw the presence of God into the world and change the world … The TriFaith Initiative is drawing God down from the heavens and God's presence is going to be manifest in powerful ways—ways we have not seen in other examples. God is working miracles right now," he said.

Knoebel said that "if it's possible in the heartland," it has to also be possible in Washington and other places. He said he believes the message going out of Omaha is going to spread and bring about many new possibilities for peace.

Jefferts Schori said the event and the TriFaith Initiative mark the beginning of a passage "through a new kind of Red Sea, out of the slavery that says we can go it on our own, that God does not intend for us to be in relationship with our brothers and sisters."

"We are being freed from a sense of exclusion and isolation, which is slavery," she said.

The hour-long conversation, moderated by Mark Pelavin of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C, gave the three leaders opportunity to comment on several topics around the theme of peace and reconciliation, ranging from individual definitions of peace to the current situation in the Middle East to how faith communities can use their collective voices to lobby for justice.

"A Conversation on Peace" was webcast live and recorded. It is available for viewing on the TriFaith Initiative website here.

An impact far beyond Omaha

A video presentation preceding the program suggested that a way to counter stereotypes, hatred and fear is to build bridges of mutual understanding and respect, another goal of TriFaith Initiative. The Very Rev. Ernesto Medina, dean for urban mission at Trinity Cathedral, Omaha, and a member of the TriFaith board and program committee for the March 27 event, said there was a lot of bridge building at "Dinner in Abraham's Tent."

He said that people dream of the kind of peacemaking that was modeled at the March 27 event and ask why it can't be.

"When people see this, find themselves physically in the presence of it, it's a powerful thing," said Medina. "It creates a lot of hope for our world."

"Isn't it nice to have hope?" he said.

Medina also said the event, which included a worship service featuring "authentic prayers" from each faith community, helped people become informed about the other traditions. He said the participants in the TriFaith Initiative truly want to learn each other's faith stories and the worship service provided a remarkable opportunity for that.

The worship time included a Jewish Shabbat (Sabbath) service, an Episcopal service of evening prayer and an Islamic afternoon prayer service.

"To live both our differences and similarities in worship was a profound experience," said Medina.

The Rev. Canon Tim Anderson, canon for development for the Diocese of Nebraska and a founding member of the TriFaith board said the event was a very successful "public launch" for the TriFaith Initiative and generated a lot of interest and enthusiasm.

He said that there has been a "small nucleus" of people involved in the project over the past two years, but that "Dinner in Abraham's Tent" introduced the initiative to a large group of new people.

Anderson also said that Episcopalians throughout the Diocese of Nebraska have shown broad support for the project, some of them driving five and six hours to participate in the March 27 event.

"People all across the diocese are excited about this opportunity, "said Anderson. "It is clear that many want to get to engage with their brothers and sisters in faith to build new levels of understanding and respect."

Anderson also said he expects the TriFaith Initiative to be a benefit to the Episcopal Church beyond Nebraska.

Bishop Christopher Epting, deputy to the Presiding Bishop for ecumenical and interreligious relations, agreed.

"One of the reasons we now have a regional office in Omaha is the very fact of this TriFaith Initiative," said Epting, who is based at that office.

"It is a perfect example of the kind of creative, cutting-edge thinking which is happening all around The Episcopal Church, but which is seldom reported or noticed by the secular media. The regional offices are not in place simply to translate Church Center programs to ‘the grass roots' but to discover and learn from such missional initiatives in parishes and dioceses across our nation and world."

With "Dinner in Abraham's Tent" successfully behind them, Anderson and Medina said the next major step for the TriFaith Initiative will be to secure land for the interfaith campus. They said negotiations are underway.

Temple Israel, a historic synagogue in downtown Omaha, has outgrown its location and will relocate entirely to the new campus. The Islamic community and the Diocese of Nebraska will both start new congregations.

-- Joe Bjordal is Episcopal Life Media correspondent in the dioceses of Provinces V and VI. He is based in Minneapolis, Minnesota.