Today’s The Day! Monday, August 1: the day we fly to London. Tomorrow morning we will be met by our son Carter and Jennifer, his fiancée. Meanwhile, read my latest post about the remarkable experiment now taking shape in Omaha, which I visited last week…
The gentle cardiologist had a soft voice, and sometimes I had to lean closer to be sure I heard every detail. Sitting in a booth at an Omaha restaurant, we were sipping ice tea and lemonade, and Dr. Syed Mohiuddin was telling me about being in his mosque on September 11, 2001. “Rabbi Azriel was the first person to come. He intended to protect us. We will never forget that moment.”
The story of the Tri-Faith Initiative could well start there, although I’m also curious about how an Israel-born rabbi and a congregation of Muslims in this midwestern city had become friends. As it turned out, there was no attack by anti-immigrants or Islamophobes that day, but their instinctive solidarity was telling: these people really do know each other. They really do love each other.
And their actions are speaking loudly. The synagogue is finished. The mosque is under construction. The church is on the drawing board. Within a few years, there will be three congregations and an interfaith center on a single campus in a beautiful location. Dr. Mohiuddin (left) and I met with Wade Heidemann (right), the construction supervisor, at the construction site on Tuesday afternoon. A cement pumping truck with its graceful long neck was reaching up and out to fill in a trench carefully prepared by five guys in the hot sun. The hillside had been carved flat to accommodate the basement level of the American Muslim Institute’s striking new building. Groundbreaking was two months ago. In the construction trailer, Wade showed us the drawings for all the levels of the building, which will include a small basketball court, a prayer area, and day-care rooms.
The front of the building will be all glass, facing the neighbors, Temple Israel. The synagogue is already there, built in 2013, right across the unfortunately-named Hell’s Creek from the American Muslim Institute. Dr. Mohiuddin told me the footbridge would be called Heaven’s Bridge.
The top of the minaret is a five-pointed star, which is very American, but could also be Somali, Algerian, Cuban, or Filipino. What really struck me, though, was that this was going to be a nondenominational mosque. Not Sunni or Shi’a, not Sufi or Ismaili, not Somali or Saudi or Turkish. Just Plain Muslim. I can’t think of ANY Christian churches that are truly nondenominational. Christian denominations branch like trees; almost never like rivers:
- The National Cathedral is sort of nondenominational, but it’s pretty Episcopalian. The Catholics built their own, the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in D.C. The name is uniquely Catholic. Not to be confused with Virgin Birth, Immaculate Conception is a term which neither Protestant nor Orthodox folks use. It refers to an 1854 Papal teaching that Mary was born sinless, thus assuring that Jesus would, some years later, be born from a “vessel” untainted by Original Sin.
- The Church of South India is a combined Protestant denomination in an overwhelmingly Hindu country. That’s a parallel to the Omaha Muslim situation.
- a search for nondenominational churches in Google yielded page after page of evangelical Protestant churches. That’s nowhere near as broad as what AMI is hoping for.
A nondenominational mosque couldn’t happen in the Middle East, Dr. M said. Maybe Malaysia. He urged us, when we go to Malaysia, to figure out how Sunni and Shi’a manage it. He said that AMI is committed to a new paradigm of respect between religions, as well as between Muslim denominations. AMI used to be called the American Institute of Islamic Studies and Culture. It’s not just a mosque. In that sense, it’s similar to the Islamic Center of Minnesota in Fridley. Here’s a photo of Dr. Mohiuddin, President of the AMI and Professor of Cardiology at Creighton University Medical School.
The Tri-Faith Initiative
Dr. Mohuiddin pointed out how the logo of their Muslim Institute shows the pages of scripture extending out of the box. Opening borders is essential to the work of any inter-faith initiative. In fact, leaders of all three faiths spent years meeting, hosting panel discussions, and dreaming about how, someday, they could do something substantial together. He told me that in 2006, the TFI officially incorporated, and in 2009, they hosted Dinner In Abraham’s Tent, for 900 people, at which three national leaders spoke passionately about the special creative genius at work in Omaha. They were Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori, Islamic Society of North America President Dr. Ingrid Mattson, and Rabbi Peter Knobel, from the Central Conference of American Rabbis.
“We’re looking for a place where we can intentionally choose our neighbors,” wrote Temple Israel’s Vic Gutman at the time. They were outgrowing their existing worship space and parking lot. At first, when the land became available, it was just Temple Israel, led by Rabbi Azriel and some very enthusiastic lay people like Gutman and Bob Freeman; and of course the American Muslim Institute. By 2011, the two congregations, Jewish and Muslim, were buying land together, and Temple Israel broke ground on the east side of Hell’s Creek.
Earlier today, I was reading about singer-songwriter Craig Taubman, who bought an old Presbyterian church in L.A. and turned it into a shared house of worship called the Pico Union Project. It’s now home for Korean Christians, the famous Womens’ Mosque America, a whole bunch of Jewish groups, a weekly salsa group called Vida Sana, and a cool-sounding midsummer night’s shabbat. In response to all the hand-wringing about how people of different faiths need to have dialogue, he said,
“I’m tired of the dialogue. I’m trying to create an actual practice…. the only way to love your neighbor is to know your neighbor.”
For a time, the third neighbor–the Christian partner–was going to be the Episcopal Church. The Diocese of Nebraska put a million dollars into the initiative to help buy the land, but when Bishop Barker took over in 2011, he asked some very basic questions: ‘Do any of our existing parishes want to move?’ (No.) ‘Will a significant number of Episcopalians leave their existing parishes to join a new one to be built on the TFI campus?’ (No.) ‘Are the major donors in our Diocese enthusiastic about building a new parish on the site?’ (No.)
It must have been a sobering moment for him.
I met Bishop Scott Barker on Wednesday in his office in downtown Omaha. He’s a native Nebraskan who knew most of the people involved in the Initiative, and I could tell that he had not relished the process of giving up this particular amazing dream. But the Diocese had no choice: with only 8000 members in the entire state, their main priority has to be strengthening the few parishes they have in growing urban areas like Omaha and Lincoln. They also need to keep tending lovingly to the little churches in all the shrinking rural towns.
Fortunately, the people of Countryside Church were ready. Quietly the leaders of the Episcopal Diocese and Countryside discussed a handoff, and an official invitation was extended. Countryside pastor Eric Elnes invited the congregation to spend 40 days in their small groups and in bigger forums to discuss whether it was worth considering the invitation to pick up and move.
Countryside is a Congregational church, which means it is considerably more autonomous than Episcopal churches are. It’s got 1000 members, a location in a great Westside neighborhood, a rather modern building, with plenty of staff, an actual coffee shop inevitably named Common Grounds, and ample parking. They’ve been host to Interfaith Dialogues of various kinds for twenty years or more. Their senior pastor is a nationally-famous bridge-builder. At the end of 40 days, 70% of the members voted yes to taking the invitation seriously to become the Christian partner in the TFI, taking over from the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska.
Their next step was to invite an architect to meet with everyone and talk about what they would want, ignoring money for the moment. When I spoke to him Wednesday, Senior Pastor Eric Elnes (below) explained it was either what they were being called to do, and they’d need to find the money; or it was not what they were being called to do; in which case they wouldn’t have to worry about finding the money. The result: a proposal to relocate on the other side of Hell’s Creek from the synagogue, in the greenest church building in the country, with a sanctuary and classrooms more or less comparable to their existing facility, as a committed partner in the Tri-Faith Initiative. Instead of talking about loving some abstract neighbors, they were going to move in next door. The second vote was more than 70%. Here’s the bell tower of Countryside’s present building on Pacific Avenue:
About 10% of the congregation decided to leave, which was not unexpected, but certainly sad. But the initiative has otherwise energized the congregation, and the buzz of creativity enlivens the many small groups which helped immensely in discerning whether this was God calling or some lesser ambition.
Shortly after the vote, the church decided to invite clergy from Temple Israel and the American Muslim Institute to take part in services. An upcoming sermon series on the life and identity of Jesus ended up being the perfect venue, though some worried that it would be too divisive: Jews and Muslims do not worship Jesus as the Son of God. It was perfect, though. People don’t have to agree with one another to learn from one another. From my friend Rabbi Alan Shavit-Lonstein I have learned that a lot of those “gotcha” passages in the Gospel where Jesus appears to be ambushed by Pharisee debaters could have been, instead, sincere discussions among people dedicated to creating a new Judaism. The Christians and the Pharisees were the only groups to survive the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E.
And I’ve learned that the world’s billion-plus Muslims believe in the miracles of Jesus, his mother’s virginity, and they expect to meet Jesus himself on Judgement Day.
The TFI campus is a part of a former golf course. From the hillside above, here’s a view of the site of the future Countryside Church, now being graded. The AMI building I visited Tuesday is out of this picture to the left. Temple Israel is the beige-and-white building across the creek, behind the trees.
Temple Israel, Omaha’s biggest Reform synagogue, has a breathtaking campus. There is a spacious lobby, a library and classrooms with floor to ceiling windows, an office wing, an outdoor amphitheatre, a courtyard, a stained-glass walkway toward the sanctuary, an intimate chapel with a round skylight, and a welcoming sanctuary.
Program Director Scott Littky (right) showed me around the place, and also raised some interesting questions I had never thought about. The three congregations are all members of the Tri-Faith Initiative, but how will they relate to each other and to the TFI? Who will organize joint activities, and how will staff at each institution relate to each other and to the shared work of the TFI? I will be curious to see who comes in as Executive Director of the TFI, which will have its own building and board, carefully composed of members of all three congregations.
Scott also pointed out that each of the three congregations has a different culture when it comes to the division of labor among staff and members. Everyone at the mosque, so far, is a volunteer. Soon, they will hire an Imam, and later on a building manager and childcare center director. Countryside and Temple Israel both have 20 or so professional staff already.
I was lucky enough to sit in on the regular Thursday morning Adult Ed class: 30 seniors, mostly Jewish but a few Christians like me, led by Cantor Shermet. Her topic: ways to heal stress in our lives. She surveyed the stresses in Omaha’s Jewish community right now.
- at Temple Israel, the beloved 28-year Rabbi Azriel has just retired and the two new rabbis don’t “know” us yet.
- Some in the congregation are concerned that the Tri-Faith effort might be too much of a drain or a distraction. And they think maybe they need to keep such thoughts to themselves. Shermet reassured everyone that Tri-Faith was a very important part of life at Temple Israel, but said they are making it very clear to prospective rabbi candidates that they will be serving the people of Temple Israel, not the Tri-Faith Initiative.
- The local Jewish Day School is struggling to keep up enrollment.
- People are torn between involvement in religious activities and the many other demands of their daily lives.
- The news from Israel is so discouraging.
- Being a member of a sometimes-misunderstood minority in Omaha is challenging.
The group clearly enjoyed the discussion, and thinks highly of Cantor Shermet. She went on to remind everyone of the Jewish resources of prayer, study, family life, and singing which all help heal stress. Here’s a photo of the bimah of Temple Israel’s main sanctuary.
So a Rabbi, an Imam, and a Minister walk into a bar…
Comedy Central’s Daily Show With Trevor Noah sent reporter Ronnie Chang to Omaha this last winter to humorously misunderstand the Tri-Faith Initiative. Dr.Mohiuddin, Rev. Elnes, and Rabbi Azriel all play along, including walking into a bar. The congregations went on to host a series of Ask Me Anythings at that same Irish pub, mostly attended by Countryside people.