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Coexistence Is Within Reach: The Making of a Tri-Faith Community Center

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In the late '60s my dad was a member of the Omaha Club -- a club whose members were white, Gentile males. When his friend, Nick Newman, applied for membership his application was rejected. The reason? The Jews have their own club. So to protest that bogus logic, my dad applied for membership at said Jewish club -- Highland Country Club. He was eventually accepted as the first non-Jewish member. Nick joined the Omaha Club and barriers were broken.

Meanwhile, my mother was spending several nights a week as a member of the Panel of American Women. The panel was made up of a WASP, a Catholic, a black and a Jew. These women spoke to various church groups, social groups, high school and college classes, etc., about their personal experiences with discrimination and stereotypes.

As a child, I saw that the actions of the grown-ups around me mattered. They changed the way people viewed each other, the way people viewed the world and they cared about making the world a better place. The bold actions of a few -- despite conflict, controversy and differing opinions -- really can make a difference.

Since 9/11, the Muslim population in the U.S. has grown while prejudice and stereotypes have grown exponentially. In many communities, both large and small across our country, there has been opposition against Muslims building their own houses of prayer. Omaha is not immune to its share of prejudice, fear and ignorance.

Having said that, after 9/11, the rabbi of the reform congregation in Omaha, Aryeh Azriel, joined hands with the members of Omaha's only mosque to protect it if necessary. Thankfully, there was no violence. From that gesture of support, relationships grew between members of Temple Israel and members of the Muslim community. These relationships, like all human relationships, were not perfect -- there was dialect, but there was also discord. Friendships formed. But there were -- and still are -- trust issues. Yet the relationships, like the dialogue, endure and grow stronger.

There was already a longstanding Jewish/Christian dialogue in the Omaha community. These interfaith relationships -- one person at a time, one interaction at a time -- were the seed of what is today the Tri-Faith Initiative, what will be a religious campus with an Episcopalian church, a Jewish synagogue and a Muslim mosque. In addition to the three houses of worship, a tri-faith center will be built to serve as a community center for the three congregations to interact and welcome others open to understanding and respecting diverse religious beliefs.

Why is this work important? Just like when I was a child and my parents stood up to the ignorance and prejudice of their day, real change still happens one person at a time, one conversation at a time, one friendship at a time. Change won't happen overnight but nothing happens if we don't do anything. By building their houses of worship together, the congregants of the tri-faith group are making a long-term commitment to being neighbors and interacting with each other regularly. For many, many years. Yes, they will continue to have difficult discussions -- but they will also have the opportunity to celebrate together and share each other's traditions.

The irony is not lost on me that the location of the Tri-Faith campus is none other than the site of Highland Country Club -- the same turf where my dad made his statement for religious diversity in the 1960s.

At the press conference announcing that each faith group and the Tri-Faith Center had closed on the land -- taking the first of many steps to make the vision a reality -- the most moving moment was when three young people -- one Jew, one Christian and one Muslim -- each came to the podium to offer a blessing, one at a time, in their respective faiths. Listening to those young people, so respectful of each other, and so devout in their own faith, a feeling of hope for the future was palpable in the room.

For years I have had a bumper sticker on my car that says "COEXIST." The "C" is the Muslim crescent, the "X" is the star of David and the "T" is the Christian cross. Despite the hard work that inevitably lies ahead, the work of the Tri-Faith Initiative makes me believe that the sentiment expressed on my bumper sticker is within reach. If not my reach, then the reach of my children.

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