A bishop is looking for a church?
That wouldn't seem to be a problem. This particular bishop, after all, oversees 53 of them.
But Bishop J. Scott Barker of the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska isn't looking for one he could visit. Instead, he'd like to physically acquire a “prairie church,” put it on a flatbed truck and, God willing, move it to Omaha.
“We're turning to the hope that there's a congregation out there with a church that's been cared for but needs a new lease on life,” Barker said. “Let us come in, scoop it up and spirit it away.”
If the spirit is behind the idea and logistics work out, he hopes that a church could be moved to the site of Omaha's unique tri-faith campus — the only place where Jewish, Islamic and Christian congregations are intentionally planning to build houses of worship in the same place.
It's south of 132nd and Pacific Streets on the former Highland Country Club golf course, more recently known as Ironwood. The 35-acre tri-faith campus sits in a corner of the 153-acre Sterling Ridge retail-office-residential development.
The problem is that Episcopalians, the Christian part of the project, don't yet have the funding for a multimillion-dollar church. As an interim solution, they are hoping to find a house of worship in decent condition that could be transported to the site.
“There is great enthusiasm,” the bishop said, “for possibly finding an abandoned prairie church with an iconic white steeple. Folks love the idea of a resurrection story, a dead building coming back to life.”
The tri-faith campus is expected to bring wide attention to Omaha — a model, perhaps, for understanding, tolerance and warmth in a world of political and religious turmoil.
After 9/11, leaders of Temple Israel, Omaha's Reform Jewish congregation, reached out to members of the Islamic community. Interfaith gatherings grew, and the Episcopal Diocese joined what became the Tri-Faith Initiative.
In 2006, local leaders of the three religions agreed they would not seek to recruit from the other groups. In 2009, more than 1,100 people attended an Omaha interfaith dinner with national leaders of the three faiths.
Temple Israel was looking for a site for a new synagogue and invited the two other groups to build nearby. By December 2011, all three had purchased land, hired architects and begun fundraising.
Groundbreaking for the synagogue took place last April, and construction should be finished by August or September. Groundbreaking for the mosque is planned for this summer.
The Episcopal Diocese, which spent $1.2 million to acquire land, wasn't ready to break ground.
“We faced the daunting reality of having to build a structure, and original hopes included a grand design,” Bishop Barker said. “In the short term, we're not going to get that done.”
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He met with Susan Lawler, a photographer and retired Creighton University theology professor, who traveled Nebraska over several years taking pictures of old prairie churches.
She told the bishop that finding one wouldn't be easy. Some are in disrepair; others are used for storage by ranchers. Still others are simply abandoned.
In the basement studio of her Dundee neighborhood home, she told me she was struck by the handmade craftsmanship in some of the old churches, schools and social halls.
“I began to get the sense that they were built back in the 1800s by people who had very little,” she said. “That they bonded together to do it really struck a chord with me.”
Her photo show, first exhibited in 2007, was called “Remains of Faith: A Pioneer Legacy.”
Her photos were enough to give Bishop Barker hope.
Vic Gutman of Omaha, who is Jewish and the fundraiser for the group building a mosque and study center — the American Institute of Islamic Studies and Culture — said the Tri-Faith Initiative is eager for a Christian church to complete the triad.
“The main thing,” he said, “is to get the three houses of worship — a church, the synagogue and the mosque — open as soon as we can.”
Once they are in place or moving forward, plans can proceed for a fourth interfaith structure for joint gatherings, study and discussion.
A wood-frame Episcopal church, he noted, “would be different from the temple and different from the mosque,” which have envisioned varied limestone exteriors.
Gutman said he felt confident that the Tri-Faith board would support the Episcopal diocese “to make sure something happens on their site.”
Bishop Barker said the plan for a tri-faith campus is “a phenomenal idea” and remains a priority of the diocese despite the financial realities.
When the idea of acquiring an interim church first came up, he said, he thought it was a joke.
“Then I turned it over in my mind and thought of all the beautiful, abandoned or nearly abandoned churches that I pass on lonely Nebraska roads,” he said. “Those churches are great icons of Christianity on the Great Plains.”
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