A mosque, a church and a synagogue go up on the former site of a Jewish country club …
It sounds like the setup for a joke, but it’s not. It’s actually happening in Omaha, Neb.
The Tri-Faith Initiative may be the first place in history where these three monotheistic faiths have built together, on purpose, with the intention of working together.
The project has inspired some, antagonized others.
In a tony suburban section of Omaha, kids at Countryside Community Church were singing “Away in a Manger.” Upstairs, in the church’s expansive, modern coffee shop, the Rev. Eric Elnes said this was going to be one of the United Church of Christ congregation’s last Christmases at this location.
“We love our building. There is literally no good reason to move whatsoever, except to follow this Tri-Faith Initiative, which has really, absolutely moved our hearts,” Elnes said.
And the congregation will move — to a hilly, 38-acre plot bisected by a creek near the edge of Omaha at 132nd and Pacific streets. The church will sit in one corner, with a mosque in another, facing a beautiful new synagogue, built with stone quarried in Jerusalem.
Jews, Christians and Muslims have a history of working together in Omaha. On Sept. 11, 2001, Aryeh Azriel, the rabbi at Temple Israel, and his congregants helped protect one of the city’s mosques. When Temple Israel voted a decade ago to move to the suburbs, leaders envisioned a multi-worship campus.
Almost a micro do-over of the Middle East.
“Judaism, like other religions, have the permission to read God’s mind,” Azriel said. His congregation moved to the Tri-Faith Initiative campus three years ago. “And we discovered that this is something God wanted us to do a long time ago, and we were completely blinded by doing other things that bring destruction and chaos to the world.”
Countryside church was eager and ready to take on the Christian part of the Tri-Faith partnership, buoyed by financial support from one of the church’s members, Susie Buffett, financier Warren Buffett’s daughter.
Azriel and other leaders saw an opportunity to reboot relations between the three Abrahamic faiths, in the open, civil climate of Omaha.
“It’s not a very good neighborhood in the Middle East, but Omaha is a unique place where those kind of relationships can exist,” Azriel said.
The American Muslim Institute is the Islamic leg of Tri-Faith. The group will begin construction on a mosque on the campus next spring; today the mosque is a few miles away in a small suburban office building.
“This is a challenging time, and I think it’s an invitation to work, and to love and to educate. And that’s what we’re doing,” said the institute’s Karim Khayati, who helped establish Tri-Faith in part to promote interfaith cooperation.
Khayati also said he hoped Tri-Faith will provide a sanctuary for suburban Muslims in Omaha.
The temporary mosque doesn’t attract many of Omaha’s 6,000 or so Muslims.
Mark Christian, an obstetrician/gynecologist who converted to Christianity from Islam, worries that setting up a place dedicated to promoting cooperation among Muslims, Christians and Jews could provoke terrorists.
“It is completely against the beliefs of Islam,” Christian said. “And it is going to set my community and my city of Omaha as a target.”
Christian emigrated from Egypt. He runs the Global Faith Institute, with a website that is largely devoted to warnings about what Christian sees as an agenda of global domination within Islam.
All the more reason that it feels right, said Doug Dushan, a member of Countryside church. He said attacking the foundation of extremist, separatist, ideology is exhilarating.
“It does reinforce that I think any development in any faith has happened against the grain,” Dushan said.
Frank Morris is national correspondent and senior editor for KCUR 89.3, Kansas City’s NPR affiliate.