Omaha's unique plan for a church, a synagogue and a mosque on the same plot of land has reached a milestone — each faith group last week purchased its property.
The schedule calls for the synagogue and the mosque to open in late 2013, to be followed by the church and a fourth building, a tri-faith center.
It's expected that the project, when completed, will draw wide attention to Omaha. Nowhere else in the world, leaders say, is a community intentionally building such houses of worship adjacent to each other.
"We are not trying to solve the world's problems or make peace in the Middle East," said attorney Bob Freeman, who is Jewish and chairman of the coordinating organization, the Tri-Faith Initiative. "We're just trying to make sure each of the three faith groups succeeds in buying the land and will get their faith buildings built. Once that is done in this common neighborhood, good things will happen over a very long period of time."
That neighborhood is a 35-acre corner of the former Ironwood Golf Course, east of 132nd Street and south of Pacific Street. For many years the course was part of Highland Country Club.
The irony of the location for such interfaith cooperation is that Highland originated out of religious discrimination — it was started by Jews who weren't allowed to join other country clubs.
On a humorous note — especially for those who see this tri-faith effort as heaven-inspired — the longtime name of a stream running through the property is Hell Creek. It will be spanned by what participants informally call "Heaven's Bridge."
Though the tri-faith plan has been discussed publicly for the past two or three years and privately before that, participants described the official closing on the purchase of the land last week as tangible evidence that the project will succeed.
"It's a beginning, but it is certainly a major step forward," said Dr. Syed Mohiuddin, a Muslim who is chairman of the Department of Medicine at Creighton University. "This is the step that gives us the confidence that this is not just a dream, but a reality."
The participants in the tri-faith effort are Temple Israel, the American Institute of Islamic Studies and Culture and the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska.
For the first time, the groups provided a site map and disclosed the planned layout. The area of the synagogue is the largest, 14 acres; the mosque, the church and the tri-faith center each would be around four acres. The remaining nine acres are green space, including the creek.
Each group said it paid about $4 per square foot for the land, which would be around $170,000 per acre. It was purchased from Lockwood Development, which is turning the former golf course into a retail, office and residential center known as Sterling Ridge.
In another sign that the tri-faith project is on track, each group has engaged architects: Finegold Alexander and Associates of Boston for Temple Israel; Slaggie Architects of Omaha and Kansas City for the Islamic Institute; and Goldman Architects of San Francisco for the Episcopal Diocese and the tri-faith center.
Fundraising continues. The Islamic group estimates its total cost, including the 15,000-square-foot mosque and activity center, at $5 million, with $3 million pledged so far. Its fundraiser, Vic Gutman of Omaha, is Jewish.
"We have known Vic for a long time," Dr. Mohiuddin said, "and he has always been very supportive of our cause."
Temple Israel's project, about 55,000 square feet, is estimated at more than $20 million. The 140-year-old Reform Jewish congregation, at 70th and Cass Streets since 1954, announced in May that it had received pledges for much of that.
John Lehr, the congregation's president as well as president of the Grace/Mayer Insurance Agency, said much work remains. But most people at Temple Israel are excited about a new synagogue, he said, as well as a move to "a peaceful and beautiful multi-faith neighborhood, linked together by bridges of dialogue and mutual understanding."
The Rev. Ernesto Medina of the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska said planning for a church has begun only recently, but that the diocese is fully committed.
He noted that there are many Christian denominations. As the one taking part in the tri-faith project, he said, Episcopalians recognize the effort's importance.
"In addition to establishing a local congregation," he said, "we also will represent the face of Christianity in that neighborhood. We look forward to the challenge. We are not anxious about it. We are excited about the privilege."
Freeman, Mohiuddin, Lehr and Medina gathered for a joint interview Thursday at the offices of the Episcopal Diocese in downtown Omaha. A press conference will be held Tuesday afternoon.
Despite the significance of the land purchases, there was no dramatic joint-signing of the closing documents. Each group did so separately.
"The fact that there was no drama about it is kind of nice," Medina said with a shrug. "We're Nebraska."
But neither was he downplaying the importance of what lies ahead. As Medina has said, Omaha's tri-faith project may be beyond the imagination of most people, "but not beyond the imagination of God."
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