NEBRASKA: Three faith groups launch journey to new campus; deeper respect

February 25, 2009

In Omaha, Nebraska, the children of Abraham are on a bold journey together. They are out to show the world that members of the three Abrahamic faiths -- Judaism, Christianity and Islam -- can work together, trust and accept each other, counter misunderstanding and fear, and even co-exist on an interfaith campus.

The TriFaith Initiative of Omaha is a partnership of Temple Israel, the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska and the American Institute of Islamic Studies and Culture. Officially launched in late 2006 after years of discussion, the organization is now experiencing momentum with the recent hiring of an executive director and with its first public event slated for March 27, which will bring national faith leaders, including the Episcopal Presiding Bishop, to Omaha.

The organization's primary purpose is the creation of three new houses of worship, all located together on an "interfaith" campus, in the rapidly growing area of west Omaha, the nation's 42nd largest city with a population of nearly 433,000. Also proposed for the campus is a center for interfaith collaboration and learning.

A journey of mutual respect
The TriFaith 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 a 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 Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska, which embraced the concept, explained the Very Rev. Ernesto Medina, dean for urban mission at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Omaha and a member of the TriFaith board of directors.

"There is really no other Christian denomination that has the spiritual foundation to do this successfully," said Medina. "We have the ability to imagine the best way to represent our Christian faith, yet also be true to our Anglican beliefs, which embrace diversity. We have the open doors."

In addition, the Diocese of Nebraska already had long-range plans to start a congregation in the growing western area and owns a parcel of land there.

After signing a memorandum of mutual understanding in November 2006, the initiative's board of directors set about planning its relationships and mission. It did so in an unconventional manner, said Nancy Kirk, TriFaith's executive director.

Kirk, who started her work with the TriFaith Initiative in October 2008, is a member of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, Omaha. She has a background that includes 25 years in nonprofit management and a longstanding interest in interfaith relations.

Kirk said the first thing the participants did was to address their worst fears.

"This is not a standard way to build an organization," she said, "but it demonstrated the participants' commitment to respect each others' individual beliefs and practices."

She said that by putting on the table all of the barriers that might come up, the group had the opportunity to decide their commitments at the beginning.

"At the top of the list was evangelism," said Kirk. "There were honest fears that attempts might be made to lure members from one denomination to the other."

That fear was resolved by the first "founding principle" in the memo of understanding, "the need to be separate," which says that each participant agrees to "completely respect the beliefs and practices of the other participants" and that "no participant shall engage in proselytizing."

Kirk said that often such interfaith relationships tend to focus first on commonalities, which sometimes tend to exhaust themselves early on. She said the Omaha initiative decided first to focus on differences.

Medina said new understanding of and respect for those differences has already begun to transform the participants.

"The result has been that we have each become better aware of who we are. I personally am a better Christian because of my relationships with Muslims and Jews," said Medina. "It has called us to a new sense of who we are. That's the journey."

Modeling reconciliation
Kirk said the members of the TriFaith Initiative are also committed to a relationship that counters the way some faith groups are currently interacting in the world, one that "models reconciliation over conflict."

The group's vision statement calls for "building bridges of respect, acceptance and trust to challenge the stereotype of each other, to learn from each other, and to counter the influence of extremists and the agents of hate."

The TriFaith Initiative needed to test its vision in January when the board heard "grave concerns" by the Muslims over Israel's attacks in Gaza. Kirk said most of the meeting was given over to an emotional discussion resulting in the selection of three persons to draft a communiqué.

Selected to speak for the initiative were an Israeli-born Reform Jewish American rabbi; an American Muslim professor born in Palestine; and a Nebraskan Episcopal priest.

What resulted was an op-ed piece that appeared in the Omaha World Herald by Rabbi Aryeh Azriel, of Temple Israel, Naser Alsharif, of the Islamic Center, and the Rev. Canon Tim Anderson, of the Diocese of Nebraska. The headline read: "War Will Not Rend Interfaith Project."

The writers said, "We heard each other's memories of war -- pain and fear, dreams for the Holy Land. We cried. We hugged. Our years of conversation and education had clear rewards as we witnessed and felt the pain of the others."

They also expressed hope for "peace and coexistence" in the Holy Land saying that "politics alone will not end this conflict."

"Today we, the leadership of the Tri-Faith Initiative, call upon ourselves to honestly reawaken our consciences, including progressive change to build relationships, to honor and respect the other. We raise our voices to work toward peace."

The interfaith leaders said that "despite the strong feelings roused around our table by the crisis in Gaza, the initiative continues to move forward and remains committed to its first public event which will focus on seeking peace."

Going public
Kirk said that much of the work the past two years has been "underground, planting seeds and establishing the roots."

"Now," she said, "it is time to burst through the soil, spring forth and let the community know what we are about."

On March 27 at Omaha's Qwest Center, the TriFaith Initiative will sponsor a discussion called "Dinner in Abraham's Tent: Conversations on Peace," and will welcome the national leaders of the three religious bodies represented in the initiative: Rabbi Peter Knobel, president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis; Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori of the Episcopal Church; and Dr. Ingrid Mattson, president of the Islamic Society of North America. The conversation, following a dinner, will be moderated by Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

The event will begin with evening prayer services of all three faiths. Medina, a member of the program committee for the event, said the original plan was to have an interfaith service, but people really expressed a desire to see "how the others do worship." Participants will now gather in a sacred space created in the convention center for three brief services: Jewish Shabbat, Episcopal evening prayer and Muslim afternoon prayers.

Medina said that no changes will be made to the liturgies and there will be no commonalities other than "we are all praying to one almighty God."

Kirk explained that in Hebrew tradition the legend of Abraham's tent is that its doors were open on all four sides to welcome visitors from different directions and different persuasions. "The doors will be open wide on March 27," she said. "This event is all about hospitality."

Kirk also said the TriFaith Initiative may be able to conclude its first public event with an announcement that land for the new campus has been secured. The group has recently made offers on two parcels of land.

If not, she said, "it will happen when it is supposed to happen. It's all in God's good timing. Our journey continues."

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