USDA, Tri-Faith Center host summit countering antisemitism, Islamophobia

May 16, 2024, noon ·

Tri-Faith Garden
The Tri-Faith garden is a collaboration between the three faith communities housed on the Tri-Faith campus. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recognized the garden as a People's Garden at a summit on Thursday. (Photo by Mike Tobias, Nebraska Public Media)

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture partnered with the Tri-Faith Center in Omaha to host a summit this week about countering antisemitism, Islamophobia and other biases in rural communities.

The Tri-Faith campus has a mosque, synagogue, church and a center connecting them. Samantha Joseph, the director of the USDA Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, said those connections made it the perfect spot to host a summit like this.

“We had the opportunity to meet Tri-Faith last year, kind of by coincidence,” Joseph said. “When we learned about the work that they were doing here, the campus that they had built, it really felt like the right home for this convening.”

Attendees at the summit spent the first day learning about the different biases people face in rural communities. The second day was focused on how to combat those examples.

Rick MacInnes, chair of the Tri-Faith Initiative board, said the summit brought together people from across the country.

“What's been great about the summit is that the voices that are here come from Maine, California and all over the United States, so it's not just Nebraska, but there's plenty of people from rural Nebraska, that are here to understand to learn and to grasp what they can do in their own community,” MacInnes said.

Several organizations were represented at the summit, including the Center for Small Town Jewish Life at Colby College and the Islamic Networks Group.

Maha Elgenaidi, executive director of the Islamic Networks Group, said the best ways to overcome bias is to center Jewish and Muslim voices, stand up against bigotry and learn about the two communities.

“We are the largest religious minorities in the country, and there are a lot of stereotypes that people have about both communities,” Elgenaidi said. “In order to combat bigotry, anti-Muslim, anti-Jewish bigotry, it's incredibly important to learn more about both of these communities, their history in the country — there are many contributions — and just to understand their humanity and all of the things that they share with other faith communities, particularly the Christian community as Abrahamic people.”

David Freidenreich, the associate director of the Center for Small Town Jewish Life at Colby College, hoped attendees will leave with a deeper understanding of the different biases religious communities face and how to combat them.

“You can't understand antisemitism in America without understanding Islamophobia,” Freidenreich said. “You can't address one without the other, so to have both of those pieces together, and perhaps most importantly, for people to recognize the importance of being in conversation with one another, across the lines of difference that make each of us individually and communally special, but that difference doesn't have to divide us.”

Members of Tri-Faith pose for a photo in the garden
Members from the three faith communities on the Tri-Faith campus pose for a photo in the garden they cultivate. (Photo courtesy of Tri-Faith Initiative)

As part of the summit, the USDA recognized the garden at the Tri-Faith Initiative as a People’s Garden. Joseph, a USDA representative, said the Tri-Faith garden received the designation because it brings together members of different faith communities.

“We really think that growing food together, focusing on the values that we share across faith traditions, you know, which is nourishing kids and families and making sure everybody in this country has enough food to eat, is actually a really exciting and interesting way for interfaith communities to come together,” Joseph said.

Bringing people together with food is one way to break down those barriers, according to Joseph.

Corey Oldenhuis, the communications manager at the Tri-Faith Initiative, said gardening and agriculture are ways for the interfaith center to connect with rural communities and start those conversations about religious biases.

“We've also had panelists talking to the good that is existing in rural America, that's actually one of its strengths, so we really want to tap into that and show that those relationships, that tight-knit community, that getting close to creation with planting and kind of being on an agricultural scale and thinking about relating to nature in that way, that's important,” Oldenhuis said.

This was the USDA’s first summit about combatting bias in rural communities. Representatives from both the Tri-Faith Initiative and the USDA said they hope it’s the start of many conversations and connections about faith in rural communities.