At a time when the nation feels more divided than ever, one unlikely group in Omaha, Nebraska, is trying to bring people together.
The Tri-Faith Initiative is a unique experiment in unity, sprawling across 38 acres on the edge of the city, almost smack in the center of America. There's a synagogue, a mosque and a church — and on Saturday, Tri-Faith introduced a new interfaith center, the final piece of a plan that was years in the making.
"Sometimes people assume that the fact that we've come together and that we're so connected means that we're trying to create a blended, homogeneous faith, and that is absolutely not what Tri-Faith is about," said Rabbi A. Brian Stoller. "It's like a neighborhood. And each neighborhood lives in its own house and has its own values and belief system."
Their goal? To learn about the "religious other," and in turn, become more tolerant and less fearful.
"We're talking about celebrating each other's faith and becoming stronger in our own faith by doing so," said Dr. Ali Khan, dean of the College of Public Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and board chair of Tri-Faith. "Just because you learn a lot more about Islam or Christianity, doesn't mean you can no longer be a good Jew."
Wendy Goldberg, the initiative's executive director, recalled witnessing the ritual washing performed by Muslims before prayer one Friday afternoon and leaving with a "holy envy."
"Not a day has gone by since that I have not stopped to think about that when washing my hands or in the shower," she said. "And the opportunity for me to learn something from the religious other that in fact deepens my own faith. That doesn't make me Muslim — not at all."
A long time coming, and a long road ahead
The idea behind the initiative was formed about 15 years ago, when leaders from Omaha's Muslim and Jewish communities were discussing their needs for more space and a potential shared parking lot. Their conversation sparked an idea: What if they share not just parking space, but an entire interfaith campus?
After a yearslong search, they purchased land in 2011. Temple Israel was the first to build on the property, opening its synagogue in 2013. The American Muslim Institute's mosque and community center opened in 2017, followed by Countryside Community Church in 2019. The campus also includes a bridge that connects all three houses of worship, as well as an orchard and garden.
But the plan wasn't without controversy. Along the way, skeptics voiced concern about people from different religious backgrounds sharing space in such proximity, and 200 families left the Christian congregation after the move to the Tri-Faith campus was announced, although Goldberg points out that was partly due to location reasons.
The new interfaith center, which is meant to serve as a welcome center and event space once COVID-19 restrictions ease, is considered the final brick-and-mortar piece of the vision that began so long ago.
"We've been dreaming about it and getting the particulars in place and now we have to actually live in it, and that's where the challenge comes in," said Rev. Chris Alexander, associate minister of the Countryside Community Church.
By challenge, she means learning to understand and appreciate each other's faiths, taking a hard look at "problematic" texts within each of their scriptures, as well as overcoming cultural differences. For Alexander, that includes confronting how people from various religious backgrounds may not recognize women in leadership roles.
"I run across challenges in my own faith every bit as much as I do in the Muslim faith or the Jewish faith," she said. "But it is a challenge, nonetheless. There are individuals within each faith that don't recognize female leaders."
While the opening of the Tri-Faith interfaith center marks the completion of one chapter, its leaders say that it marks the beginning of another — and they may not see the effects of colocating for many years.
A new interest in interfaith communities
A Gallup poll last year showed that church membership has declined sharply in the past 20 years, especially among millennials.
Yet Goldberg said she's seen lots of interest from "emerging professionals" who are less interested in their "grandmother's version of church" than they are in finding a "community of meaning."
"Our coming together is a movement for justice," she said. "That kind of purpose speaks to that younger crowd."
It's also not lost on Goldberg or any of the faith leaders that the opening of their interfaith center coincides with a time in history marked by shocking division, racial turmoil and a presidential election like never before.
"What I perceive as an inability to see others' world views and respect their way of thinking and believing is a crisis in America, and reflects a spiritual illness in our society," Stoller said, adding that he thinks what he and the other faith leaders are doing is part of the "antidote to that illness."
That mutual respect, they believe, begins with relationship building.
"It is friendship, what we created here," said Imam Mohamad Jamal Daoudi. "We are working together, laughing together, attending panel discussions together, teaching about each other's faith. That kind of spirit, you would never see it in a different setting."