Omaha may not be the place that some imagine as fertile ground for the prospect of the three Abrahamic faiths finding common ground but, the vision of such peaceful co-existence has taken a major step towards becoming reality.
The Tri-Faith Initiative of Omaha announced on Dec. 13 that it has completed the purchase of four adjacent parcels of land, amounting to about 35 acres, on a former golf course in the heart of Omaha, Episcopal News Service reports. The course is being turned into Sterling Ridge, a development that will also include single-family homes, an assisted-living facility, office and retail space and a hotel.
Tri-Faith is a partnership of Temple Israel, the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska, and the American Institute of Islamic Studies and Culture. Eventually what Tri-Faith calls “a multi-faith neighborhood of collaboration” will encompass a synagogue, a mosque, and an Episcopal church, along with an ecumenical center.
Each group owns a portion the 35 acres, according to a Tri-Faith press release. All three faith communities have engaged architects, and the first buildings are expected to be completed in 2013.
The Rev. Tim Anderson, diocesan canon for Tri-Faith Ministries, said in a press release that an Episcopal community that will worship on the site is already organized under the name “Episcopal Tri-Faith Ministries.” The community will eventually choose a name that “clearly identifies us as a Christian church, makes people of all denominations feel welcome, and reflects our commitment to interfaith work,” Anderson said.
Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori called the Tri-Faith Initiative “one of the foremost examples of what is possible when siblings dwell together in peace.”
“The Abrahamic traditions share a common vision of what a healed world looks like, and this community in Omaha is a living model,” she said. “This story needs to be more widely told and replicated, for when people can engage in deep and holy conversation that encourages the true valuing of difference and treasuring of common vision, we begin to enter the heavenly city.”
Tri-Faith’s goal is greater understanding through greater proximity. “Experience teaches us that interaction can transform intolerance, ignorance and fear into understanding, respect and trust,” Bob Freeman, Tri-Faith Initiative board chairman, said in a press release. “These basic values are shared by the three Abrahamic faiths and are rooted in our Midwestern culture.”
The neighborhood part of the initiative is significant, according to Anderson. “There are lots of great interfaith dialogues which happen around the country and around the world,” he said. “But when the event is over, people leave the hotel and fly home. We’re already home, and tomorrow we will see the same neighbors every day.”
Representatives of the three member faith traditions at a Dec. 13 press conference officially announcing the land purchases said that the initiative fits well with their faith and their communities.
John Lehr, president of Temple Israel, said it is “serendipitous...that on the very ground where Omaha’s Jews once congregated at the only country club that would have us, we are now poised to congregate again, but this time in a peaceful and beautiful multi-faith neighborhood, linked together by bridges of dialogue and mutual understanding.”
Dr. Syed M. Mohiuddin, president of the Islamic institute, spoke about the global urgency of developing interfaith relationships. “In a time when the world is engaged in building walls, this is a celebration of building bridges,” he said, noting that the Quran says “Our God and your God is one and the same.”
Officially launched in late 2006 after years of discussion, Tri-Faith Initiative began as a series of conversations between Temple Israel, a historic Reform Judaism congregation in downtown Omaha, and the American Institute of Islamic Studies and Culture, both of whom want to establish congregations in west Omaha. Temple Israel, having outgrown its current landlocked facility, plans to relocate to the new site, while the Islamic community will start a new congregation.
Early on, the two sought a Christian partner for the initiative so that the three Abrahamic faiths would be represented. After being turned down by one Christian denomination, they turned to the Diocese of Nebraska, which embraced the concept, according to Rev. Ernesto Medina, dean for urban mission at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Omaha and a member of the Tri-Faith board of directors.