Religious Bridge Building in the Heartland
When you think of Omaha, Nebraska, you might imagine its bitter winters, top-notch steaks, and famous hometown billionaire, Warren Buffett.
But what this city in the middle of the heartland does not usually conjure is unique experiments in interfaith relations.
And yet the city known as the “Gateway to the West” is now home to precisely that. Set on a 38-acre plot 20 minutes outside of downtown Omaha, the Tri-Faith Initiative is a community of three Abrahamic religious congregations — a church, a synagogue, and a mosque — all built next to each other.
Conceived in 2006 and operating as a physical campus of the three religious centers since last year, it’s perhaps the only international interfaith community of its kind in the United States.
"Building community and friendship starts with people just being around each other and getting to know each other."
The congregations — Temple Israel (a Reform synagogue), the American Muslim Institute, and Countryside Community Church (an affiliate of the United Church of Christ) — are each staffed by clergy who are men.
But the initiative’s nonprofit leadership team comprises women.
“There’s a lot of effort these days to bring people together across faiths, and it’s all really wonderful,” said Wendy Goldberg, the initiative’s executive director. “But this is different. We are all here together, praying, learning, talking to each other.”
Goldberg, 55, who has directed the organization since February 2019, was a founding board member beforehand and is one of four women in the 150-year history of Temple Israel — which moved to the campus from a prior location — to have been its president.
“Women have a huge role in faith, even if they are not necessarily ordained similarly across the board,” said Goldberg. “There are so many ways women contribute to faith communities, from congregational work in getting communities together and organized, to political work, to being spiritual thinkers and leaders. It all depends on the congregation and isn’t the same from one group to the other, even within the same faith tradition.”
Goldberg leads the campus 20 minutes west of downtown that’s located on the site of the former Highland Country Club, a “Jewish club” from the early-20th century, when Jews were rejected from other local social organizations. It was built and supported with more than $70 million that was raised from Omaha-area donors since its founding.
Part of the reason behind starting the initiative is the dismal data of who gets targeted by hatred in the U.S. According to a report from the Pew Research Center, Muslims and Jews together make up only 3% of the American population. Yet they account for nearly four out of five victims of hate crimes against a person’s religion.
That’s a statistic Goldberg wants to help change. “Building community and friendship starts with people just being around each other and getting to know each other,” she said.
Curiosity About Other Beliefs
In Nebraska, where 75% of people are Christian and 20% have no religious affiliation, the initiative has received broad support, even beyond the specific religious communities it serves.
Last year, the Union for Reform Judaism gave Tri-Faith its highest recognition, the Maurice N. Eisendrath Bearer of Light Award, suggesting it was a national model for interfaith collaboration.
Last month, the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska gifted $500,000 to the campus. The diocese’s bishop, J. Scott Barker, praised it as a site of “peace and reconciliation” in remarks to the Omaha World-Herald. Even without a presence on the site, the diocese believed the initiative’s interfaith collaborations helped its own community.
The campus has also provided individuals and their religious groups an opportunity to go beyond worship to study their own faiths and cultures.
A recent case study at the Pluralism Project, a research effort at Harvard University that documents religious communities in the U.S., profiled the initiative as an example of a place that intends to be not only interfaith but open to people of no faith and those outside of the denominations represented on campus.
While most Muslims in the U.S. are of the Sunni sect, for example, the American Muslim Institute is nondenominational, according to co-founder Syed Mohiuddin. The center’s goal is to “promote a sense of unity among all Muslims of Omaha, overriding cultural, linguistic, and geographic differences among them,” the Harvard study said. The Pluralism Project described Mohiuddin, a prominent local cardiologist, as having dreamed “of a place where the scholarly study of Islam … would promote a better understanding of Islam among non-Muslims and Muslims as well.”
"Our motto is to ‘isolate the virus, not the people,’ in this time when we need to find ways to be ‘together while apart.’ Spiritual wellness is so important right now, when it’s a time of uncertainty."
Before the pandemic, the Tri-Faith Initiative was a thriving community of worship, workshops, and panels, and it hosted an annual interfaith picnic. Everything changed in early March when Goldberg, the board, and staff were at a meeting and exposed to someone they later learned tested positive for COVID-19. The staffers and board were lucky to not contract the virus. They have since operated online along with the congregations.
"Our motto,” said Goldberg, “is to ‘isolate the virus, not the people,’ in this time when we need to find ways to be ‘together while apart.’ Spiritual wellness is so important right now, when it’s a time of uncertainty.”
During the pandemic, the initiative completed the construction of the final part of the campus: a welcome building called the Tri-Faith Center, which will be home to ongoing educational efforts once spaces reopen.
So far this summer, the initiative has hosted online conversations among clergy and community members on topics ranging from racial justice and faith to the history of Sikhism. In September, the campus will gather online for a community course on the “sociology of religion.”
That class, part of a monthly “whiteboard series,” will be led by Amanda Ryan, the initiative’s program director. She joined the staff in 2019 and is studying for a master’s degree in sociology at the University of Omaha.
“It’s beautiful that, even across computer screens, you can succeed in creating a space of exchange and learning,” said Ryan, 29, who said she’s been drawn to interfaith communities since growing up in Minden, Nebraska, a small town of around 3,000 that’s three hours west of Omaha. “It was a place where everyone was Christian, and I always was curious about people who had different beliefs.”
Growing up nominally Christian herself, she had watched the progress of the Tri-Faith Initiative with excitement as an undergraduate taking courses in religious studies at the University of Omaha. She converted to Judaism in 2017 after years of studying the faith and five years after Temple Israel opened its 58,000-square-foot building on the campus.
The 15,000-square-foot American Muslim Institute followed in 2017, and the 65,000-square-foot Countryside Community Church opened in 2019. A round bridge that goes over a creek, Abraham’s Circle, connects the three congregations and the new welcome center.
In a time of questions and conversations about community health, racial justice, and other major national topics, Goldberg said she hopes the Tri-Faith Initiative can be a “lens” for connection and growth, for not only people of like minds but “those who are trying to learn from those different from themselves.”
“The initiative is a lens for many who feel they are called by God,” she said, “to do the work of getting to know their neighbor and the world.”