Godly Experiment: Omaha's Tri-Faith Initiative Welcomes Newest Congregation

June 27, 2019, 6:45 a.m. ·

Countryside Community Church at the Tri-Faith Commons in Omaha. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

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After more than a decade of planning and building, a unique religious experiment in Omaha is ready to start in earnest. The seeds of the Tri-Faith Initiative were planted thirteen years ago, and now three distinctly different faiths are all close neighbors on a 38-acre plot of land. Tri-Faith is a work in progress, but is already building bridges of understanding.

At the brand-new Countryside Community Church, the Reverend Dr. Eric Elnes is happy to show a visitor around. It’s not just the custom wooden pews, high ceilings and huge windows he’s proud of.

“We had a coffee house in the old building and when the architects asked what is your favorite space in the building and everybody said the coffee house, so we knew we had to put in a good coffee house, so we put in a spectacular coffee house,” Elnes said.

But a lot more than coffee is brewing inside this church. New ideas are percolating as well. Countryside is the latest congregation to settle near 132nd and Pacific in Omaha. Three Abrahamic faiths, Islam, Judaism and Christianity, are all moved-in just a short distance from each other, joined in the middle by a walkway they call Abraham’s Bridge, which ironically crosses over Hell Creek.

The Reverend Dr. Eric Elnes at Countryside Community Church in Omaha. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

“This sanctuary and our chapel are the only places in the world that we’re aware of where you can see an Islamic mosque and a Jewish synagogue from the inside of a sanctuary,” Elnes said.

Although the Tri-Faith Initiative has been building for more than a decade, it hasn’t been until now that all three congregations were fully moved-in next to each other. Elnes says this is when the interesting part starts.

“You can do interfaith work and just simply kind of dwell in the “hey, we all believe in love, isn’t that great?”, but it really doesn’t get interesting until you then start to deal with differences as well,” he said. “How do you negotiate those differences?”

Next door at the American Muslim Institute, Imam Mohamad Jamal Daoudi is getting ready for another day at the mosque, which was completed in 2017. He shows a visitor around the sanctuary where members pray.

Imam Mohamad Jamal Daoudi at the American Muslim Institute in Omaha. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

For Daoudi, the idea of Tri-Faith is simple.

“Places of worship, for some, have been a reason for divisiveness and differences and problems and it is the time to bring it back to the reality that you have to unite people regardless of their faith,” Daoudi said.

Convincing some members of all three congregations the Tri-Faith Initiative is a good idea hasn’t been easy.

“We are not creating a mono faith or a new faith. It is three distinctive faiths,” he said. “We are not typical. We have some differences, but yet we tolerate and we overcome that and we focus on our commonality. That is not an easy issue to do.”

Senior Rabbi Brian Stoller leads Temple Israel, a synagogue established in 2013. It sits on a small hill in full view of the church and mosque.

Senior Rabbi Brian Stoller at Temple Israel in Omaha. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

“We see this as the next phase of this incredible enterprise,” Stoller said. “Now that we’re all here on the campus together, we’re able to elevate our work in ways that we haven’t been able to do previously not being in the same location.”

So far, the clergy from all three faiths have spoken and led workshops for their neighbor congregations. Soon, the three congregations will start an adult learning program that will rotate among facilities. And it’s a lot easier to trade ideas.

“If I have an idea or if Reverend Elnes or Imam Jamal has an idea, just walk over and we talk about it and I think our conversations are always creative and energetic and opportunities just arise and we can act on them very quickly,” Stoller said.

By this time next year, a fourth building will be complete, the Tri-Faith Center, a welcoming facility under construction between the church and the mosque. It will complete a vision started in 2006. Wendy Goldberg is the interim executive director of the Tri-Faith Initiative.

Tri-Faith Initiative Interim Executive Director Wendy Goldberg. (Photo by Jack Williams, NET News)

“We’ve had 13 years to slow bake the relationships between the clergy and the lay leadership, but this intentionally living together is an opportunity to let that seep and grow into the members of the congregation and the community at large,” Goldberg said.

As the Reverend Dr. Eric Elnes at Countryside Community Church completes his tour, he’s confident the Tri-Faith Initiative could change how religions all over the world interact.

“What’s happening here is not only just a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, it’s not even a once-in-a-millennium opportunity, really we are putting our fingers on dynamics that make peace-making possible that literally haven’t existed since the foundation of all three faiths,” he said.

It’s a grand experiment in the heart of the Midwest, an experiment that could change the face of religious understanding.