Interfaith Journey: Sharif Liwaru and Gabrielle Gaines Liwaru share how they make their interfaith walk work
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.
©photo by Debra Kaplan
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.”
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.”
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…
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–
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 Sunday: Episcopal 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, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist 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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.”
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.