Of all the places in the world for a mosque, a synagogue and a church to be built next to each other on purpose, why Omaha?
How did the local participants come to trust each other enough to move forward on a project that will cost each millions of dollars? Is there something different here — not just on the 35-acre plot of land where the houses of worship will be built, but also on this larger patch of earth we call Omaha?
Last Thursday morning I met with four leaders of the Omaha tri-faith project — a Muslim, two Jews and an Episcopal priest — and we all asked each other that question. Lots of cities conduct interfaith gatherings, but no place else is doing what Omaha is doing.
In a world of turmoil — political, economic, religious and otherwise — the three faith groups are trying something very different in Omaha. They announced in my Sunday column that each has now purchased the land, hired architects, begun fundraising and is moving forward.
At our meeting last week, the Rev. Ernesto Medina of the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska, which is planning a church on the tri-faith site southeast of 132nd and Pacific Streets, called the Omaha plan "radical and new."
"I don't know of any other place where this could happen but in Omaha," said Medina, who arrived four years ago from Southern California. "There's something about the relationships that already existed, something already naturally embedded in the culture. There's an ability to listen and an integrity of shared understanding of the earth that God has given us."
Trust and understanding result from people truly getting to know each other, and not just at interfaith picnics.
Dr. Syed Mohiuddin, who is Muslim, said that in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Rabbi Aryeh Azriel of Temple Israel came to the mosque on North 73rd Street to defend it, if necessary, from people who were angry about extremist Islamic terrorists who attacked the U.S.
Interfaith efforts in Omaha are not new. Boys Town was founded in 1917 by a Catholic priest from Ireland, Father Edward Flanagan, who took in boys of all faiths and soon received key financial and moral support from Henry Monsky, a Jewish lawyer in Omaha.
In 1938, Omaha started a chapter of the National Conference of Christians and Jews. The story goes that Otto Swanson, head of Nebraska Clothing Co., was approached by a businessman whose group was promoting a secret boycott of Jewish businesses.
The group would encourage people to shop at Swanson's store because it was "Christian-owned." An indignant Swanson showed the man out — and with others soon formed the local chapter of NCCJ.
Johnny Rosenblatt, who was Jewish, served as Omaha's mayor from 1954 to 1961. Omaha's religious tolerance at one time may have outpaced its racial openness; there were no black teachers in public schools until 1963.
And yet when a federal court in 1976 ordered the Omaha Public Schools to bus children to integrate classrooms, Omaha — in contrast to Boston, Louisville, Ky., and elsewhere — was a model of calm. Even if not everyone in Omaha liked the busing.
So maybe there's a Midwestern "politeness" factor that is part of the culture that the Rev. Medina has observed.
In any case, the Omaha tri-faith effort is gaining notice elsewhere.
The Harvard University Pluralism Project is following developments. A national Jewish publication printed an article about Omaha's plan. An author who calls himself "the Optimistic Muslim" asked whether Omaha was becoming the interfaith capital of the world.
The ecumenical National Council of Churches announced Friday that it will honor the Episcopal church in Omaha as a model interfaith congregation.
The Omaha tri-faith effort began with Temple Israel, which wanted a site for a new synagogue and had already engaged in interfaith gatherings with Muslims and Christians.
The local Muslim group, called the American Institute of Islamic Studies and Culture, agreed to be part of the effort. Next in the fold came Episcopalians.
A 2006 memorandum of understanding included an agreement that no faith group would proselytize, seeking to recruit from one of the other groups. In 2009, more than 1,100 people attended an Omaha interfaith dinner with national leaders of the three faiths.
Because all three faiths descended from the biblical Abraham, the event was called "Conversations in Abraham's Tent."
The Tri-Faith Initiative, which is the coordinating group, kept looking for locations. Then the former Ironwood Country Club was sold for a future retail, residential and office development, Sterling Ridge. A 35-acre corner there will make up the tri-faith area.
Neighbors in homes just to the south, unfortunately, lost their lovely views of the golf course when developers tore down trees and scraped the land flat.
Nancy Kirk of the Tri-Faith Initiative said Monday that the group will work with architects and with neighbors who have asked for an earthen berm, landscaping and fencing. A meeting will be held in late January.
Meanwhile, the tri-faith project moves forward, with a formal announcement today. Of all places on the globe, could a mosque, a synagogue and a church be intentionally built next to each other only in Omaha?
I think not. It could be done elsewhere. But so far, Omaha is the only place preparing to do so.
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