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Leonard Thiessen social justice triptych deserves wider audience

January 21, 2017 Leave a comment

There is a compelling social justice triptych by the late great Nebraska artist Leonard Thiessen that should be more widely seen. Every year around Black History Month I encourage folks to visit the worship space that houses the piece for the express purpose of taking in the powerful images and ideas expressed in the work. The piece is called “Crucifixion” and it can be found affixed to a wall just inside the sanctuary at Church of the Resurrection, a small but mighty Episcopal faith community at 3004 Belvedere Boulevard directly across the street from Miller Park and just northwest of 30th and Kansas. The blended congregation is a mix of African-Americans, Caucasians and Africans.

The Thiessen work is not like anything you’d expect to find there or in any worhsip place for that matter. “Crucifixon” juxtaposes jarring, disturbing scenes of lynching, gas attacks, warmaking, want, industrialization and propoganda with the crucified Christ. Passages drawn from scripture proffer warnings about sins against our fellow man and being led astray by false prophets. These abnomitions are leavened by promises of recknoning and salvation. Thiessen created the triptych many decades ago but it is still relevant today in its rumination on things that instill fear and conflict in the hearts and minds of human beings and that cause us to look to a redemptive Higher Power for mercy and justice.

The words that appear at the bottom of the panels read:

“In time of peace, men suffer from drouth and want. Fear not, for I am with thee. I will bring they seed from the Earth.”

“They are made with machines, slaves of other machines. Be strong, fear not, your God will come with recompense.”

“Other men incite them to persecution and destruction. Keep ye judgment and do justice for my salvation is near.”

“From all sides their faith is confused and confounded. Behold, I create new heavens and a new Earth and the former shall not be remembered.”

The artist created “Crucifixion” in memory of his aunt, Wilhemina Berg, who was a member of the former St. John’s Church before it merged with St. Philip”s to create Church of the Resurrection,  The work is an example of Thiessen’s ability to employ and transform classical forms into modern interpretations. The piece is regarded as one of Thiessen’s most important.

In an interview shortly after his retirement, Thiessen said he had worked to “break down the idea that the arts were the prerogative of the elite. Nowadays the arts, like boating, skiing, tennis and wines, are all for the person in the street.”

Thiessen spoke four languages and was particularly known for his wit, often trying to slip puns past his editors at the Omaha World-Herald, for whom he was an art critic. Over the years, he taught at many area institutions, including Creighton, UNL and UNO.

He is classified as belonging to the period as the First Nebraskans, an era in Nebraska’s art history from 1901 to 1950 when the various forms of modernism were flourishing.

His vision and passion for the arts in Nebraska laid an influential foundation.

A good way to see the triptych and get a sense for the church where it’s displayed is to attend a service there. The 10 a.m. Sunday service is an intimate experience animated by the choir most Sundays and the guest band ReLeaseT the third Sunday of the month. On Feb. 26 come to Soul Food Sunday for some great eats. But whenever you come, make sure you see the triptych.

Link to the Church of the Resurrection website here:

http://coromaha.episcopal-ne.org/

 

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Link here to a Museum of Nebraska Art page devoted to Thiessen:

https://mona.unk.edu/collection/thiessen.shtml

Here is an extended bio of the artist copied from the MONA page:

Leonard Thiessen was born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska. His family was small and his paternal ancestry had roots to the Swedish and German pioneer settlers of Grand Island, Nebraska. For a very short time, the family lived in Grand Island where, as a boy, Thiessen was employed in the mail department of The Grand Island Independent newspaper. His parents, Charles Leonard Thiessen and Jean Louise Berg Thiessen, together with his mother’s favorite sister Wilhemina, were all involved in various creative endeavors and had a profound influence on Leonard’s development. His father worked in the printing industry and introduced the young Leonard to the trade. Jean was a talented self-taught artist in her own right who produced on-edge felt mosaics that are fine examples of early 20th century fiber art. (MONA has seven pieces of her work in its collection.) The Thiessens were involved in Omaha’s music, dance, and theater groups and deeply connected to the neighborhood Episcopal Church. They were not wealthy but had many friends in the community and had an impressive social calendar.

Thiessen attended Omaha’s Miller Park Public School and St. John’s Protestant School and graduated from Central High School in 1919. His school years were privileged with experiences that helped to foster his development as an artist. While in high school, he decided to follow formal study in the visual arts and began to draw cartoons and illustrations for the school newspaper. During his teen years, he worked as an office assistant for an architectural firm in downtown Omaha, a job that offered a perk that proved helpful to his future employment. During his free time, Leonard would sit and read the collection of architectural books found in the office. After graduation he worked for the Omaha Bureau of Advertising and Engineering editing illustrations and photographs for an agricultural livestock catalog.

He attended the University of Omaha (now University of Nebraska at Omaha) for three semesters in 1921 and 1922 studying journalism and fine arts and producing illustrations and graphic layouts for the University newspaper The Gateway. During this time, he worked as a gallery assistant for the Art Institute of Omaha which was located on the top floor of the old public library building designed by Thomas Kimball. Thiessen became disillusioned with the University’s conservative art courses and left Omaha to continue his studies in the School of Fine Arts at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln from 1925 to 1926. He was not interested in “serious painting” and majored primarily in design and architecture. His professors were the artists Dwight Kirsch, Louise Mundy, Francis Martin (a contemporary of the portraitist J. Laurie Wallace), and Emily Burchard Moore. In the 1920s, Lincoln, Nebraska was an incredibly fervent environment. Some of Thiessen’s circle of friends and classmates included artists as well as writers and intellectuals among them Katherine “Kady” Faulkner, Louise Austin (who had studied in Munich with Hans Hoffman), Mari Sandoz, Weldon Kees, Loren Eiseley, and Dorothy Thomas. In the late 1920s, Thiessen pursued a highly successful commercial career as an interior designer and decorator with several design and architectural firms in Lincoln and Omaha. Additionally, he did freelance work and began to receive commissions as a mural painter. Later he studied at the museums of New York City, Boston, and Miami with his Aunt Wilhemina.

In 1929, while on a trip to Paris, Thiessen learned of the stock market crash in the United States and decided to stay in Europe. He enrolled at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris where he studied drawing and painting for one summer and later moved to London to study at the Heatherly School of Art. While in London, Thiessen studied wood engraving and graphics. In 1932, he applied and was accepted at the Swedish Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Stockholm and studied with Otto Skold who later became the director of the National Museum at Stockholm. At the Academy, Thiessen studied the classical manner, graphic arts, and the traditional forms of fresco and mural painting. He described himself as a “designer of interiors and mural painter in the Middle West, U.S.” Taking several short breaks in between his studies to return to the United States, he finally received his diploma in 1938. While in Sweden, Thiessen made a trip to Tallin, Estonia, to sketch the local architecture.

After returning to the United States in the late 1930s, he found that demand for interior decorators had fallen with the depression. He used his charm and talent to persuade the editors of the Omaha World-Herald and the Lincoln Journal Star to allow him to write an arts review column. He became the Omaha World-Herald’s first art critic and his now legendary column first appeared in 1939 and continued on and off for the next 30 years.

He had exhibitions at Morrill Hall, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, in 1938 and Omaha’s Joslyn Art Museum in 1940. He also resumed his friendships with artist Milton Wolsky and Alysen Flynn. Later he accepted a position in Des Moines as Iowa’s State Director of the Federal Artists and Writers Program of the Works Projects Administration in 1941. The program employed 300 people and Leonard supervised over 100 individuals in eight departments. Thiessen left Iowa in 1942 to join the Army and was officially promoted to the Office of Intelligence in 1944. Because of his training in architectural design and graphic arts, Thiessen was particularly suited for the position of draftsman in the intelligence department. He studied and made reports of pertinent visual data, maps, and serial photos during the war. He was stationed in Kettering, England, the place that would become the subject of many of his works on paper.

In the 1950s, Thiessen made another trip to London, returning to the United States to serve two years as director of the Herbert Memorial Institute of Art in Augusta, Georgia. In the 1960s, Thiessen took several other trips to Europe and returned to Nebraska where he immediately continued his involvement with the Omaha World-Herald, the Joslyn Art Museum and the Sheldon Museum of Art on the campus of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. By this time he was recognized as the authority on Nebraska’s developing art history and served as editor of the catalogue, Nebraska Art Today, by Mildred Goosman, curator at the Joslyn Art Museum published in 1967. He was instrumental in the establishment of the Nebraska Arts Council becoming its first Executive Secretary (a position now known as Executive Director) from 1966 to 1975. In addition, he taught classes at Isabella Threlkeld’s studio in Omaha for eight years. He became a close friend and professional colleague of the professors at Kearney State College (now University of Nebraska Kearney) and encouraged the establishment of the Nebraska Art Collection in the 1970s. He served on the board of the Museum of Nebraska Art for over ten years and was one of its founding members. In 1972 Thiessen received an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts from Creighton University and was honored with the first Governor’s Arts Award in 1978. His work can be found at Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha; Sheldon Museum of Art, Lincoln; Kansas Wesleyan University, Salina; the Alfred East Gallery, Kettering, England; the Herbert Memorial Institute of Art, Augusta, Georgia; and in many private collections

Thiessen lived in Omaha, Nebraska, for most of his adult life. He eventually converted two upstairs rooms of the now famous house on Stone Avenue for his studio. Artwork dominated both floors, much of it his own. Thiessen remained a bachelor his entire life, and had an amazing number of friends and colleagues from the various Nebraska arts communities. He was respected by many prominent Nebraska artists who honored him by making him the subject of their work including Kent Bellows, Bill Farmer, Larry Ferguson, Frances Kraft, Paul Otero, John Pusey, and John Thein.

Leonard Thiessen died March 27, 1989.

The Museum of Nebraska Arts holds 109 works by Leonard Thiessen in addition to archival material.

Researched and written by Josephine Martins, 2002

NOTE: Biographical information was derived from a variety of sources, including unpublished biographical notes by William Wallis, 2001,  a recorded interview with Thiessen by Gary Zaruba, 1983 and compilations by COR member Keith Winton.

Interfaith Journey: Sharif Liwaru and Gabrielle Gaines Liwaru share how they make their interfaith walk work

November 16, 2016 Leave a comment

Two of Omaha’s best – Gabrielle Gaines Liwaru and Sharif Zakir Liwaru – share the interfaith journey they make every day as a couple in my new Reader cover story. He’s Muslim. She’s a Follower of Christ. They make their blended union work in this fractious era by being intentional, open and honest about where their beliefs and practices converge and diverge. There is more sameness than difference and where there are differences, they treat each other and their tenets with respect. We all have something to learn from them.

 

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©photo by Debra Kaplan

 

Interfaith Journey

Sharif Liwaru and Gabrielle Gaines Liwaru share how they make their interfaith walk work

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the November 2016 issue of The Reader (http://.thereader.com)

 

When it comes to religious diversity, Omaha has churches, cathedrals, synagogues, mosques and temples. The metro’s immigrant, migrant and refugee settlers planted deep roots of Catholicism, Protestantism, Judaism and Eastern Orthodoxy that still flourish today. The imprint Mormon pioneers made during the 19th century lives on in Florence and Council Bluffs.

Today’s local religious landscape also includes Bahá’í, Buddhist, Hindu, Islamic, New Religion, Pagan, Atheist and Unitarian centers.  Throughout the metro, interfaith efforts abound: Inclusive Communities, Together Inc., Omaha Together One Community, Neighbors United and the Tri-Faith Initiative. Countryside Community Church programs sometimes feature interfaith dialogues. There are also serious religious studies offerings at local institutions of higher learning that invite cross-current explorations.

Omaha’s not immune from religious bigotry. Hate crimes have defaced area mosques amidst rising anti-Islamic fervor. As recent and still waging wars demonstrate, religion, like race and nationality, can be a wedge for conflict or a bridge for understanding. Schisms happen within and between countries, denominations, congregations, tribes, sects, even individuals. As a house divided starts at home, interfaith couples carry loaded religious commerce. One such couple is Sharif Liwaru and Gabrielle Gaines Liwaru of Omaha. He’s a Muslim by birth and choice. She’s a self-professed “follower of Jesus” after growing up Lutheran and Assembly of God.

The 40-something-year-old parents of three are professionals and community activists. He directs the Office of Equity and Diversity at Omaha Public Schools and is president-CEO of the Malcolm X Memorial Foundation. She’s a teaching artist. They’re both active in the African Culture Connection, the Empowerment Network and the Black Lives Matter movement.

They shared with The Reader how they make their blended union work in this fractious era when contrasting persuasions can be deal-breakers. Not surprisingly for two people who advocate engagement, they go to great lengths to ensure they remain connected despite their differences. It starts with respecting each other and their sometimes opposite beliefs.

Gabrielle said, “As a follower of Jesus in an interfaith marriage

what I admire is that Sharif is not every Muslim. – Sharif is his own Muslim. He’s unique. Each person and their set of beliefs does not have to be exactly like the rest in their group and it goes for me as well. I’m happy that in our relationship we explore ideas and spiritual matters together.”

Though born Muslim to convert parents, Sharif examined the religion and recommitted to it as a young man.

“This settles easy on my heart and on my mind. It makes sense for me,” he said of his practice. His disciplines include fasting, praying five times a day and weekly congregational prayer.

When the couple met 23 years ago, Gabrielle’s religious traditions demonized Muslims. The more time she spent with Sharif and other Muslims, she came to see those ideas as false.

“In a lot of ways, shapes and forms the attitudes-beliefs of Christians towards Muslims are wrong,” she said.

Marriage only confirmed her new-found outlook. “I have a husband who has a golden heart and he is Muslim. I’m extremely in love with how he depicts himself within black American culture and with how he’s chosen to be Muslim, too.”

The couple married despite each being warned against if not forbidden from mating with someone of another faith.

“Both of us we’re breaking rules against our religion to be together,” she said.

They met at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. She was a single mom and aspiring artist and art educator. He was a community volunteer. They began as platonic friends. To this day their friendship and love trump any conflicts.

Sharif said, “In faith and spirituality when there are disagreements there’s a barrier that can come from I-feel-it’s- this-way and you-feel-it’s-that-way and there’s no reconciliation.

We’re not trying to create a sense of hierarchy of one being better than the other. At the same time, if either one of us felt the other’s path was THE path, we would have been on it. So, in as much as we agree with the other, we have to acknowledge each of us thinks we’re right.”

“In situations where Sharif thinks he’s right, I still have to respect him to the core as being a peaceful person,” she said.

They try emphasizing those things they are of one accord on.

“We are connected purposefully and spiritually and aligned in so many ways, so it’s a challenge trying to walk through the things we may see differently,” Sharif said. “Our ideologies are very similar in terms of how we treat one another, the belief in one god and in a creator, the understanding that your actions need to reflect what you believe, the sense of having purpose and being created intentionally, having strong moral values and the way you carry yourself as vital.”

Gabrielle said she believes she and Sharif are ordained “to journey together to do the things that make this place better,” adding, “We strengthen community, we strengthen our children and family and we’re role models for people to see that oh, yes, you can get beyond differences.”

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©photo by Devra Kaplan

 

 

It hasn’t always been easy.

“For many years she wasn’t sure how I would take it if she was using Jesus a lot,” Sharif said. “I wasn’t sure how she would take different things – like greeting someone with ‘as-salamu alayka’ or s’alamun alaykum’ (peace and blessings or complimenting someone with ‘alhumdulillah’ (all praises be to god). Or praying-reading from the Koran before eating. Or using Allah for God. Those are Arabic words for English words commonly agreed upon and used in the house.

“We sometimes would self-dictate what made the other person feel uncomfortable. But then as we started to explore and grow,

especially in terminology, she used Yah as the one creator and I used Allah. We came to an understanding that when we say that we’re not saying it be contentious, rather we’re saying the same thing in two different ways. We don’t see them as counter or correction.”

As much as he or she might want the other to follow their beliefs, neither takes offense at their choosing not to.

She said she doesn’t accept Prophet Mohammed as “the final messenger Jesus said was to come after him –I feel like Jesus was talking about the spirit of truth and great comforter that would never leave us alone and would guide us without us having to follow a man and what the man said. I feel that deep in my soul and, yes, I would like my husband to feel that.”

She takes issue with the inequity Muslim women face. There are things about Christianity he finds difficult.

Each felt pressure to bring up they’re kids in a certain faith.

“There was a lot of recruiting by our parents wanting to make sure they grew up in the faith tradition they believed,” Sharif said. “We exposed them very intentionally and unashamedly to our faith. It was no secret Christian faith was on one side of the family and Islamic faith on the other side.”

He said he and Gabrielle left it open for their kids to identify as they saw fit. “Our kids grew to be examiners of information. The same way they took everything, they absorbed and created their own paths.” At various times, he said, they identified as “Muslim-Christian, neither-both, half Muslim and half Christian.”

In 2015 the couple’s middle child, Zaiid, was killed in an auto accident and the loss set them on a new path seeking answers.

“The passing of our son had us exploring an element of our faith we didn’t have many occasions to discuss (before),” Sharif said. “We found commonalities in the way we saw things and we talked through differences. Everything from wording to where Zaiid is now – physical presence versus spiritual presence – to where we originate from as human beings to where we come after we die. We share the philosophy that we are souls with a body, not bodies that have souls. Our bodies are vessels we carry until we return to our creator.”

The couple doesn’t allow any divergence to supersede their relationship.

“The harmony we want is because of our love – our love being bigger than him having a different religion than my spiritual way.

It’s love above all,” Gabrielle said.

They are secure enough that they can broach awkward disagreements without fear of rejection or resentment or rupture.

Sharif said, “Because of the way we feel about each other we can go deep into conversations other people can’t and we feel confident in exploring things. There’s intentionality and purpose. We work on it as much as we do for us because we’ve vested this many years into it, but beyond that working on us is working on God’s plan. That part we know to be truth – no doubt. We have to work through some stuff we don’t agree with or understand but we know the outcome will still be that this union stays. As much as we have some (conflicting) areas, I believe we’re walking the same path.”

Gabrielle doesn’t mask feelings about certain tenets of Islam she opposes but she delights in how she and Sharif find common ground.

I view Islam as being a religion and I feel less inclined to follow any religion. In his mosque I can’t go with him and stand or sit and make Salat with him, and I don’t agree with that. I want to be led spiritually by my husband. I want to have that accountability for a man to uphold his household with first priority to serving God and loving his wife and giving to his children every nurturing and provision he can.

“Sharif embodies all these beautiful characteristics to me and when I can grab his hand and we can pray prayers each of us understands, we’re worshiping,” she said, clasping his hand in hers at their dining room table, “and I believe it doesn’t need a religion that goes with that. It’s just us trying to put God at the center of our marriage and home and bring him glory. That’s where I like to worship. Personally I have found the church of Jesus has no walls. I will continue to have church with people who believe in God, whether we’re at my dining table or on somebody’s couch or in a coffee-shop or outdoors.”

 

 

 

She said nature, music and art resonate with her and Sharif’s spirits. In their North Omaha home plants sprout everywhere, international music plays, incense burns, art pieces from friends and travels pop on walls, tables, shelves. The couple’s curiosity is reflected in their many books and periodicals.

While no discernible faith artifact is displayed, the home exudes a warm, prayer-like intimacy and calm. When their kids were small the couple deliberately integrated faith in their home.

Gabrielle said. “We had the Bible, we had the Koran. We prayed as a family. We adopted and said mostly in English a Hindu prayer. We did prayers I grew up with. We asked our kids to invent prayers. Sharif taught our kids how to make Salat. We didn’t continue to do it religiously, nor did we do Bible or Koranic studies religiously, but our family has a strong sense of being together. We pray when we hear an ambulance go by. Whenever we’re at the table about to eat we honor God first because from God all good things come.”

Their oldest, Parris, composed a prayer the family still recites:

“Thank you Yah for this beautiful day.Thank you for all the blessings you have given us today. Please bless this food. Take any impurities out of it and let it nourish our bodies in every way it can. Please help anyone in need of your merciful blessings and wonderful healing. Amen”

The couple’s faith, she said, extends to “doing community service and standing up for people in need.” She stays “prayed up” for people regardless of their beliefs. “It doesn’t matter what they’re following, if they have a religion or not, just that they’re part of who I call mine. We pray no hardship or harm for our loved ones and that means my Muslim loved ones who cover. The Muslim community is part of who I pray for all the time.”

Though Gabrielle’s concerned about anti-Muslim sentiment, she said, “I have more concern over Sharif’s well-being because he’s a black man in America versus being Muslim.”

After the human stampede that killed and injured thousands during 2015’s Haj, she worried about his safety on the pilgrimage to Mecca he made last summer. Not used to being apart that long, the separation reconfirmed their love.

“We missed each other like crazy when he was on his pilgrimage,” she said. “I think both of us held onto that our love is going to be bringing him safely home and us back together again because of our destiny.”

She feels as a couple they’re still all-in.

“We have 21 years under our belts and it doesn’t feel like we’ve come to a place of we’re too tired to work on this or we don’t have any sparks about each other.”

 

The Reader November

 

 

Meanwhile, they support interfaith exchanges. Omahan Beth Katz used their perspective to frame dialogues and trainings at Project Interfaith. She said she admires their “commitment as individuals and as a couple” to engage on issues of identity, faith, diversity, culture and community” that are “complex and messy and many people prefer to avoid.” “But I think it is precisely because they each have a deep sense of faith rooted in different religions that avoidance has never been an option and they have embraced this reality rather than resent it.”

“They also didn’t sugarcoat the experience,” Katz said. “They revealed there were times of tension and unease. I think their willingness to share publicly their journey on issues of religion and faith speaks to the incredible respect they hold for each other as people of faith, as a couple and as a family. They live out their faiths and the common values it provides them through their commitment to their family and the larger community.”

Sharif said the interfaith dynamic he and Gabrielle share adds a “very strong richness” to their lives. He agrees with Katz that most folks aren’t ready for open, honest conversation along faith lines. “As a community I think we’re not as engaged in that interfaith conversation as we need to be. Whether interfaith or interracial, conversations are ignored so that nobody feels     uncomfortable or because you’ve decided you know about a particular group of people or it’s just easier to have this hateful opinion versus actually listening and possibly liking the other. Some people are not prepared to deal with that dissonance.”

He likes the Omaha Tri-Faith Initiative’s attempt to bring Christian, Jewish, Muslim faith centers together on one campus.

“It’s countering the narratives we see and hear that folks are not getting along based on their religion and the politics of that, where in many parts of the world these three faiths are interacting in a peaceful way.”

Small but mighty group proves harmony can be forged amidst differences…

November 14, 2016 1 comment

Small but mighty group proves harmony can be forged amidst differences…

This fall marks the 30th anniversary of an all black congregation and an all white congregation merging to form a new racially diverse house of worship in North Omaha called Church of the Resurrection, Omaha. That’s right, blacks and whites set aside their fears and differences for the greater good in one of the most segregated cities north of the old Mason Dixon Line in order to create just what its motto reads:

“We are a diverse family united in God’s love.”

Two episcopal churches on the North Side – all white St. John’s and all black St. Philip’s – found themselves struggling by the early 1980s. The writing was on the wall: find an infusion of new members or close. Neither church wanted to call it quits but going it alone offered little hope. Each had a dwindling membership dying off or moving away. That’s when the neighbor churches began exploring the possibility of combining congregations and founding a brand new Episcopal house of prayer that not only embraced diversity but that depended on it for survival.

This union didn’t happen overnight or without distrust and acrimony. To test the waters, the congregations shared some services and activities together. When those experiments in worshiping and doing fellowship together went over well, the two groups then proceeded to formalize the coupling under the new organization and name. As with any change in affiliation and leadership, there were some hurt feelings and defections. Traditions and practices from each former church had to be integrated into the new entity without favoring one or the other. Naturally, there were disagreements and compromises and not everybody who started with Church of the Resurrection remained there. But COR, as the church goes by for short, survived and even thrived through the transition. COR is still going strong three decades later. The small congregation is still mixed, though its black numbers have decreased due to attrition. But on any given Sunday should you visit you will see for yourself this, for Omaha, historic blending continues.

COR’s diversity is intentionally embedded and reinforced in its culture because the church’s very existence and ethos are predicated on folks of different persuasions doing praise and worship together and breaking bread together. In this time of division, fear and anger, much of it raclalized, Church of the Resurrection is a beacon of hope and light for the truth that differences can be overcome or surmounted where there is love, respect and willingness to meet your fellow man half-way. It takes a commitment to talk things through and to hear each other out. You may still not agree or see eye to eye on things, and you may not end up in the same pew on Sunday, but in making an authentic connection you will have humanized The Other and broken down another wall or barrier to understanding.

This has been happening at COR since 1986. Its tight church community is far from insular though and is in fact inclusive in the peace greeting that unfolds during service, in the fellowship that happens after service, in the Thanksgiving dinner, Soul Food Sunday, Annual Fish Fry, neighborhood block party, pantry, holiday meal and gift baskets and many other community outreach events, programs and services it provides. Everybody is always welcome.

I can speak from personal experience about COR because I have been semi-regularly attending there for about 15 years. My late life partner Joslen (Johnson) Shaw brought me to the church, She had grown up in St. Philips and she and her family stayed through the merger. Her mother Juanita Johnson is a deacon there today. My present life partner, Pamela Jo Berry, and I split our Sunday worship time between COR an her church, Trinity Lutheran. They are about two blocks apart on North 30th Street opposite Miller Park. Both churches are venues for the Arts Crawl that happens each August as part of Pam’s North Omaha Summer Arts.

Below is a link to a story I did several years ago about the formation of Church of the Resurrection and of another blended church in North Omaha, New Life Presbyterian, whose members include my dear friends Nola Jeanpierre and Carole Jeanpierre.

Both churches are filled with giving hearts and gentle spirits of people who are black and white, rich and poor, and where the only qualification for entrance is a desire to love and be loved.

LINK TO THE STORY HERE–

https://leoadambiga.com/2010/08/30/two-blended-houses-of-worship-desegregate-sunday-episcopal-church-of-the-resurrection-and-new-life-presbyterian-are-houses-unidvided/

 

OR READ IT RIGHT HERE–

This story is personal.  I occasionally attend an Episcopal church in north Omaha that was formed by a merger of two previous churches, one with an all-black congregation and one with an all-white congregation.  This blending had its ups and downs at first but the church has survived and a couple decades later it is a model of multicultural, interracial harmony. It’s called Church of the Resurrection.  A similar story resulted in the formation of New Life, a blending of two north Omaha Presbyterian congregations, one white and one black, and like Church of the Resurrection it remains an intact interracial house of worship.  The reason I attend Church of the Resurrection is that my girlfriend and her mother attend there.  The people are warm and welcoming to newcomers.  I am Catholic and I have never felt out of place there or pressured to be something I’m not.  When I discovered the history behind the church I knew I would one day want to write about how it came into being, and that’s what prompted the article here.  The piece originally appeared in The Reader (www.thereader.com).

Two Blended Houses of Worship Desegregate SundayEpiscopal Church of the Resurrection and New Life Presbyterian are Houses Undivided

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

Martin Luther King Jr. scornfully observed that 11 o’clock Sunday morning “is the most segregated hour in this nation.” His indictment rings as true today in worship places as 50 years ago.

Organized, affiliated Christian churches are historically houses divided regardless of location or denomination. Witness Omaha, where defacto segregation is reinforced by geographic racial lines. With rare exceptions whites and blacks exclusively attend their own churches. That’s true even when a white congregation and black congregation of the same religious organizationare within close proximity.

The difficulty of achieving a racially mixed congregation is evident by the story of Augustana Lutheran Church in Omaha. The documentary A Time for Burning portrayed the upset that even timid attempts at interracial outreach caused within white Augustana in the mid-1960s. The film and a CBS news special about it elicited national discussion. The congregation underwent a self-study to examine their hearts. Augustana responsed to its neighborhood’s increasing African-American presence through outreach programs. Despite all this, the church has had little or no success in attracting black members. Why that should be so there and at many other churches is hard to answer without looking at the past.

Given America’s racial history, whites could always attend black churches without repercussions. Few did. Blacks attending white churches were made to feel unwelcome. Manifestations of this exclusion were designated inner-city Catholic, Episcopal, PresbyterianMethodistBaptist churches set aside for blacks.

Anymore, it’s not about being banned, barred or shunned. There’s more inclusion today. Chalk it up to enlightenment or political correctness. Of course, anything smacking of racism may generate a lawsuit or a YouTube-Facebook-Twitter campaign. Independent, nondenominational churches are most likely to be mixed. Without a compelling reason to integrate, most churches remain segregated because it’s easier to remain in their comfort zone.

Circumstances can lead two racially-defined, old-line churches to unite as one. It happens when they fall on hard times. Rather than move or close, they merge. Often, these unions fail. Even when they work, it’s by no means a smooth ride. Two successful Omaha inner-city blendings are Episcopal Church of the Resurrection, 3004 Belvedere Blvd., and New Life Presbyterian Church, 4060 Pratt Street.

Each was a marriage of convenience. When all white St. John’s and all black St. Philip the Deacon faced declining rolls in the ‘70s, members reviewed options and elected merger. It took effect in 1986 with Resurrection, housed in the former St. John’s building. The same scenario happened with Fairview and Calvin Memorial, only nominally white Fairview was already integrated and predominantly black Calvin resulted from a previous merger between black Hillside and white Bethany churches. New Life opened in 1991 in the former Fairview building. Calvin was one of two black churches that tried fellowship with Augustana.

By all accounts, New Life and Resurrection make multicultural diversity work. Challenges remain: each has only about 100 active members whose average is 60-plus; few members live in their church neighborhoods; the neighborhoods are rife with poverty and violence; physical plant needs persist; short budgets are stretched thin. But the journey of each church is a lesson in how we can heal the racial divide.

Sisters Johnice Orduna and Nola Jeanpierre share a unique perspective on both churches. Orduna, a licensed minister, attended Resurrection in the ‘90s and now serves as “a supply preacher” at New Life until a permanent pastor’s found. Jeanpierre grew up at Calvin, she experienced the birth of New Life, where she’s a member, and she’s now Resurrection’s choir director.

“I think the folks at New Life and Resurrection have made the decision, ‘We’re going to be here and we’re going to be together doing this regardless, and we’ll work through whatever it takes.’ If more congregations would do that then we wouldn’t have these rifts,” said Orduna. “We’ve gotta get past this business of Sunday being the most segregated day of the week. I think we have been convinced by society we can’t do it any differently, and it’s just not true. But we have to be intentional and we have to learn to respect that culturally we’re going to want to do some things differently, and that’s OK. I mean, it’s wonderful.”

Church of the Resurrection

A merger doesn’t just happen. “It’s a process,” said Orduna. “You have to be intentional, you have to be diligent, you have to commit.”

Member Pat Tooles said New Life “overturns the myth African-Americans and whites can’t worship together because they have two different worship styles.” Presbyterians, white or black, favor a sedate service light on emotional displays and heavy on orderly structure, although there’s some call-and-response at New Life.

Whether at the pulpit, in the pews, working on the building and grounds or breaking bread together, the people at New Life and Resurrection say they see how they are more alike than different. They view their differences as gifts not threats. They embrace their diversity as enriching, even branding their faith communities that way. Resurrection describes itself “…a culturally diverse family united in God’s love.” New Life’s mission statement begins, “We believe we are called to be a congregation of diverse backgrounds, ages and races…”

“I just think we have so much every day all the time to learn from each other,” said Orduna. “Sure, there are tiffs, but they’re not gamebreakers.”

Lesley Dean grew up in St. Philip’s at 26th and Binney. Her parents were active members. She moved away and once returned was “heartbroken” her beloved home parish was no more. In her absence the merger happened, She liked what she found at Resurrection.

“I immediately felt comfortable there. I felt like this was the next step of St. Philip’s, especially because of the blending of the two congregations. It just seemed natural. I think one of the things that made me be able to accept it and to go with the flow is because I lived in San Francisco for 20 years, so I had already experienced different cultures coming together and getting along. That wasn’t anything thing new to me. I thought it was great actually.”

She wasn’t there for the merger but knows it wasn’t all roses.

“I don’t think it was anything instantaneous,” she said. “That blending did not come along easily. It took a lot of work from my parents and all the other elders that came before me. They just worked very hard to build a sense of trust amongst the rest of the congregation. And I just think they all learned from that — from the bickering and whatever else was going on. When I came back it was just like, What was all that for? — let’s just start anew, we’re all human beings, we all deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. They just kind of formed that alliance. Then the generations that came after, like me, have just taken it a step further.”

Deacon Juanita Johnson was there. Coming from St. Philip’s, she confirmed Resurrection’s first years saw conflict. Disputes arose over the racial composition of lay leadership roles. Any hint of favoritism took on a racial slant.

“At that time it was very important to keep everything racially balanced because there were people from St. Philip’s that weren’t completely on board with the merger,” she said, adding the same was true with some from St. John’s.

There was also resentment from St. Philip folks over sacrificing their building for the move to St. John’s.

A black splinter group alleged racism against Resurrection’s first rector, Rev. John Nelson, who was white, and against the local Episcopal diocese’s all-white administration. A national consultant was brought in to get people talking. Some folks left — black and white — but the core remained. New membersof both races joined.

“The people that stayed wanted it to work,” said Johnson, whose experience told her it could. As a University of Nebraska-Lincoln student in the late ‘40s she and fellow black students were denied admittance to campus dormitories. They resided instead at International House, where they lived harmoniously with students from Europe, Asia, et cetera. She also did interracial outreach while a Fisk University student in Nashville, Tenn. with students from nearby white colleges.

“I had that background, so I knew it could work.”

Resurrection’s long past how many blacks-whites serve on the vestry. Those things work themselves out. St. Philip’s took a sense of ownership by incorporating elements from their old church, such as stained glass windows and candles, into the Resurrection sanctuary. A more vital music liturgy of gospel, spirituals, even jazz, was introduced. A popular fish fry St. Philip’s held was adopted.

Tim and Cheri Oelke got married at St. John’s. They left long before the merger.  Then they visited Resurrection and were hooked by the “inspirational” black hymns. The couple are the last St. John’s members left there. For Cheri, the spirit of the place is not an edifice, an icon or an event. “It’s not in the building as much as it is the people. I think the reason we want it to work now is that we all care about each other, and if we do it in this building or if we have to do it in another building we want to worship together. Bonds have been formed, friendships have been formed, and we feel like we’re all a family.”

Helping ease the transition were shared Lenten worship services and other events St John’s and St. Philip’s hosted prior to merging. Still, old habits die hard.

“For a long time it was just the two churches worshiping at the same time in the same building but still two identities,” said Resurrection’s new rector, Rev. Jason Emerson, who previously served as an intern and curate there. Tim Oelke said, “It’s the Church of the Resurrection now, it’s not St. John’s. St. John’s was certainly special but that’s in the past.”

New Life’s tribulations were similar. Former Fairview member Janet Decker recalls a meeting where Bernard Grice voiced Calvin’s concerns. “He got up and said he hoped we didn’t do the same thing the whites did at Bethany, which was disappear.” She said Fairview’s integrated ranks avoided that. “We had only one family who decided not to continue to come — absolutely everyone else stayed. We didn’t have this feeling of giving up a thing. We were gaining. We knew if we were going to survive we needed to merge. We’re very comfortable with each other.”

Change was more traumatic at Calvin, not due to race but turf. “There were a lot of hard feelings. It was like giving up our church,” said Nola Jeanpierre. Calvin members like she and Michael Maroney did abandon their beautiful building at 24th and Wirt. “It was not an easy or smooth transition inside Calvin. There was a lot of contention in terms of how Calvin was actually dissolved,” said Maroney. “In hindsight, it probably went the way it had to go.” Those wounds healed.

Just as Resurrection eased into things pre-merger, New Life did. Joint worship services and soup suppers were held at Calvin and other events at Fairview “so the two congregations could be together and people could kind of get to know each other,” said Rick Rudiger, who belonged to Fairview. “You kind of have that courtship time. If you try to force it, you’ll probably fail.”

Carolyn Grice, whose father Bernard was a leader at Calvin, served with Rudiger on the merger committee. “We met weekly to start ironing out stuff. It pretty much started from scratch — what is it we want to see and then how are we going to get there. We had lots of disagreements but we’re all friends now,” said Grice. Rudiger said people tended to draw lines along Fairview or Calvin. “You had to reinforce it all the time of who we are — we’re New Life now, so let’s move on. Change is hard for everybody. Some accept it. For some it’s very difficult. The way you have to deal with change is you do things a little at a time.”

Jeanpierre said it’s imperative to “come in open-minded and ready to work together and not to exclude anyone, not to remove anyone from a post or role. You’re talking about a marriage, about one family meeting the in-laws and basically trying to make everything work for both in-laws, so that the family as a whole and on both sides can come together and find a common ground.”

After a few interims New Life’s first full-time pastor helped solidify things. “We had a strong female minister who kind of got us turned around and really focused on becoming New Life,” said Rudiger. “I would say overall we really have grown strong. I don’t think there’s too much thought even of what Fairview used to do or what Calvin used to do — it’s what’s New Life’s doing.”

Decker said there’s appreciation for what each faith community contributed. “There’s a lot of things we do now because that’s what they brought with them (from Calvin).” That includes spirituals. On a more practical level, she said, “they brought the numbers (more members) and we had the place.”

Ruth York, who came over from Calvin, said “those of us that have seen it through have been through quite a bit, financially and so forth,  but we’ve stayed strong and stuck together like a family, and we’re stronger for it.”

Just as New Life is on its second generation, Resurrection is, too. Lesley Dean feels a legacy calling.

“I have really worked hard to make sure some of the traditions of St. Philip’s continue on, like our Black History month celebration and the fish fry named after my dad. Myself and some others have tried to make sure our African-American culture was not lost in the merger. We still needed an identity and the St. John’s people were willing to embrace that.”

Dean said sensitivity makes all the difference.

“That’s how people get along. Ignorance is I believe why we have so much discrimination and racism in society because people don’t take the time to learn about each other. I just really feel Church of the Resurrection is a family. We are accepting and welcoming of every one and there’s a genuineness to that acceptance — it’s not just for show or not just for money.”

Richard Artison and his wife were St. Philip’s members and then moved away for his career. Once back, they went church shopping before settling on Resurrection.

“We’ve been to some churches that were very cold and impersonal and you feel like a number and we’ve gone to churches where nobody would speak to us. Just got ignored. This church has a lot of warmth and a lot of love. We like it,” he said.

Emerson’s proud his church is so inviting.

“The least worry I ever have at this congregation is that somebody new will walk through the door and not get spoken to. That just does not happen. They’re going to get spoken to. They’re going to get greeted, they’re going to get welcomed and I don’t have to do anything to make that happen. Other congregations, you have to work at that, it’s not as ingrained in their nature. It’s a problem in Episcopal churches churchwide, and that’s not the case here.”

He said Resurrection’s open mat, Sunday social hour/lunch and ministries targeting the underserved — including an after-school program, an emergency pantry, a transitional living site — reflect the church’s origins.

“I firmly believe this congregation’s history has led them uniquely to a high level of hospitality and I don’t know mean they just put on a good food spread, which they do. That attitude, that desire, that passion for outreach and justice comes from the two churches melding and the level of hospitality they had to practice to each other to come together and become one parish.”

He said Resurrection’s reputation for tolerance is why it’s a player in the Tri-Faith Initiative for a shared Episcopal-Jewish-Muslim campus.

Dean senses Resurrection’s come a long way in the eyes of a diocese that’s been slow to accept it. “For the longest time we felt they looked down on us, they didn’t want to participate in any activities we were doing, basically because we’re in north Omaha and the media portrays north Omaha as this horrible place. Our congregation has fought really hard to change that image, and it’s working. Some of the other diocesan churches are now participating in some of our ministries, so that’s a good feeling. We’ve got a lot further to go, but it’s a beginning.”

New Life’s at-risk kids mentoring program continues the legacy of the two socially conscious churches preceding it. Fairview ran Head Start and Project Embrace prpgrams. Calvin was active in youth job/leadership training and civil rights.

Orduna said the unity embodied by New Life and Resurrection “has the possibility to create a strong, trustworthy identity that could really be powerful force in bringing this whole neighborhood back to God.” Artison said, “I think church is the one place where we should come together. I think we’re an example for others.” Decker said churches that resist diversity “don’t know what they’re missing.”

 

Father Ken Vavrina’s new book “Crossing Bridges” charts his life serving others

October 29, 2015 2 comments

 

For a man whose vocation as a priest is a half-century long and counting, it may come as a surprise that Father Ken Vavrina had no notion of entering that life until, at age 18, a voice instructed him to attend seminary school.  It was a classic calling from on high that he didn’t particularly want or appreciate.  He had his life planned out, after all, and it didn’t include the priesthood.  He resisted the very thought of it.  He rationalized why it wasn’t right for him.  He wished the admonition would go away.  But it just wouldn’t.  He couldn’t ignore it.  He couldn’t shake it.  Deep inside he knew the truth and rightness of it even though it seemed like a strange imposition.  In the end, of course, he obeyed and followed the path ordained for him.  His rich life serving others has seen him minister to Native Americans on reservations, African-Americans in Omaha’s inner city, occupying protestors at Wounded Knee, lepers in Yemen. the poor, hungry and homeless in Calcutta, India and war refugees in Liberia.  He worked for Mother Teresa and for Catholic Relief Services.  He’s been active in Omaha Together One Community.  There have been many other stops as well, including Italy, Cuba, New York City and rural Nebraska.  He has crossed many cultural and geographic bridges to engage people where they are at and to respond to their needs for food, water, medicine, shelter, education, counseling.  Everywhere he’s gone he’s gained far more from those he served than he’s given them and as a result he’s grown personally and spiritually.  He has attained great humility and gratitude.  His simple life of service to others has much to teach us and that’s why he commissioned me to help him write the new book, Crossing Bridges: A Priest’s Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden.  It was a privilege to share his remarkable life and story in book form.  Here is an article I’ve written about him and his many travels.  It is the cover story in the November 2015 issue of the New Horizons.  I hope, as he does, that this story as well as the book we did together that this story is drawn from inspires you to cross your own bridges into different cultures and experiences. Many blessings await.

The book is available at http://www.upliftingpublishing.com/ as well as on Amazon and BarnesandNoble.com and for Kindle. The Bookworm is exclusively carrying “Crossing Bridges” among local bookstores.

Vavrina Teresa cover (for Leo)

Father Ken with Mother Teresa

Father Ken Vavrina’s new book “Crossing Bridges” charts his life serving others

©by Leo Adam Biga

Appearing in the November 2015 issue of the New Horizons
NOTE:
My profile of Father Ken Vavrina contains excerpts and photos from the new book I did with him, Crossing Bridges: A Priest’s Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden.

A Life of Service
Retired Catholic priest Father Kenneth Vavrina, 80, has never made an enemy in his epic travels serving people and opposing injustice.

“I have never met a stranger. Everyone I meet is my friend,” declares Vavrina, who’s lived and worked in some of the world’s poorest places and most trying circumstances.

It’s no accident he ended up going abroad as a missionary because from childhood he burned with curiosity about what’s on the other side of things – hills, horizons, fences, bridges. His life’s been all about crossing bridges, both the literal and figurative kind. Thus, the title of his new book, Crossing Bridges: A Priest’s Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden, his personal chronicle of repeatedly venturing across borders ministering to people. His willingness to go where people are in need, whether near or far, and no matter how unfamiliar or forbidding the location, has been his life’s recurring theme.

For most of his 50-plus years as a priest he’s helped underserved populations, some in outstate Neb., some in Omaha, and for a long time in developing nations overseas. Whether pastoring in a parish or doing missionary work in the field, he’s never looked back, only forward, led by his insistent conscience, open heart and boy-like sense of wanderlust. That conscience has put him at odds with his religious superiors in the Omaha Catholic Archdiocese on those occasions when he’s publicly disagreed with Church positions on social issues. His tendency to speak his mind and to criticize the Catholic hierarchy he’s sworn to obey has led to official reprimands and suspensions.

But no one questions his dedication to the priesthood. Always putting his faith in action, he shepherds people wherever he lays his head. He lived five years in a mud hut minus indoor plumbing and electricity tending to lepers in Yemen. He became well acquainted with the slums of Calcutta, India while working there. He spent nights in the African bush escorting supplies. He spent two nights in a trench under fire. The archdiocesan priest served Native Americans on reservations and African-Americans in Omaha’s poorest neighborhoods. He befriended members of the American Indian Movement, Black Panthers and various activists, organizers, elected officials and civic leaders.

His work abroad put him on intimate terms with Blessed Mother Teresa, now in line for sainthood. and made him a friend of convenience of deposed Liberia, Africa dictator Charles Taylor, now imprisoned for war crimes. As a Catholic Relief Services program director he served earthquake victims in Italy, the poorest of the poor in India, Bangladesh and Nepal and refugees of civil war in Liberia.

He found himself in some tight spots and compromising positions along the way. He ran supplies to embattled activists during the Siege at Wounded Knee. He was arrested and jailed in Yemen before being expelled from the country. He faced-off with trigger-happy rebels leading supply missions via truck, train and ship in Liberia and dealt with warlords who had no respect for human life.

If his book has a message it’s that anyone can make a difference, whether right at home or half way around the globe, if you’re intentional and humble enough to let go and let God.

“There is nothing remarkable about me…yet I have been blessed to lead a most fulfilling life…The nature of my work has taken me to some fascinating places around the world and introduced me to the full spectrum of humanity, good and bad.

“Stripping away the encumbrances of things and titles is truly liberating because then it is just you and the person beside you or in front of you. There is nothing more to hide behind. That is when two human hearts truly connect.”

Even though he’s retired and no longer puts himself in harm’s way, he remains quite active. He comforts and anoints the sick, he administers communion, he celebrates Mass and he volunteers at St. Benedict the Moor. Occasional bouts of the malaria he picked up overseas are reminders of his years abroad. So is the frozen shoulder he inherited after a botched surgery in Mexico. His shaved head is also an emblem from extended stays in hot climates, where to keep cool he took to buzz cuts he maintains to this day. Then there’s his simple, vegan diet that mirrors the way he ate in Third World nations.

This tough old goat recently survived a bout with cancer. A malignant tumor in his bladder was surgically removed and after recouping in the hospital he returned home. The cancer’s not reappeared but he has battled a postoperative bladder infection and gout. Ask him how he’s doing and he might volunteer, “I’m not getting around too well these days” but he usually leaves it at, “I’m OK.” He lives at the John Vianney independent living community for retired clergy and lay seniors. He’s more spry than many residents. It’s safe to say he’s visited places they’ve never ventured to.

Father Ken #1 (for Leo)

Father Ken today

Roots
Born in Bruno and raised in Clarkson, Neb., both Czech communities in Neb.’s Bohemian Alps, Vavrina and his older brother Ron were raised by their public school teacher mother after their father died in an accident when they were small. The boys and their mother moved in with their paternal grandparents and an uncle, Joe, who owned a local farm implement business and car dealership. The uncle took the family on road trip vacations. Once, on the way back from Calif. by way of the American southwest, Vavrina engaged in an exchange with his mother that profoundly influenced him.

“I remember my mom telling me, “On the other side of that bridge is Mexico,” and right then and there I vowed, ‘One day I’m going to cross that bridge'”

“I never crossed that particular bridge but I did cross a lot of bridges to a lot of different lifestyles and countries and cultures and it was a great, great, great blessing. You learn so much in working with people who are different.”

One key lesson he learned is that despite our many differences, we’re all the same.

Even though he grew up around very little diversity, he was taught to accept all people, regardless of race or ethnicity. He feels that lesson helped him acclimate to foreign cultures and to living and working with people of color whose ways differed from his.

As a fatherless child of the Great Depression and with rationing on due to the Second World War, Vavrina knew something about hardship but it was mostly a good life. Growing up, he went hunting and fishing with his uncle, whose shop he worked in. He played organized basketball and baseball for an early mentor, coach Milo Blecha.

“All in all, I had a wonderful childhood in Clarkson,” he writes. “It was a simple life. The Church was dominant. There was a Catholic church and a Presbyterian church. Father Kubesh was the pastor at Saints Cyril and Methodius Catholic Church. When he was not saying Mass, Father Kubesh always had a cigar in his mouth. I served Mass as an altar boy. Little did I imagine that he would counsel me when I embarked on studying for the priesthood.”

All through high school Vavrina dated the same girl. His family wasn’t particularly religious and he never even entertained the possibility of the priesthood until he felt the calling at 18. Out of nowhere, he says, the thought, really more like an admonition, formed in his head.


“I was driving a pickup truck on a Saturday morning, about four miles east of Clarkson, when something happened that is still crystal clear to me. I distinctly heard a voice say, ‘Why don’t you go to the seminary?’ Just like that, out of the blue. I thought, This is crazy.

“Was it God’s voice?

“Being a priest is a calling, and I guess maybe it was the call that I felt then and there. If you want to give it a name or try to explain it, then God called me to serve at that moment. He planted the seed of that idea in my head, and He placed the spark of that desire in my heart.”

The very idea threw Vavrina for a loop. After all, he had prospects. He expected to marry his sweetheart and to either go into the family business or study law at Creighton University. The priesthood didn’t jibe with any of that.

He says when he told Father Kubesh about what happened the priest’s first reaction was, “Huh?” For a long time Vavrina didn’t tell anyone else but when it became evident it wasn’t some passing fancy he let his friends and family know. No one, not even himself, could be sure yet how serious his conviction was, which is why he only pledged to give it one year at Conception Seminary College in northwest Missouri.

He told his uncle, I’ll give it a shot.” And so he did. One year turned into two, two years turned into three, and so on, and though his studies were demanding he found he enjoyed academics.

He finished up at St. Paul Seminary at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn. and was ordained in 1962.

Blank bookcover with clipping path

Blank bookcover with clipping path

Calling all cultures
His introduction to new cultures began with his very first assignment, as associate pastor for the Winnebago and Macy reservations in far northern Nebraska. Vavrina was struck by the people’s warmth and sincerity and by the disproportionate numbers living in poverty and afflicted with alcoholism. He disapproved of efforts by the Church to try and strip children of their Native American ways, even sending kids off to live with white families in the summer.

His next assignment brought him to Sacred Heart parish in predominantly black northeast Omaha. He arrived at the height of racial tension during the late 1960s civil rights struggle. He served on an inner city ministerial team that tried getting a handle on black issues. When riots erupted he was there on the street trying to calm a volatile situation. The more he learned about the inequalities facing that community, the more sympathetic he became to both the civil rights and Black Power movements, so much so, he says, people took to calling him “the blackest cat in the alley.”

He was an ally of Nebraska state Sen. Ernie Chambers, activist Charlie Washington and Omaha Star publisher Mildred Brown. He befriended Black Panthers David Rice and Ed Poindexter (Mondo we Langa), both convicted in the homemade bomb death of Omaha police officer Larry Minard. The two men have always maintained their innocence..

Vavrina welcomed changes ushered in by Vatican II to make the Church more accessible. He criticized what he saw as ultra-conservative and misguided stands on social issues. For example, he opposed official Catholic positions excluding divorced and gay Catholics and forbidding priests from marrying and barring women being ordained. He began a long tradition of writing letters to the editor to express his views. He’s never stopped advocating for these things.

He next served at north downtown Holy Family parish, where his good friend, kindred spirit and fellow “troublemaker” Jack McCaslin pastored. McCaslin spouted progressive views from the pulpit and became a peace activist protesting the military-industrial complex, which resulted in him being arrested many times. The two liberals were a good fit for Holy Family’s open-minded congregation.

Then, in 1973, Vavrina’s life intersected with history. Lorelei Decora, an enrolled member of the Winnebago tribe, Thunder Bird Clan, called to ask him to deliver medical supplies to her and fellow American Indian Movement activists at Wounded Knee, South Dakota. A group of Indians agitating for change occupied the town. Authorities surrounded them. The siege carried huge symbolic implications given its location was the site of the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre. Vavrina knew Decora when she was precocious child. Now she was a militant teen prevailing on him to ride into an armed standoff. He never hesitated. He and a friend Joe Yellow Thunder, an Oglala Sioux, rounded up supplies from doctors at St. Joseph Hospital. They drove to the siege and Father Ken talked his way inside past encamped U.S, marshals.

He met with AIM leader and cofounder Dennis Banks, whom he knew from before.


“Then I saw Lorelei and I looked her in the eye and asked, ‘What are you doing here?’ She said with great conviction, ‘I came to die.’ They really thought they would all be killed. They were fully committed…On his walkie-talkie Banks reached the authorities and told them, ‘Let this guy stay here. He’s objective. He’ll let you know what’s going on.’ The authorities went along…that’s how I came to spend two nights at the compound. We bivouacked in a ravine where the Indians had carved out trenches. We used straw and blankets over our coats, plus body heat, to keep warm at night. It was not much below freezing, and there was little snow on the ground, which made the camp bearable.

“At night the shooting would commence…the tracers going overhead, the Indians huddled for cover, and several of the occupiers sick with cold and flu symptoms.

“Once back home, Joe and I attempted to make a second medicine supply run up there. We drove all the way to the rim but were turned back by the marshals because the violence had started up again and had actually escalated. When the siege finally ended that spring, there were many arrests and a whole slew of charges filed against the protesters.”

By the late-’70s Vavrina was serving a northeast Neb. parish and feeling restless. He’d given his all to combatting racism and advocating for equal rights but was disappointed more transformational change didn’t occur. He saw many priests abandon their vows and the Church regress into conservatism after the promise of Vatican II reforms. More than anything though, he felt too removed from the world of want. It bothered him he’d never really put himself on the line by giving up things for a greater good or surrendering his ego to a life of servitude.


“I felt I was out of the mainstream, away from the action. Plus, I knew the civil rights movement was…not going to reach what I thought it could achieve…So I decided I was going overseas. I wanted to be where I could do the greatest good. I always felt drawn to the missions…I just felt a need to experience voluntary poverty and to become nothing in a foreign land.

“…an experience in Thailand changed the whole trajectory of my missions plan. I was walking the streets of Bangkok…on the edge of downtown…Then I made a wrong turn and suddenly found myself in the slums of Bangkok…everywhere I looked was human want and suffering at a scale I was unprepared for.

“I was shocked and appalled by the conditions people lived in. I realized there were slums all over the world and these people needed help. What was I doing about it? The experience really hit me in the face and marked an abrupt change in my thinking. I looked at my relative affluence and comfortable existence, and I suddenly saw the hypocrisy in my life. I resolved then and there, I was going to change, and I was going to move away from the privilege I enjoy, and I would work with the poor.”

A reinforcing influence was Mother Teresa, whom he admired for leaving behind her own privilege and possessions to tend to the poor and sick and dying. He resolved to offer himself in service to her work.
The nun, he writes, “was a great inspiration..” Nothing could shake his conviction to go follow a radically different path and calling.

His going away had nothing to do with escaping the past but everything to do with following a new course and passion. By that time he’s already worked 15 years in the archdiocese and “loved every minute of it.” He was finishing up a master’s degree in counseling at Creighton University. “Everything was good. No nagging doubts. But I just felt compelled to do more,” he writes.

He asked and received permission from the diocese to work overseas for one year and that single year, he describes, turned into 19 “incredible years helping the poorest of the poor.”

Yemen
He no sooner found Mother Teresa in Italy than she asked him to go to Yemen, an Arab country in southwest Asia, to work with residents of the leper village City of Light.

“I simply replied, ‘Sure,’” Vavrina notes in his book.

In Yemen he witnessed the fear and superstition that’s caused lepers to be treated as outcasts everywhere. In that community he worked alongside Missionaries of Charity as well as lepers.


“My primary job was to scrape dead skin off patients using a knife or blade. It was done very crudely. Lepers, whether they are active or negative cases, have a problem of rotting skin. That putrid skin has to be removed for the affected area to heal and to prevent infection…I would then clean the skin.

“I would also keep track of the lepers and where they were with their treatment and the medicines they needed.”

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He embraced the spartan lifestyle and shopping at the local souk. He found time to hike up Mount Kilimanjaro. He also saw harsh things. An alleged rapist was stoned to death and the body displayed at the gate of the market. Girls were compelled to enter arranged marriages, forbidden from getting an education or job, and generally treated as property. Yemen is also where he contracted malaria and endured the first sweats and fevers that accompany it.

Yet, he says, Yemen was the place he found the most contentment. Then, without warning, his world turned upside down when he found himself the target of Yemeni authorities. They took him in for seemingly routine questioning that turned into several nights of pointed interrogation. He was released, but under house arrest, only to be detained again, this time in an overcrowded communal jail cell.

He was incarcerated nearly two weeks before the U.S. embassy arranged his release. No formal charges were brought against him. The police insinuated proselytizing, which he flatly denied, though he sensed they actually suspected him of spying. They couldn’t believe a healthy, middle-aged American male would choose to work with lepers.

His release was conditional on him immediately leaving the country. The expulsion hurt his soul.


“Being kicked out of the country, and for nothing mind you, other than blind suspicion, was not the way I imagined myself departing. I was disappointed. I truly believe that if I had been left to do my work in peace, I would still be there because I enjoyed every minute of working with the lepers. There is so much need in a place like Yemen, and while I could help only a few people, I did help them. It was taxing but fulfilling work.”

India
He traveled to Italy, where Catholic Relief Services hired him to manage a program rebuilding an earthquake ravaged area. Then CRS sent him to supervise aid programs in India. After nine months in Cochin he was transferred to Calcutta. Everywhere he set foot, hunger prevailed, with millions barely getting by on a bare subsistence level and life a daily survival test.

Besides supplying food, the programs taught farmers better agricultural practices and enlisted women in the micro loan program Grameen Bank. In all, he directed $38 million in aid annually.

The generous spirit of people to share what little they have with others impressed him. Seeing so many precariously straddle life and death, with many mothers and children not making it, opened his eyes. So did the sheer scale of want there.


“I will never forget my first night in Calcutta. I said to the driver, ‘What are in these sacks we keep passing by?’ ‘Those are people.’ Hundreds upon thousands of people made their beds and homes alongside the road. It was a scale of homelessness I could not fathom. That was my introduction to Calcutta.

“I was scared of Calcutta. Of the push and pull and crunch of the staggering numbers of people. Of the absurd overcrowding in the neighborhoods and streets. Of the overwhelming, mind-numbing, heartbreaking, soul-hurting poverty. That mass of needy humanity makes for a powerful, sobering, jarring reality that assaults all the senses…

“…only God knows the true size of the population…I often say to religious and lay people alike, ‘Go to Calcutta and walk the streets for six days and it will change your life forever” Walk the streets there for one day and even one hour, and it will change you. I know it did me.”

Vavrina was reunited there with Mother Teresa.

“I spent a lot of time working with Mother, Whenever she had a problem she would come into the office. If there was a natural disaster where her Sisters worked we would always help with food or whatever they needed.”

Vavrina Teresa inside (for Leo)

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He witnessed people’s adoration of Mother Teresa wherever she went. There was enough mutual respect between this American priest and Macedonian nun that they could speak candidly and laugh freely in each other’s company. He criticized her refusal to let her Sisters do the type of development work his programs did. He disapproved of how tough she was with her Sisters, whom she demanded live in poverty and restrict themselves to providing comfort care to the sick and dying.

He writes, “I disagreed with Mother and I told her so. I knew the value of development work. Our CRS programs in India were proof of its effectiveness…she listened to me, not necessarily agreeing with me at all…and then went right ahead and did her own thing anyway…I cried the day I left Calcutta in 1991. I loved Calcutta. Mother Teresa had tears in her eyes as well. We had become very good friends. She was the real deal…hands on…not afraid to get her hands dirty.”

Years later he read with dismay and sadness how she experienced the Dark Night of the Soul – suffering an inconsolable crisis of faith.


“I knew her well and yet I never detected any indication, any sign that she was burdened with this internal struggle. Not once in all the time I spent with her did she betray a hint of this. She seemed in all outward appearances to be quite happy and jovial,” he writes. “However, I did know that she was very intense about her faith and her work. In her mind and heart she was never able to do enough. She never felt she did enough to please God, and so there was this constant, gnawing void she felt that she could never fully fill or reconcile.”

Even all these years later Vavrina says his experience in India is never far from his thoughts.

Liberia
CRS next sent him to Liberia, Africa, where a simmering civil war boiled over. His job was getting supplies to people who’d fled their villages. That meant dealing with the most powerful rebel warlord, Charles Taylor, whose forces controlled key roads and regions.

The program Vavrina operated there dispersed $42 million in aid each year, most of it in food and medicine. As in India, goods arrived by ship in port for storage in warehouses before being trucked to destinations in-country. Vavrina often rode in the front truck of convoys that passed through rebel-occupied territories where boys brandishing automatic weapons manned checkpoints. There were many tense confrontations.

On three occasions Vavrina got Taylor to release a freight train to carry supplies to a large refugee contingent in dire need of food and medicine in the jungle. Taylor provided a general and soldiers for safe passage but Vavrina went along on the first run to ensure the supplies reached their intended recipients.

Everywhere Vavrina ran aid overseas he contended with corruption to one extent or another. Loss through pilfering and paying out bribes to get goods through were part of the price or tax for conducting commerce. Though he hated it, he dealt with the devil in the person of Taylor in order to get done what needed doing. Grim reminders of the carnage that Taylor inflamed and instigated were never lost on Vavrina and on at least once occasion it hit close to home.

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“Not for a moment did I ever forget who I was really talking to…I never forgot that he was a ruthless dictator. He was a pathological liar too. He could look you dead in the eye and tell you an out-and-out untruth, and I swear he was convinced he was telling the truth. A real paranoid egomaniac. But in war you cannot always choose your friends.

“Hundreds of thousands of innocent people died in Liberia during those civil wars. There were many atrocities. One in particular touched me personally. On October 20, 1992, five American nuns, all of whom I knew and considered friends, were killed. I had visited them at their convent two days before this tragedy. May they rest in peace.”

The killings were condemned worldwide.

His most treacherous undertaking involved a cargo ship, The Sea Friend, he commissioned to offload supplies in the port at Greenville. Only rebels arrived there first. To make matters worse the ship sprung a leak coming into dock. Thus, it became a test of nerves and a race against time to see if the supplies could be salvaged from falling prey to the sea and/or the clutches of rebels. When all seemed lost and the life of Vavrina and his companions became endangered, a helicopter answered their distress call and rescued them from the ugly situation.

Back home
Hs work in Liberia was left unfinished by the country’s growing instability and by his more frequent malaria attacks, which forced him back home to the States. At the request of CRS he settled in New York City doing speaking and fundraising up and down the East Coast. Then he went to work for the Catholic Medical Mission Board, who sent him to Cuba to safeguard millions of dollars in medical supplies for clinics in an era when America’s Cuba embargo was still officially in effect.

During his visit Vavrina met then-Archbishop of Havana, Jamie Ortega, now a cardinal. Vavrina supported then and applauds now America normalizing relations with Cuba.

He also appreciates the progressive stances Pope Francis has taken in extending a more welcoming hand by the Church to divorced and gay Catholics and in encouraging the Church to be more intentional about serving the poor and disenfranchised. The pope’s call for clergy to be good pastors and shepherds who work directly work with people in need is what Vavrina did and continues doing.

“This is exactly what the Holy Father is saying. They need to get out of the office and stop doing just administration and reach out to people who are being neglected. A shepherd reaches out to the lost sheep. Jesus talks about that all the time,” Vavrina says.

As soon as Vavrina ended his missions work overseas he intended coming back to work in Omaha’s inner city but he kept getting sidetracked. Then he got assigned to serve two rural Neb. parishes. Finally, he got the call to pastor St. Richard’s in North Omaha, where he was sent to heal a congregation traumatized by the pedophile conviction of their former pastor, Father Dan Herek.

Vavrina writes, “Those wounds did not heal overnight. I knew going in I would be inheriting a parish still feeling raw and upset by the scandal. Initially my role was to help people deal with the anger and frustration and confusion they felt. Those strong emotions were shared by adults and youths alike.”

During his time at St. Richard’s he immersed himself in the social action group, Omaha Together One Community.

Facing declining church membership and school enrollment, the archdiocese decided to close St. Richard’s, whereupon Vavrina was assigned the parish he’d long wanted to serve – St. Benedict the Moor. As the metro’s historic African-American Catholic parish, St. Benedict’s has been a refuge to black Catholics for generations. Vavrina led an effort to restore the parish’s adjacent outdoor recreation complex, the Bryant Center, which has become a community anchor for youth sports and educational activities in a high needs neighborhood. He also initiated an adopt a family program to assist single mothers and their children. Several parishes ended up participating.

Poverty and unemployment have long plagued sections of northeast Omaha. Those problems have been compounded by disproportionately high teenage pregnancy, school dropout, incarceration and gun violence rates. Vavrina saw too many young people being lost to the streets through drugs, gangs or prostitution. Many of these ills played out within a block or two of the rectory he lived in and the church he said Mass in. He’s encouraged by new initiatives to support young people and to revitalize the area.

Wherever he pastored he forged close relationships. “One of the benefits of being a pastor is that the parish adopts you as one of their own, and the people there become like a family to you,” he writes.

At St. Ben’s that sense of family was especially strong, so much so that when he announced one Sunday at Mass that the archbishop was compelling him to retired there was a hue and cry from parishioners. He implored his flock not to make too big a fuss and they mostly complied. No, he wasn’t ready to retire, but he obeyed and stepped aside. Retirement gave him time to reflect on his life for the book he ended up publishing through his own Uplifting Publishing and Concierge Marketing Publishing Services in Omaha.

Father Ken #3 (for Leo)

Father Ken enjoying our book

“I’ve had a wonderful life, oh my,” he says.

Now that that wonderful life has been distilled into a book, he hopes his journey is instructive and perhaps inspiring to others.

“I wrote the book hoping it was going to encourage people to cross bridges and to reach out to people who otherwise they would not reach out to. That’s exactly what Pope Francis is talking about.”

Besides, he says, crossing bridges can be the source of much joy. The life story his book lays out is evidence of it.

“That story just says how great a life I have had,” he says.


“It is my prayer that the travels and experiences I describe in these pages serve as guideposts to help you navigate your own wanderings and crossings.

“A bridge of some sort is always before you…never be afraid to open your heart and speak your mind. We are all called to be witnesses. We are all called to testify. To make the crossing, all that is required is a willing and trusting spirit. Go ahead, make your way over to the other side. God is with you every step of the way. Take His hand and follow. Many riches await.”

Order the book at http://www.upliftingpublishing.com.

More praise and news for my new book with Father Ken Vavrina

October 6, 2015 3 comments

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More praise and news for my new book with Father Ken Vavrina
“Crossing Bridges: A Priest’s Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden”

5.0 out of 5 stars “A Humble Man with a Powerful Story” Sept. 1 2015
By Sandra Wendel – Published on Amazon.com

“As a book editor, I find that these incredible heroes among us cross our paths rarely. I am indeed lucky to have worked with Father Ken in shaping his story, which he finally agreed to tell the world. You will enjoy his modesty and humility while serving the poorest of the poor. His story of his first days in the leper colony in Yemen is indeed compelling, as is his survival in prison in Yemen. Later, his work in Calcutta, Liberia, and Cuba made a difference.”

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5.0 out of 5 stars Father Ken Vavrina Sept. 28 2015
By Sandra L Vavrina – Published on Amazon.com

“Crossing Bridges. Father Ken’s life is amazing! He is my husband’s cousin and performed our wedding ceremony 51 years ago right after he was ordained.”

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5.0 out of 5 stars “Great Book” Sept. 1 2015
By ken tuttle – Published on Amazon.com

“Such an amazing life story.”

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BOOK NOTE:

The book is available through http://www.upliftingpublishing.com. You can also find it on Amazon and Kindle and at The Bookworm. Ask for it or order it at your favorite bookstore.

After Father Ken recoups the cost of the book’s priting, all proceeds will go to Catholic Relief Services and Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Omaha.

BOOK NOTE:

I will join Father Ken at a Saturday, November 7 signing from 1 to 4 p.m. at The Bookworm.

COVER STORY NOTE:

Look for my cover story about Father Ken that I adapted from the book in the November 2015 issue of the New Horizons newspaper published by the Eastern Nebraska Office on Aging.

Exclusive excerpts from my new book with Father Ken Vavrina: Crossing Bridges, A Priest’s Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden

August 18, 2015 Leave a comment

Exclusive excerpts from my new book with Father Ken Vavrina-

Crossing Bridges: A Priest’s Uplifting Life Among the Downtrodden

The new book I did with beloved Omaha Catholic priest Father Ken Vavrina is now available for pre-orders at-http://www.conciergemarketing.com/#!online-store/c1dbb/!/Crossing-Bridges-A-Priests-Uplifting-Life-Among-the-Downtrodden/p/52473405

It releases August 26 in conjunction with the birthday of Mother Teresa – the late nun and humanitarian he variously knew as his inspiration, boss, colleague and friend.

Father Ken will sign copies Wed., Sept. 2 @ 6:pm @ The Bookworm, 90th & Center Streets. I will be there, too. Hope to see you.

The book is the story of this beloved priest’s life and travels – simple acts that moved him, people that inspired him and places that astonished him. Father Vavrina has served as a priest for many years and has served several missions trips to help the needy. Father Ken worked with lepers in Yemen, and was ultimately arrested and thrown in jail under false suspicions of spying. After being forcibly removed from Yemen, he began his tenure with Catholic Relief Services, first in the extreme poverty and over-population of Calcutta in India, and then with warlords in Liberia to deliver food and supplies to refugees in need. Father Ken also spent several years working with Mother Teresa to heal the sick and comfort the dying. Father Ken has spent his life selflessly serving the Lord and the neediest around him, while always striving to remain a simple, humble man of God.

From the book:
“The very first bridge I crossed was choosing to study for the priesthood, a decision that took me and everyone who knew me by surprise. Then came a series of bridges that once crossed brought me into contact with diverse peoples and their incredibly different yet similar needs.”

In addition to his overseas missionary work, he’s also ministered to many diverse communities in Nebraska, including Native American reservations, Hispanic parishes and inner city African-American congregations. He is a long-time social justice champion and an outspoken equal rights advocate.

From Father Ken:
“I pray this account of my life is not a personal spectacle but a recounting of a most wonderful journey serving God. May its discoveries and experiences inspire your own life story of service.”

EXCLUSIVE EXCERPTS FROM

CROSSING BRIDGES: A PRIEST’S UPLIFTING LIFE AMONG THE DOWNTRODDEN

©2015 Kenneth Vavrina

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Identity gets a new platform through RavelUnravel

March 20, 2015 Leave a comment

Project Interfaith was a passion project that a young Omaha professional, Beth Katz, thought up and ran with and during its run it made a lot of noice and connections in trying to foster greater understanding between people of different religious and spiritual beliefs.  This story for Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/) focuses on a program Project Interfaith  inaugurated called RavelUnravel that gave people from around the country and even around the world a platform for sharing their personal faith experiences.  No sooner had I completed the article and it went into production than Katz resigned and within three months of that the organization disanded, and presumably RavelUnravel ended with it.  The official reason given for the disbanding was declining financial support, according to board president John Levy.  I don’t believe Katz has yet to publicly comment on the reason for her departure or on her response to the organization she created and led having dissolved so quickly after she left.  What is odd is that in my interview with her for this story there was no hint of her forthcoming departure or any internal problems with the organization.  Whatever the reasons for her exiting and however she feels about the end of what she started and nurturted, this piece and an earlier one I did on her and Project Interfaith will make clear that she really was on a mission and that her organization really was making a difference.  I have to believe in some way, shape, or form she will continue this good work in the future.

 

Identity gets a new platform through RavelUnravel

Religious-spiritual-cultural identity expression at heart of program inviting people to tell their stories via videos

Project Interfaith program ravels-unravels questions of who we are

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in Metro Magazine (http://www.spiritofomaha.com/)

 

The Tri-Faith Initiative’s goal of creating a shared campus housing the three Abrahamic faith groups is not the only Omaha interfaith effort netting wide attention. Project Interfaith seeks to engage people in dialogue about their religious-spiritual-cultural identity and experience. What began as a one-woman crusade of founder Beth Katz to foster interfaith work in Omaha now reaches far beyond Nebraska.

Reflective of its 30-something-year-old founder and her even younger staff, Project Interfaith has embraced the digital age through its online RavelUnravel video program and other educational resources.

“We’ve always seen the potential for our work to have an impact on multiple levels and I feel we’re just beginning to fully realize that,” Katz says.

The RavelUnravel initiative began in 2010 when she and her team assembled volunteers to capture flip camera-recorded interviews with diverse people at various sites around the Omaha metropolitan area. Each participant was asked to answer four questions revolving around their religious or spiritual identity, any stereotypes they’ve encountered around that expressed identity and the degree to which they find this community welcoming or unwelcoming to their religious or spiritual path.

 

Individuals and groups wanting to participate so surpassed expectations the campaign was extended. The campaign’s since been opened to the general public. More than 1,100 unique videos can be viewed at ravelunravel.com today. The submissions, all screened for content and minimally edited whenever possible, are from folks identifying with a myriad of religions and belief systems including Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, agnosticism, atheism as well as every imaginable variation that exists within each category. A wide range of ages and races are represented. Viewers are able to comment on their own and others’ videos.

She says the program reflects emerging trends, such as a growing segment of the population that does not affiliate with a particular religion or belief system.

“I think we’re seeing an evolution of how people articulate their religious and spiritual identities and experiences and how they connect to established religions and belief systems.”

The organization recently became a formal partner of the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge, a joint initiative of the White House and the Department of Education, thus positioning it to actively solicit videos from across America. It’s going global, too.

“We’re in the process of entering into partnerships with some organizations outside of the U.S. who would incorporate RavelUnravel in their interfaith work. We’re excited about the possibility of having videos from beyond the U.S. being part of the project.”

 

 

Let’s talk
She emphasizes, however, it’s really not about the volume of videos “that makes this a meaningful, impactful program, it’s what people do with the videos and how they respond. Certainly we want and invite as many people to share their stories as possible but it’s really about what the stories do when people watch them and talk about them.” Conversation kits have been developed to guide productive dialogue around topics typically considered taboo.

“Hopefully what they’re doing is inviting people to ask themselves those questions and to do some important self-reflection. Hopefully they’re giving people a tool to enter conversations with other people about these core questions that really drive our experiences and speak to this underlying humanity that connects all of us.”

The videos’ intensely intimate content is moving to Katz.

“I have been so honored by what people have been willing to share in their videos. This is not like do you prefer Coke or Pepsi. These are questions that really hit at the core of people’s identity and experiences as humans. There’s a video, for example, of an individual that talks about his identity as a gay Christian man and how for so many years that was something he could not reconcile. It drove him to try to commit suicide. He then talks about his experience of really finding peace with it and where that’s’ brought him to now.

“It’s some of the most personal information a person could share. I think all of us at Project Interfaith feel an incredible sense of responsibility and stewardship with these stories people are entrusting with us. Hopefully they’re presented in the most integrity-filled and authentic way possible. We want to use this as a vehicle to encourage and inspire others to share their stories.”

 

 

  • Brandon Deen  Ashton  Sam  Torrey  Porcha
  • Scott  Betty  Cecilia  Theresa  Hannah
  • Sierra  Karen  Noah   Nargilya   Sarwat Husain
  • Annie  Shelby  Chad  Monk Luke  Katie
  • Jeff  Samira  Gucharan  Manbir  Autumn
  • Yeji  Taylor   Emily  Sarah  Donna
  • Beth  Monica  Brandi  Dawn  Anthony
  • Melissa  Christian  Amanda

 

She feels the program is an antidote for this age of dislocation.

“There’s universal experiences that really connect us and I think Ravel Unravel illustrates those. I get struck over and over by how deeply human the videos are. When you see a person’s video it’s the next best thing to sitting across the table from someone because these aren’t scripted. It’s real people sharing their experiences and I think it just melts away so many of the labels, sound bites and preconceptions constantly being swirled around in our heads, in media, in advertising. I think there’s incredible power in that.

“What makes this work meaningful is that we have the potential to create new ways for people to connect and interact with one another.”

Interfaith opportunities
Katz is encouraged by more interfaith opportunities available today than when she launched her nonprofit nine years ago.

“It’s exciting to see all the different ways people can explore these topics and enter into these types of conversations.”

She says Omaha’s seeing increased activity with the Tri-Faith Initiative, progressive religious studies programs at local universities, open adult forums at Countryside Community Church and Urban Abbey and interfaith exchanges among synagogues, mosques and churches.

“I think it’s remarkable so much is going on here.”

On the other hand, she says, Omaha, like the rest of the nation and world, has a ways to go. “It’s still such a nascent and emerging field that I don’t think the idea of openly, respectfully talking and learning about a person’s religious identity and experiences is normalized. That’s really what we’re striving to do – to make this a part of people’s every day lives, so it’s a very comfortable process.”

She does like the direction interfaith efforts are going, however.

“There is a lot of innovative good work coming from a lot of different places. This is really about trying to elevate the quality of people’s lives and relationships and the strength of our communities and so it’s important we have a lot of different models we can look toward to find meaningful ways to engage each other and to work together.”

Technology both aids and hurts this movement.

“As we’ve seen with RavelUnravel it can be an incredible way of inviting access to these conversations, experiences and learning. The flip side is you also have a lot of misinformation circulating out there. Extremist and hate groups are extremely sophisticated in their use of social media and technology to present their message and galvanize their base. We need to really become creative and sophisticated in our use of technology and social media to present a counter-narrative that engages people in thoughtful ways and connects them with credible information.”

Interfaith efforts may be more needed today than ever.

“I feel like it’s the best of times and the worst of times for this work. 9/11 brought to the forefront a lot of ignorance and curiosity people had about religious diversity. We see in surveys the level of polarization, social hostility and government restrictions on religious freedom increasing. Some of the RavelUnravel videos call us to think about these really complicated, rich experiences in a more humane way. For a society to be really healthy and functional we have to have space for everyone to share who they are.”

Unraveled
As another way to spur conversation, Project Interfaith invited visual artists to respond to RavelUnravel. Fifty-two artists submitted and a jury selected works in various media by eleven from around the nation, including Omaha artists Molly Romero, Bart Vargas, Kathryn Schroeder and Paula Wallace. The exhibit, titled Unraveled, opened in Omaha and is traveling to sites in Neb. and other parts of the nation.

“Using the arts to engage people has always been a track of our work at Project Interfaith,” Katz says. “Now that it’s traveling to a diversity of institutions and communities it’ll be really exciting to get feedback from those host sites about how it’s being used and what people are responding to.”

The exhibit premiered at Omaha’s Jewish Community Center, whose art gallery director, Lynn Batten, says, “What makes this exhibit unique is its potential to develop community education and understanding around the concept of religious identity and how it permeates our every day lives and society as a whole. By asking the artists to represent their personal stories, the viewer begins to see the common denominator between them all. They begin to see that we are all universally connected beyond what our religious beliefs might be – that we are united through our experience of the human condition.”

“That’s part of what this is all about – trying to help people appreciate and delve into the complexity and the richness of identity and experience as it relates to religious, spiritual, cultural backgrounds and identities,” Katz says.

Unraveled’s next area stops include: Saint Paul United Methodist Church (Lincoln), Nov. 3 to Dec. 1; Iowa Western Community College, Jan. 12 to Feb. 6; and Countryside Community Church (Omaha), July 1 to July 31.

Follow Project Interfaith news at projectinterfaith.org. View RavelUnravel videos or upload one at ravelunravel.com.

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