Creating the Peaceful Community
A Bold, Flagship Experiment in Living Well Together...and a query
by Bud Heckman
Interfaith Experiment in America’s Heartland
Numerous efforts have been made over time to bring people of different walks of faith together and think creatively about the meaning of community and accountability. Yet few visions are as refreshingly bold as what has been happening in Omaha, Nebraska. When I was invited to come see the work for myself, I was blown away. And it’s not easy to impress a rather hardened student of interfaith relations, a globe-trotter, and New Yorker.
On the grounds of a former Jewish country club, which had come into being only because Jews weren’t welcome at the “other” country clubs, a campus of shared faiths is emerging. A place formed from legacies of human division is being refashioned into a beacon for human togetherness. And just for a dash of irony, Hell’s Creek runs down the middle of the inviting prairie land that separates the campus buildings out on the western edge of Omaha.
A Post 9/11 Silver Lining
The origin of this community is one of the silver lining stories which became manifest in response to the horrors of 9/11. In this instance, Rabbi Aryeh Azriel felt called to go to protect the local mosque with his congregants. What started out as basic conversation with Dr. Syed Mohiuddin led to friendship that led to deeper conversations which eventually gave way to a vision of being in intentional community together. The underlying idea was that if you can’t solve the tension of faiths in the Middle East maybe you can model a vision of success somewhere else. Why not Omaha? And why not model it in such a way that it becomes infectious and is replicated?
Beginning in 2006, the principals from leading Jewish, Christian, and Muslim communities started planning what it would mean to live in intentional community with one another. Despite knowing that there was some skepticism and reservation within their congregations, they persisted to build a campus where a synagogue, a mosque, a church, and a shared “tri-faith center” could be. They have locally raised an impressive $65 million dollars for the effort. The synagogue and mosque are complete and stunning. The church – which had no need to move or have a new building but felt absolutely compelled by the project – broke ground and will open on the developing campus in 2018.
A few haters started challenging the idea, which assured them they were on to something good, and then no less than CNN, NPR, and even Comedy Central came knocking to see what exactly was going on in Omaha.
"You might be asking... but why just Abrahamic religions? Tri-Faith’s initial response is that they started with immediately available natural relationships and a glaring need for Abrahamic solidarity following 9/11, but they are open to engaging with people of other faiths in programming and activities going forward. In their words, their sense is that “Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share a monotheistic belief system. Our traditions have many names for God and use several languages for our sacred texts, but we share a belief in the God of Abraham. While the Tri-Faith partners share an Abrahamic faith, we invite and encourage people of all religions to visit and interact on our commons.”
A Tri-Faith Center
“This is something God wanted us to do a long time ago, and we were completely blinded by doing other things," Aryeh Azriel, the now rabbi emeritus at Temple Israel, told NPR.
The next phase in the project is the Tri-Faith Center, where the togetherness of the three communities – Temple Israel, Countryside Community Church, and American Muslim Institute – will be lived out more directly. Particularly beautiful is the deliberate paced and relationality of the process. The three congregations don’t yet have a prescribed vision for what they will do with one another, but they are committed to and excited about the possibilities that will emerge as they learn how to love each other more deeply. Right now, they are moving to the stage of hiring leadership for the Tri-Faith Initiative and beginning to live into what they might do together “for the betterment of humanity.”
If you have any suggestions for next steps, please comment below. We welcome your suggestions. All comments will be shared with the Tri-Faith Initiative leadership.
Header Photo: Tri-Faith Center – Photo: Tri-Faith Initiative