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In Omaha, Neb., A Dream Of A Shared Religious Space


It's not a secret that this country is struggling with some important questions around religion right now, especially questions about what faith demands and how much religious diversity this country can tolerate. So you can see why this story about the Tri-Faith Initiative in Omaha, Neb., got our attention. The Initiative's working to create a shared religious space that will eventually bring together a mosque, a church and a synagogue on a single campus. The synagogue is open now, and the Initiative hopes that the rest will be open by the year 2018. And I'm joined now by three leaders from the Tri-Faith Initiative. Rev. Eric Elnes is a senior minister of a Countryside Community Church. It's a congregation of the United Church of Christ. Rev. Elnes, thanks so much for speaking with us.

ERIC ELNES: Thanks, it's great to be here.

MARTIN: Dr. Syed Mohiuddin is a cardiologist, and he's also the president of Omaha's American Muslim Institute. Dr. Mohiuddin, thank you so much for speaking with us.

SYED MOHIUDDIN: My pleasure.

MARTIN: And Rabbi Aryeh Azriel is senior rabbi of Temple Israel in Omaha. Rabbi, thank you so much for joining us as well.

ARYEH AZRIEL: Oh, pleasure, thank you.

MARTIN: And Rabbi, I understand that your congregation actually initiated this project. Can you just tell us briefly how this all came about?

AZRIEL: It all came from meeting one day on a Saturday morning with a past president. We were then dreaming and thinking about moving to another location and suggested that maybe we can find other partners to be able to share parking lots.

MARTIN: Parking lots - that's definitely something that brings us together, isn't it?

AZRIEL: Why not? And so that's how it started. And we already had relationship with the Muslim community in Omaha. From then in 2006 to here, 2015, the dream is becoming reality.

MARTIN: You mentioned that you'd worked with the American Muslim Institute before. But I do want to mention that it actually was a very profound gesture that the members of Temple Israel actually went to the American Muslim Institute after 9/11 as a statement of - what would you say? - community and...

AZRIEL: Support.

MARTIN: Support, OK.

AZRIEL: Knowing what sometimes people are capable of doing and trying to prevent things from happening - that's why we came up with this idea because difficulty's what creates the meaning of our lives.

MARTIN: Dr. Mohiuddin, what about you? What were you all hoping to accomplish by joining this effort?

MOHIUDDIN: You know, as rabbi just said, our initial meeting was to discuss sharing of this space. But we soon realized that really what we are doing is sharing our hopes, dreams and then be able to learn to live with each other.

MARTIN: And Rev. Elnes, what about you? Your congregation voted, right, on whether to join this initiative. And what were some of the ranges of responses and opinions you heard from your group?

ELNES: Well, you'd think in light of today's climate that the range of opinion - the opposition came from people who were afraid to associate with Muslims. But actually, most of the people who were opposed were simply opposed because we have a beautiful building, been there for 65 years, and people didn't want to pick up stakes and moves. There's really no good reason at all for Countryside to do this other than the beauty of the vision of the Tri-Faith Initiative, which really matched our values and our ethos as a church - that Christian love of Jesus - or of God rather - includes walking fully in the path of Jesus without denying the legitimacy of other paths that God may create for humanity.

MARTIN: So I understand that this vote took place some time ago. What about in the wake of recent events? Has anybody raised questions about safety?

ELNES: There's no question that that's on people's minds in my congregation, and it's also on my mind, quite frankly. But the response of the majority I would say of our congregation was well articulated by a member on Wednesday night, who was just asked this very question - how are you feeling right now in light of these things? And he said, you know, my family had to sit down and ask have we put a target on our backs? Could something bad happen? And then he paused, and he said we realize that could be true. But it also then confirmed why we are here and why we are doing this. He said there's very few times in life where you're actually asked to take a stand for something that matters and where there may be a cost to it. And these are the very values we want to instill in our children and we want to embody ourselves.

MARTIN: What about you, rabbi? Does your congregation feel the same way? Has anyone expressed any reservations to you in light of recent events?

AZRIEL: There's definitely a fear that I heard. But there is also words of courage and enthusiasm about what we are doing. America has been very kind to the Jews. And there is a feeling among people in my community that it's time to give something back to America. So I think people now look at what we have been doing as Tri-Faith with very positive, uplifting feelings.

MARTIN: There's a saying that we sometimes hear that 11 o'clock Sunday morning is the most segregated hour of the week in America. And obviously, that's very specific Christians and the specific reference is to racial segregation in a sense that people have a desire sometimes in worship to be with their own and to have that moment - it's comforting. And I just wanted to ask if any of you - just this whole question of your own identity is in some ways compromised by sharing that space, even as you retain your own specific places of worship. Reverend - who wants to answer that first?

AZRIEL: Syed would like to...


AZRIEL: ...Start.

MARTIN: OK, go ahead.

MOHIUDDIN: OK, I will start. When we began to talk about the Tri-Faith Initiative, the very first thing we did was to assure that all of the three religions will retain their identity. The Muslim prayers in the mosque will be performed as they would anytime else. And similarly, the Christian and the Jewish services were performed independently. We are not creating a new religion. But we also realize that we are part of a single message from God.

MARTIN: Reverend, final thought from you on that?

ELNES: Sure. You know, some of our members asked me during that discernment process what's the benefit to Countryside Church? I would remarked that when you are in deep conversation with the other faiths, you learn more about your own faith. Given that all three of the faiths hold some really primary values in common, it's really helpful to hear how another faith approaches those very values that act on them.

AZRIEL: I want to continue - it's the rabbi. I think what we discover as a result of the last few years of working together so close to each other is that actually the involvement with other faith communities is strengthening the identity of the community in order to be able to engage in a serious, meaningful, deep dialogue. Jewish members of the dialogue definitely had to go and study and learn and explore their own roots, their own identity to be able to be prepared for the conversation on a high level by looking at the eyes of our children, by looking at who we are and by understanding that God's image is imbued in every one of us.

MARTIN: That's Rabbi Aryeh Azriel. He is senior rabbi at Temple Israel. And we also heard from Dr. Syed Mohiuddin - he is president of the American Muslim Institute - and Rev. Eric Elnes, who's pastor of the Countryside Community Church. They're all participating in the Tri-Faith Initiative of Omaha, Neb, and we spoke with them there. Thank you all so much speaking with us.

AZRIEL: Thank you.

ELNES: It's been a pleasure.

MOHIUDDIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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