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Posts Tagged ‘Religion’

Life Itself V: Jewish-themed and related stories from 1998-2018


Life Itself V:
Jewish-themed and related stories from 1998-2018
Holocaust/War
Milton Kleinberg: Omaha resident who survived little-known chapter of Holocaust history releases new edition of memoir
Art trumps hate: 
‘Brundinar’ children’s opera survives as defiant testament from the Holocaust
Leo Adam Biga’s survivor-rescuer stories featured on Institute for Holocaust Education website
A not-so-average Joe tells his Holocaust story of survival
Holocaust rescue mission undertaken by immigrant Nebraskan comes to light: 
How David Kaufmann saved hundreds of family members from Nazi Germany  

Holocaust Survivor's Personal Story

 
Kitty Williams finally tells her Holocaust survivor tale
The Artful Dodger: Lou Leviticus survived the Holocaust as an escape artist
Walter Reed:
Former hidden child survives Holocaust to fight Nazis as American GI
Piecing together a lost past: The Fred Kader story
The Hidden Child revealed: 
Marcel Frydman, Fred Kader, Tom Jaeger share childhood survival stories in gathering like no other
Sisters of the Shoah:
Three survivor tales, three golden fates, three iron wills
Lola’s story: Out of the ashes, destined to live
Holocaust survivor Helena Tichauer: Destiny’s child
Bea Karp: Holocaust survivor feels obligation to share painful memories
Rescuer curriculum gives students new perspective on the Holocaust
Ben Nachman remembered heroes of the Holocaust
Bringing to light hidden heroes of the Holocaust 
Ben Nachman’s mission
Ben Nachman:
At work in the fields of the righteous
By land, by sea, by air, Omaha Jewish veterans  performed far-flung wartime duties

Jewish Life in Omaha and Lincoln: A Photographic History

Social Justice/Community
Abe Sass: A mensch for all seasons
Norman Krivosha’s life in law
Steve Rosenblatt: 
A legacy of community service, political ambition and baseball adoration
Leo Greenbaum is collector of collectors ofJewishArtifacts at YIVO Institute 
Louise Abrahamson’s legacy of giving finds perfect fit at The Clothesline, the Boys Town thrift store the octogenarian founded and still runs
The life and times of scientist, soldier and Zionist Sol Bloom
Shirley Goldstein: Cream of the Crop
One woman’s remarkable journey in the Free Soviet Jewry movement
Sam Cooper’s freedom road
Retired Omaha World-Herald military Affairs newsman Howard Silber: 
War veteran, reporter, raconteur, bon vi vant, globetrotter
Howard Rosenberg’s much-traveled news career
Flanagan-Monsky example of social justice and interfaith harmony still shows the way seven decades later
Winners Circle: 
Couple’s journey of self-discovery ends up helping thousands of at-risk kids through early intervention educational program
Alone or together, Omaha power couple Vic Gutman and Roberta Wilhelm give back to the community
A force of nature named Evie: 
Still a maverick social justice advocate at 100

Faith/Religion
A matter of faith: Beth Katz and Project Interfaith find bridges to religious beliefs
Identity gets a new platform through RavelUnravel
Rabbi Azriel’s neighborhood welcomes all, unlike what he saw on recent Middle East trip; 
Social justice activist and interfaith advocate optimistic about Tri-Faith campus
Rabbi Azriel: Legacy as social progressive and interfaith champion secure
Temple Israel Omaha embraces new home and new era
History in the making: $65M Tri-Faith Initiative bridges religious, social, political gaps
Omaha Tri-Faith pioneers seeing fruits of interfaith collaborative take shape

photo

Business/Development
Master developer Jay Noddle and his Noddle Companies transform Omaha
Urban planner Marty Shukert takes long view of Omaha development
Customer-first philosophy makes family-owned Kohll’s Pharmacy and Homecare stand out from the crowd
Bedrock values at core of four-generation All Makes Office Furniture Company
This version of Simon Says positions Omaha Steaks as food service juggernaut
Allan Noddle’s food industry adventures show him the world
The much anticipated return of the Bagel Bin

 
Omaha History
The Brandeis Story:
Great Plains family-owned department store empire
“Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores, Omaha, Lincoln, Greater Nebraska and Southwest Iowa”
Once upon a time an urban dead end became Omaha’s lively Old Market
Omaha’s Old Market: 
History, stories, places, personalities, characters
In Memoriam: George Eisenberg
A man intimate with the Old Market’s origins is gone, but his legacy lives on
George Eisenberg’s love for Omaha’s Old Market never grows old
Buffett’s newspaper man, Stanford Lipsey
Sun Reflection: Revisiting the Omaha Sun’s Pulitzer Prize-winning expose of Boys Town
When Omaha’s North 24th Street brought together Jews and Blacks in a melting pot marketplace
Omaha native Steve Marantz looks back at city’s ’68 racial divide through prism of hoops in new book, “The Rhythm Boys of Omaha Central”
Rich Boys Town sports legacy recalled
Roaenblatt-College World Series

6141-borsheim-s-fine-jewelry-and-gifts-remodel-7631

Arts/Culture/Entertainment
Potash Twins making waves in jazz:
Teen brothers count jazz greats as mentors
Identical twin horn players set to lead Omaha jazz revival
Author Scott Muskin – What’s a nice Jewish boy like you doing writing about all this mishigas? 
Author Rachel Shukert: 
A nice Jewish girl gone wild and other regrettable stories
Rachel Shukert’s anything but a travel agent’s recommended guide to a European grand tour
Omaha Lit Fest: 
In praise of writers and their words: Jami Attenberg and Will Clarke among featured authors 
Being Jack Moskovitz:
Grizzled former civil servant and DJ, now actor and fiction author, still waiting to be discovered
Playwright turned history detective Max Sparber turns identity search inward
The magical mystery tour of Omaha’s Magic Theatre, a Megan Terry and Jo Ann Schmidman production
Theater-Fashion Maven Elaine Jabenis
Old Hollywood hand living in Omaha comes out of the shadows: Screenwriter John Kaye scripted “American Hot Wax” and more
Murder He Wrote: 
Reporter-Author David Krajicek finds niche as true crime storyteller

Living the dream: 
Cinema maven Rachel Jacobson – the woman behind Film Streams
Film Streams at Five: Art cinema contributes to transformed Omaha through community focus on film and discussion
Omaha’s film reckoning arrives in form of Film Streams, the City’s first full-fledged art cinema
Joan Micklin Silver: 
Shattering cinema’s glass ceiling
“The Bagel: An Immigrant’s Story”
Joan Micklin Silver and Matthew Goodman team up for new documentary
Joan Micklin Silver’s Classic “Hester Street” Included in National Film Registry
Women’s and indie feature film pioneer Joan Micklin Silver’s journey in cinema
Carol Kane Interview
Actor Peter Riegert makes fine feature directorial debut with ‘King of the Corner”

Prodigal filmmaker comes home again to screen new picture at Omaha Film Fest
Dan Mirvish strikes again: Indie filmmaker back with new feature “Between Us”
Crazy like a fox indie fimmaker Dan Mirvish makes going his own way work
In Memoriam:
Filmmaker Gail Levin followed her passion
Filmmaker Gail Levin followed her passion
Forever Marilyn:
Gail Levin’s new film frames the “Monroe doctrine”
A filming we will go: Gail Levin follows her passion 
Gail Levin takes on American Master James Dean
Dena Krupinsky makes Hollywood dreams reality as Turner Classic Movies producer
Bill Maher Gets Real
The wonderful world of entertainment talent broker Manya Nogg
Entertainment attorney Ira Epstein: Counsel to the stars
For artist Terry Rosenberg, the moving human body offers canvas like no other
Rebecca Herskovitz forges an art family at Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts
Song Girl Ann Ronell
Radio Day: “Michael Feldman’s Whad’Ya Know?” Live from Omaha 
Radio DJ-Actor-Singer Dave Wingert, In the Spotlight
Wild about chocolate

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

November 16, 2016 2 comments

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 3 comments

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 4 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

Appeared 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.”

CB Interior Chapter 8 III SMALL SIZE with album and front cover 08_14_15

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)

CB Interior Chapter 9 IV SMALL SIZE with album and front cover 08_14_15

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.

CB Interior Chapter 13 XI SMALL SIZE with album and front cover 08_14_15


“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.

Temple Israel Omaha embraces new home and new era

May 26, 2014 2 comments

For the fall 2013 dedication of its new synagogue building, Temple Israel Omaha commissioned Omaha Publications to create a commemorative, magazine-style program.  I was asked to write four stories for that piece that reflect different dimensions of what that new space means to the leadership and liturgy and how it fits into the emerging Tri-Faith Initiative campus that will eventually find the synagogue joined by a neighborhing Islamic mosque, Episcopal church, and shared interfaith center.  My stories follow.

Temple Clergy Work as Religious Artists to Help Members Grow in Their Jewishness

©by Leo Adam Biga

 

Rabbi Aryeh Azriel is known to frankly speak his mind and fearlessly wade into trouble rather than stand silently, idly by. It’s his nature. He and the dynamic clergy team he leads make a good match for the lively reform congregation they serve.

“I refuse to sit on the fence in any relationship I encounter,” says Azriel. “I like to be part of life and to jump into dangerous, sometimes stormy waters. I definitely want to take a chance. I like those kinds of experiments.”

Temple Israel’s participation in the Tri-Faith Initiative and decision to build a new synagogue are just the latest expressions of Azriel and his team leading their flock to challenging new opportunities.

“There is definitely a spirit in this congregation that allows for those kinds of things to happen. This congregation is extremely courageous,” he says.

He feels fortunate havling clergy who enjoy the vital push and pull that characterizes life at Temple Israel.

“I’m very proud of the clergy surrounding me. They’re an amazing fit,” he says, referring to Rabbi Josh Brown and Cantor Wendy Shermet. “We’re not being a spectator. We’re about getting in, getting muddy, getting hurt, getting in all those amazing places and finding strong, creative ways of entering into people’s lives and relationships.”

“Aryeh, Josh and Wendy all bring different gifts to Temple. They complement and supplement each other and are very different from each other, but that is one of our congregation’s greatest strengths,” says member Jane Rips.

Brown says Azriel sets the bold course. “He does not like to sit still or slow down or sort of rest on any laurels. It’s always what needs to change next or what do we move towards next.”

Like their predecessors, Brown and Shermet speak their mind and think outside the box. Azriel wouldn’t have it any other way.

“We’ve selected some people that have provided challenges to me individually but also to the congregation. Free thinkers and innovators with the courage of their convictions.”

“We all challenge each other with no compunction about telling each other we’re wrong,” says Shermet.

There are no bruised egos.

Azriel says, “We are professionals and we have great respect for each other and I think the congregation definitely sees the loyalty between us. Trust and loyalty have to be at the core of not only staff but the congregation. It’s about knowing there is this group of people that can come together and dream together and challenge each other and have a vision and purpose and meaning to what we’re doing.”

The clergy team meets Tuesday mornings to plan their week but the trio confab informally most every day.

“I can’t tell you how many times during the day we are in each other’s offices because there are things that have to be discussed and some of them are urgent,” says Azriel.

The team divides hospital and nursing home visits. They take turns officiating at life cycle events.

“The clergy does not isolate itself. The acts of reaching out, teaching others about Judaism, welcoming questions and attending community events are part of their daily to-do lists,” says member Phyllis Glazer.

Brown works closely with new education director Debbie Messarano and confers with young families and other congregants without strong connections to clergy. Shermet manages the bamitzvah program and all of the worship music. Azriel ensures the team’s teachings and activities enhance Temple’s mission and vision.

“It’s not only listening to each other,” Azriel adds, “but listening to the heartbeat of the congregation is crucial, too. If we for a moment forget what the purpose of our work here is then our work will be in vain.”

The clergy are part of a much larger team.

“It’s more than just the clergy,” Azriel says. “You have to have the right youth group director, the right educator, the right executive director, the right program director, the right office staff, the right lay leadership.”

Still, as the father of this congregation for 25 years Azriel has left a huge imprint.

Rips says, “He has challenged us, guided us, loved us and helped to create a vibrant and exciting Temple Israel.”

“I find this place extremely caring and invigorating,” says Azriel. “It has embraced my family. It has been a wonderful experience.”

 

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Making Judaism Relevant in Prayer-Life Cycle Rituals

©by Leo Adam Biga

Making Reform Judaism relevant to congregants is not an academic question for Temple’s clergy.

“It’s the central question of our work here,” says Cantor Wendy Shermet. “We spend a great deal of time talking about how are we and are we in fact relevant to people with very busy secular lives.”

Much focus is on making holiday observances and life cycle events intrinsic experiences that help members identify with Jewish life and what it means to be a Jew.

“It’s on so many levels, definitely on the intellectual level so they know what Reform Judaism stands for,” says Rabbi Aryeh Azriel. ‘It’s also important to recognize that Reform Judaism of 50 years ago is not the same Reform Judaism of today.

“With every life cycle event there is this question of how do we make it an integral part of the life of that family or that individual.”

Infusing new life into old rituals is one way of keeping things fresh.

Azriel says, “Many times we work on traditional vessels that maybe go back to antiquity and try to fill those old vessels with new meaning. That’s the reform tradition. So there is a tradition of immersion in the mikvah but we took this old vessel and brought a new meaning to people battling cancer and addiction and all those things.

“This is where the clergy get creative. We are constantly very vigilant about understanding the content and the meaning of the moment. That’s why we call ourselves religious artists. We talk about the drama we need to have in a ritual or celebration of a life cycle event. The moment we lose sight of the drama then we are not doing our job.”

In that creative process, he says, “we have upgraded everything, not only rituals, not only the celebration of holidays, but in line with the mission of looking at how we can make a better connection between the personal worshiper sitting in the pew and the experience of their relationship with God. Their spirituality. If we do not upgrade it in the way our people are worshiping they will not stay here.”

Member Phyliis Glazer says, “Rabbi Azriel, Rabbi Brown, Cantor Shermet and all who came before them have been with us at some of our most joyous moments. They have shared in those joys and helped us bear the burdens of the times of our greatest sorrow.”

Rabbi Josh Brown says the more members connect their lives to Temple the more opportunities they have to connect with their Jewishness. He says whenever members choose to participate in a celebration or ritual, it’s an opportunity to grow in their Jewish heritage and faith and to be part of a continuum.

“You’re connecting yourself not only to traditions that are generations, in some cases hundreds or thousands of years old, but you’re also connecting yourself to the future – to prayers your kids will say. There’s power in that connection.”

One of those traditions, Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, encourages believers to look inward in order to grow in faith.

“Shabbat is this ability to disengage from the week that just passed and to reenergize the holy inside us for the week ahead,” says Azriel. “Shabbat offers an opportunity to go a few notches up in the spiritual-emotional content of our lives and we can do it in the midst of family and friends or in a walk or opening a book or listening to music or coming here for a Shabbat service.”

Azriel says living out Judasim must be a daily thing.

“Judaism calls us to imitate God’s creation, compassion, caring every day. The high holidays are coming now and I think there are missed opportunities if we don’t use those days and those moments to discover who we are. Those are all places for individual fueling. The whole year is an invitation to learn to fuel and to fly high.”

As Temple Israel settles into its new home, Azriel reminds the congregation that “important as it is to build synagogues for Jews it is even more important to build Jews for the synagogues. Synagogues are empty only when Jews are empty.”

The building will fill with memories, emotions and stories with each ritual and celebration held there. On Sept. 28 Stacie Spies-Matz and Jay Matz have the honor and privilege of their daughter Samantha Matz being the first Bat Mitzvah in the new Temple.

“It is exciting and joyful to take those first steps into the future and into the new building,” says Spies-Matz. “We have observed many holidays, participated in religious school, developed great friendships and had our children’s baby naming at Temple. Temple contributes a big piece to how we raise our children.”

 

 

 

 

Art and Music in New Temple Reflect Spirit of Congregation

©by Leo Adam Biga

To enhance worship in the sacred spaces of its new synagogue, Temple charged five artists with creating symbolically-rich ritual objects embedded in Jewish faith and practice. Each artist met extensively with Temple clergy to discuss the religious significance of the ritual object they were commissioned to make.

An exhaustive process determined where art would be located and what it would convey before a jury identified and commissioned the appropriate artists to create the pieces. The Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts facilitated the process.

The idea was to make art integral to spaces, not mere adornments.

The central ritual object on the bimah (the altar or sanctuary) is the Ark (Aron Hakodesh), which is the repository of the Torah scrolls. Many synagogue arks are dramatic works of art or craftsmanship in wood or metal, filled with symbolic elements representing parts of the Jewish tradition.

At Temple’s request Israel resident Galya Rosenfeld created a doubled-layered ark curtain. Bemis Community Arts Program Manager Holly Olson describes it this way, “The front layer is an assemblage of laser-cut fabric pieced together in a repeating Star of David pattern using a color palette referencing Shivat Haminim (the Seven Species named in the Torah). Openings in the center front reveal the back shear curtain printed with holiday symbols.”

Rosenfeld says the two curtains create an “interplay” and “choreography” for displaying the ark. She adds that the colors inspired by “the ritual foods we eat and wines we drink” are meant “to connect people with familiar things from their experience of the holidays” and to “exalt our practice of Judaism.”

Another essential element of the sanctuary is the eternal light that symbolizes the fire that burned on the altar in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Temple selected James Woodfill of Kansas City, Mo. to design the eternal light for the sanctuary. His modular work seamlessly blends into the bimah wall. He says the design “lets the light simply emanate from that wall” as an ambient architectural immersion. Rather than imposing a narrative, Olson says the piece “allows for the symbolism to come from the experience.”

Woodfill says he intends for his piece to “instigate a new way of feeling or sensing” for worshipers and “to add a layer of potential optimism and reflection.”

The Temple’s chapel also has an eternal light and another Kansas City artist, Linda Lighton, was inspired by a word cloud congregants generated to express what they wanted the chapel’s eternal light to evoke. Working from that and motifs in the ark doors and stained glass windows she fashioned a translucent porcelain flower. She says, “I hope the members will enjoy and find comfort and solace and inspiration in this light for many years to come.”

In the spirit of Jewish prayer that inspires and instructs worshipers artist Lynne Avadenka of Huntington Woods, Mich. was tasked with bringing Hebrew passages from the Hashkiveinu prayer of peace to graphic life. She executed hand-drawn interpretations of excerpts selected by the worship committee. The prayer’s message of renewal, peace and community holds special meaning for the congregation. Her work is displayed in the wrap-around clerestory windows. A repeated passage – “Grant, O God, that we lie down in peace, and raise up, our Guardian, to life renewed. Spread over us the shelter of Your peace.” – can be read inside the sanctuary. Two other passages can be read from the outside, including one that reads: “For You, God, watch over us and deliver us. For You, God, are gracious and merciful.”

Olson says the soft flow of Avadenka’s hand-drawn work offers a pleasing contrast to the clean, sharp lines of the space’s other designs.

“The commission for the Temple comes with a sense of responsibility to make sure what I am doing is satisfying the members of the Temple and their sense of what their sanctuary should be, along with the aesthetic sensibility of the architect,” says Avadenka.

Nashville, Tenn.-based artist Mel Ziegler is preparing an outdoor sculptural piece for the entrance that will invite members and visitors to interact with the work and perhaps add onto it. He’s responding to a Hebrew passage viewable above the entrance that reads, “Guard our going and coming, to life and to peace, evermore.” Ziegler envisions his work integrated into new traditions at Temple and reflecting the congregation moving forward and embarking on a new path.

In one way or another the work of Ziegler and his fellow artists all express the vital, searching, engaging nature of Temple’s people.

Temple member Todd Simon, a noted art collector who helped lead the commission process, says “the progressiveness, inclusiveness and open-mindedness” of the congregation ensured that Temple didn’t “go with the safest choices but instead was willing to explore and push around the boundaries.” is pleased by the art that’s been cultivated. I think we’ve got a terrific balance between totally new art and artists for whom the artistic problem this presented to them was a brand new challenge to them.”

“I love those pieces,” says Rabbi Aryeh Azriel, who consulted with each artist. “I feel very good about the selection.”

 

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Ark curtain

 

 

eternal light sanctuary web

Eternal light

 

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Hebrew passage inscribed windows

 

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Stained glass windows

 

On Simon’s recommendation the synagogue hired the Bemis Center to manage the process that selected and supported the artists.

“I sort of inserted my point of view that we ought to really be thinking about art from the very beginning and more importantly that the art is actually a great way to involve a broader group of the congregation in a conversation about what this place is supposed to be about. The process was designed so that the concepts really came from the community the art is supposed to serve. We tried to be as inclusive as we could.”

Between 80 and 100 congregants attended a 2011 workshop. “We asked the congregation to bring to life in words and stories the past present and future of Temple Israel. What it meant to them on a very personal level,” says Simon. “We noticed certain themes and ideas emerged. We knew where we wanted art to potentially touch the building.” The Bemis then assembled a jury of curators and experts who came up with the artists invited to submit an RFQ (Request for Qualifications). From dozens of submissions five were selected.

In addition to the art pieces Temple commissioned original music for the dedication by three composers.

Jonathan Comisar, music director at Congregation Kol Ami in White Plains, NY and on the faculty of his alma mater, Hebrew Union College School of Sacred Music, writes Jewish music for synagogues and other organizations all over the nation. Comisar was asked by Temple Israel Cantor Wendy Shermet to compose a piece of art music that draws on the Hashkiveinu prayer. His piece, “Hashkiveinu: A Shelter of Peace,” is scored for cantor and choir as well as for violin, cello, clarinet and flute.

“It was a wonderful, challenging task,” says Comisar.

The composer says his goal was to interpret the prayer with “integrity and authenticity – to make this not only fitting for a prayer but fitting for the grandeur of a new synagogue.” At the same time he says he needed to create a section children can sing along to and weave the instruments and cantor’s voice into “an organic whole. “It’s like a mini-scene from a play in a lovely and beautiful way with all the right intentions. It’s a moment which marks a milestone in the congregation’s life, so I was very mindful of the significance…”

Guest artists for the performance will feature Comisar at piano and select Omaha Symphony members.

The other original musical works for the dedication are by organist-composer Kurt Knecht from Lincoln, Neb. and songwriter-playwright Karen Sokolof Javitch from Omaha. He is music director at St. Mark’s on the University of Nebraska-Lincoln campus and artistic director and conductor of the Lincoln Lutheran Choir. She is a member of Temple Israel. Knecht’s piece, “Shalom Aleichem,” is for girls and women. Javitch’s piece, “Noah,” is for children.

 

Tri-Faith Initiative campus rendering

 

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Sterling Ridge Site Offers New Horizons to Carry on Old Traditions and to Build New Relationships

©by Leo Adam Biga

Temple Israel and the Tri-Faith Initiative grounds comprise a lovely but small corner of the 153-acre mixed-use Sterling Ridge development that’s 10 to 12 years from full build-out. Temple and its interfaith partners bring deep currents of history, memory and spirituality that stand apart from the development’s retail and business tenants.

Temple alone carries 142 years of traditions. Congregants will soon be neighbors with members of a mosque and a church and their own long faith traditions as well as with residents of an assisted living-memory care facility and with employees and customers of various commercial enterprises. All of it affords opportunities to put faith in action.

“It’s meaningful to have participated in the creation of a vehicle that can enable the fostering of more healthy human interpersonal relationships,” says Tri-Faith board chair and Temple member Bob Freeman. “Personally I can tell you I’m a better person and Jew for the journey. I’m more connected to God.”

There wouldn’t be a new Temple in the Tri-Faith venture without the building project leadership team.

Temple member Ted Zetzman is a builder by trade. He and John Waldbaum worked closely with Finegold Alexander Associates, Charles Vrana and Son Construction Company and Lockwood Development’s Chip James on delivery of the new synagogue.

“What made it have special meaning is that Temple came to me and said we need your help with this and it was something I really knew how to do and could help with,” says Zetzman.

He credits principal architect Maurice Finegold with conceiving the new Temple as a translucent lantern on the prairie. Project Advocates helped find the glass to realize that vision, along with the exterior Jerusalem stone and other materials.

Zetzman says fellow Temple member Harley Schrager, chair of the Building Council and co-chair of the capital and major donor campaigns, “was involved intimately in the concept and setting the standards or objectives for the design from a qualitative standpoint.”

Bound up in coming to the new building is honoring the old building’s rich past.

“The idea is to create an incredible opportunity to elevate people side by side, the new and the old, the inspirations and the challenges,” Rabbi Aryeh Azriel says. “How do you move the congregation? How do you provide the dignity? How do you recognize the departure, the sadness, the up, the down?”

He says Rabbi Josh Brown and Cantor Wendy Shermet “were involved in making sure people were engaged in conversations with the congregation about what exactly would happen with this transition.”

Temple long deliberated whether to move and once the decision was made it next had to decide where to relocate.

“It’s a huge risk this congregation took,” says Azriel. “I mean, how do you build something that satisfies everyone? How do you build a home for 800 families?”

Zetzman says the Temple project and Tri-Faith presence make a great fit for Sterling Ridge by giving it the high profile civic use it needed.

Azriel sees as providential and ironic Temple and Tri-Faith finding the spot of a former Jewish country club that formed in response to Jews being excluded elsewhere.

“I think the choice of the location for the synagogue is an amazing miracle. We went through 32 different locations before we got to this one, and we came to the right place. Once upon a time Jews were The Other but the Jewish community has grown up and been made to feel comfortable in America. So I think we landed in a wonderful moment in the life of a community. We created a location that responds beautifully to the needs of people both in creating connection and meaning with non-Jews and creating a comfortable haven to be able to celebrate rituals and the excitement of being neighbors.”

Brown imagines Temple serving a similar function Highland Country Club served.

“Jews wanted a place where they could sit down and be with the people they cared about and related to best and I think a lot of the design of our new building is to that same purpose. We want people to feel the synagogue is an extension of their home. We want to be a place where people will feel they’ll run into people they know.

“Just as Highland became a place where you could be fully yourself I hope Temple’s the same way.”

Azriel says the new site is the best opportunity to ensure the growth of Reform Judaism in Omaha with the building’s many sacred spaces and expanded social, educational and administrative facilities. The majority of members reside nearby, too.

Then there’s the interfaith engagement.

Azriel says, “The dream is to discover the image of God in all of us and to see how that image is actually the same. It’s not about symbols, it’s about being neighbors. We’re going to hopefully understand what is the meaning of walking into each other’s homes.

“It’s about interacting and placing ourselves together in our daily living. The reason why we went for this is because we wanted to feel real and authentic. The social justice piece is part of Reform Judaism. That’s part of the obligation of every Jew. It’s about constantly reinventing ourselves in areas of social justice and adult learning. That’s why in the new building we carry on the tradition of leaving a brick unfinished because there’s always work to be done. The dream is turning the bricks and mortar of that building into a living entity.”

The way Azriel sees it Temple’s participation in the Tri-Faith is “an outcome” of its longstanding inclusivity.

“I’m extremely happy about the relationship this congregation has with the non-Jewish community. I continued the tradition of rabbis who came before me in making sure solid bridges are built with those communities. This congregation has never been isolated. There was always a desire on my part and on the part of the congregation to continue those relationships.”

He’s thrilled about this new chapter in Temple’s story but he says “it’s never been about the building,” rather “It is about opening empty spaces and helping people become the best people they can be. There will be opportunities that lead people to something deeper. I think we are here as a community to explore the potential that’s available. The journey will be exciting.”

 

 
 
 
 

Rabbi Azriel: Legacy as social progressive and interfaith champion secure

May 15, 2014 1 comment

Rabbi Aryeh Azriel of Omaha has been sowing seeds of social justice for a very long time.  My short piece about him for Omaha Magazine comes a few months after he oversaw his reform congregation’s move to a new synagogue building.  The new temple is the first structure on the campus of the TriFaith Initiative, on whose board he serves. When the campus is completed it will be home to the synagogue, a mosque, an Episcopal church, and a tri-faith center.  He’s justifiably proud of how his faithful came together to support and shepherd their part of the tri-faith project through to completion, marking a new chapter in the historic congregation’s life.  He’s excited to fill the new temple with the emotion and energy of all the dynamic services, classes, celebrations, and rituals that go on there.  He’s served the congregation many years and now that he’s announced he’ll be retiring in 2016 he wants to make sure his leadership continues steering a right course until he steps down and a new leader takes over.

 

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Rabbi Azriel: Legacy as social progressive and interfaith champion secure

©Story by 

Originally appeared in Omaha Magazine (http://omahamagazine.com/)

 

Rabbi Aryeh Azriel has led Omaha’s reform Jewish congregation, Temple Israel Synagogue, since 1988. Along the way he’s become known for his social justice advocacy and for his efforts building bridges to other faith communities. He’s a board member of the ground-breaking Tri-Faith Initiative that’s bringing the three Abrahamic traditions together on the same campus. Temple Israel represents the Jewish tradition in the endeavor.

After putting his liberal stamp on Omaha, Azriel has signed his last three-year contact. His retirement takes effect in June 2016. This good shepherd wants the best for his flock and successor. Therefore, after he steps down he and his wife, Elyce, (they’re parents to two adult children) will move to Chicago, where they have strong ties, rather than be a distraction here.

“I want to see the congregation continue to thrive with someone else,” he says, “and sometimes there is a challenge when the emeritus rabbi stays in the same city. It’s important to have a rabbi running this congregation without an emeritus rabbi breathing down their neck. There’s definitely a need for me to not only step aside but to move to another place so the new person, whether male or female, has some independence to do things their own way.”

 

 

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When his time at Temple is done he will leave behind some tangible results, starting with the new synagogue building near 132nd and Pacific that opened last summer in the Sterling Ridge mixed-use development. The temple is the first completed element of the Tri-Faith campus being developed there. Azriel has been a driving force for his progressive congregation bearing witness to interfaith acceptance and communion. The temple will soon be joined by a neighboring mosque, a Christian church, and an interfaith center.

The contemporary modern, glass-sheathed new home replaced the previous facility at 70th and Cass that the nearly 800-family congregation outgrew years ago. It marked the first time in his career the native of Israel oversaw a new building project.

“It’s really a once in a lifetime experience,” Azriel says. “Many people in the congregation took part in this process.”

After years planning and praying the consensus is the open, Prairie-style structure is a good thing.

“The feedback on the building from the congregation is amazing,” he says. “We created exactly what we needed.”

The building, bathed in natural light from many windows, includes high tech features, but Azriel says it’s rooted in tradition. For example, leading to the main sanctuary are two facing modular walls—one a memorial bearing the names of members who’ve passed away and the other the stained glass windows that adorned the old sanctuary.

 

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“I think it’s extremely important for any institution that serves people to always have a heart for the institutional memory. There must be a place where a new building will not avoid the past or prevent you from remembering it. This congregation was established in 1871, and so even with a new building we still have to have one eye back in the history. We’ve maybe updated the technology but it’s the same Judaism—the same traditions, the same customs.”

What the temple most needed was more space to accommodate folks at services, receptions, classes, and other events and the much larger synagogue accomplishes this. Beyond the greater numbers that can be served the spacious digs provide more opportunities for interaction.

“This is definitely a communal experience,” he says. “It’s a house of study, a house of gathering and a house of prayer. It’s also a community gathering place for Jews and non-Jews. So it’s not just worship, it’s social justice, it’s adult and youth education, it’s making connections to churches in this area. I’m now creating relationships with some of the churches out here and it will be interesting to grow those relationships and to start something new.”

Just as he hoped, a central community square or commons area has become a focal point for people to hang out.

“We are finding that people are actually lingering because the space is so inviting. They want to stay longer and they like the schmoozing.”

Azriel doesn’t worry much about his legacy.

“It’s definitely not about bricks and mortar, it’s about relationships and hopefully about leaving a good name.”

He knows Temple’s contribution to the Tri-Faith campus represents just one part of an unfolding journey in understanding.

“This piece is done but the other pieces are extremely important too. To be able to create that community is another step. Some steps will be done before I leave and some will be done after I leave, and I’ll come back to see them bear fruit.”

For synagogue details, visit http://www.templeisraelomaha.com. Follow Tri-Faith Initiative news at trifaith.org.

 

Open Invitation: Rev. Tom Fangman engages all who seek or need at Sacred Heart Catholic Church

January 9, 2011 2 comments

In an era when Catholic priests are too often in the news for the wrong reasons it’s a pleasure to write about one who is highly respected by the church and by the community.  The following article for Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com) about Rev. Tom Fangman is not the first I’ve written about this priest or the parish he pastors, Sacred Heart, in a largely African-American neighborhood in Omaha, Neb.  But while those earlier pieces, which can be found on this blog by the way, deal with the rip-roaring Sunday service he presides over, complete with a gospel choir and band, and the multi-million dollar restoration of the church, this latest story focuses on him and his calling as a priest.  He’s a sweet, gentle man who has managed the difficult task of not only keeping his parish church, school, and social service center alive but thriving in a district beset by profound poverty and high crime and an area hit harder than most by the recession.  His winning ways with people from all walks of life, whether CEOs or parents just struggling to get by, is what makes him so good at what he does.

 

 

Open Invitation: Rev. Tom Fangman engages all who seek or need at Sacred Heart Catholic Church

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com)

 

When Rev. Tom Fangman arrived as pastor at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in 1998, the northeast Omaha parish was already known for its humanitarian embrace.

If anything, though, this hometown cleric with a gentle, jovial demeanor has broadened and deepened the caring community he guides there by forever reaching out to others. Gladly receiving all, he asks people to give, aware that service to others heeds our better angels.

“I’ve always been a people-person,” he said from the cozy living room of the rectory he resides in behind the church. “I find so much joy being around people. I’ve just been blessed with good people in my life. Before I came here Sacred Heart was known as a very welcoming community, a place where people of all different backgrounds could go and feel a part of, a place where they feel they belonged. I am most proud that we’ve carried on in that same spirit. I know it’s a community, I know it’s a community that cares. We’ve maintained that charism.

“We’ve also been a parish that has always had a strong conviction towards social justice and serving the needs of others and providing for the poor. We are that place and we are a place that I know for certain impacts the community. We’re helping lots of young people. I’m really proud of what what we’ve maintained in continuing to do for kids.”

On a frigid Saturday morning in November, there was Fr. Tom doling out donuts, muffins and thank-yous to delivery drivers picking up Thanksgiving gift pouches for the parish’s twice-annual holiday food distribution. A record 330-some families in need received a turkey, plus all the fixings, for Thanksgiving. The operation, which runs with friendly, relaxed precision out of the parish’s Heart Ministry Center (HMC), is repeated for Christmas.

For the weekend chiller, the affable padre stood outside, bundled from head to foot, meeting and greeting volunteers, an easy conviviality and respect between the priest and his flock. Typically, he downplays his part, instead praising the large team that makes this compassionate response a reality.

“Being the pastor here is just kind of like orchestrating,” he said. “It’s recognizing people’s goodness and gifts and inviting them to offer themselves. If people are offered an invitation, they’re going to go with it. The things that happen here are because there are lots of really good people. They’re willing to get involved and to give of themselves.

“There’s lots of things I love about being a priest but one of the most exciting is when people become aware of God’s presence in their life, and no two stories are ever the same. Every person has their own journey and own ways that are revealed to them.”

 

 

He said he’s come to view his ministry as inviting people to give, whether their time, talent or treasure, in order to be of service to others. He said he’s often teased that he has a way about him that makes it impossible for anyone to say no.

“Well, there are people who have said no to me, but I’ve just kind of learned that shouldn’t stop you,” he said. “You go to the next place, you find the next person. I believe in the goodness of people. I also have high expectations of what people can do, and sometimes they really need that invitation to show that.”

Located at 2218 Binney Street, Sacred Heart serves the most poverty stricken area of the city through three nonprofit arms Fangman oversees. The most visible of these is the church, which originally opened at another site clear back in 1890.

The present stone, late-Gothic Revival church that stands today opened in 1902. Through Fangman’s leadership the parish was able to find the funds and in-kind contributions necessary for the building to undergo a $3.3 million restoration in 2009. He announced the capital campaign to fund the project in 2008. After making the case, folks responded, and within a year all pledges were secured.

More than a picture-postcard Old World edifice made new again, the church is a well-attended gathering place that draws worshipers, just as Sacred Heart counts parishioners, from all over the metro. The hospitality there is evident in the way newcomers are greeted. The Sunday 10:30 a.m. Mass is famous for its spirited celebration, complete with a rousing gospel choir and band. The animated “sign of peace” ritual includes hand shakes, salutations, hugs, kisses, as many folks circulate from pew to pew engaging each other. The fellowship resumes after Mass ends.

As a parish priest, Fangman is more than a spiritual figurehead. He’s a flesh-and-blood confessor, advisor, counselor, confidante, friend, leader, fundraiser and CEO. He serves his flock in macro and micro ways. He’s there at the most public and private, joyous and sad occasions. Hundreds of photographs of people in his life adorn every smooth surface in his kitchen, a reflection of how many he impacts and how many touch him.

“Being a parish priest lets you be involved in lots of peoples lives, from womb to tomb,” he said. “People say to me, ‘How can you be around so much sadness and death?’ I don’t know how to answer that but one thing I do know is that holiness is there in the midst of it, because that’s where love is.”

He fills multiple roles in the course of any given week: saying several Masses; hearing confessions; presiding, on average, over at least one wedding or funeral; visiting the sick; preparing couples for marriage; attending board meetings; calling on donors; and crafting his homilies.

He feels good about a lot of things that go on at Sacred Heart.

“I feel like we have a really great thing to sell, and I’m sold, I believe in what we’re doing and I’ll talk to anybody about that,” he said.

A shining example he never tires of touting is Sacred Heart Elementary School, a K-8 institution serving a predominantly African-American, non-Catholic student population. The school’s financial sustainability and operations are supported by the nonprofit CUES or Christian Urban Education Service, comprised of an “established board” of Omaha movers and shakers. Fangman is its executive director.

He said students at the small private school consistently test above average and that faculty and staff rigorously prepare students to succeed, adding that 98 percent graduate high school within four years. Mentors are assigned every student, all of whom receive work and life skills training.

Whether it’s the school, the church, or the center, he said, Sacred Heart is concerned with “addressing the whole person — body, mind and spirit.” Nothing satisfies him more than seeing the results come-full-circle in an each one, teach one way: “I get to see the goodness of people who want to make a difference, and then I get to see who receives from that goodness, and then what they do with that. Ultimately our goal is to give people opportunities. Sacred Heart is about opportunities.”

He said, “This young lady came up to me to say she grew up down the street from Sacred Heart, attended school here nine years, went to Duchesne Academy, then St. Louis University. She worked at First National Bank and she wanted to be a mentor here. To me that spoke pretty loudly about what we’re able to do, which is giving kids the opportunity to make it in life, to grow and discover what they have to offer. I want to see that continue on. I want to see those opportunities always given.”

The parish responds to social service/ human needs through Heart Ministry Center, home to the area’s only self-select pantry. Thousands receive free food, clothing, health care and other services from HMC each year. In 2002 Fangman consolidated its services on campus, raising $650,000 to build a new building.

Sacred Heart’s mission requires big money. The center operates on a $360,000 budget. The school budget is $1.3 million. Running the church/parish costs $500,000.

“That’s $2 million you have to somehow come up with,” said Fangman, adding that to secure that kind of commitment requires reaching into all areas of Omaha.

Three major fundraisers are held yearly. Holy Smokes is a pre-Labor Day bash benefiting HMC. It features barbecue, refreshments and live music. The Gathering is a sit-down dinner in support of the school. The Sacred Heart Open is a croquet tournament, battle-of-the-bands and barbecue to assist the church/parish. Two of the events began under Fangman’s watch and all three, he said, are well supported.

Thirteen years into his post, Fangman’s overdue for a transfer, but he doesn’t sense his work at Sacred Heart is finished yet.

“If I felt like we had done everything we were supposed to do, then I would feel like it’s probably time to try something new and different, but I feel like we’re on the verge of some really vital things happening.”

Whatever happens, he said, “I want to feel like I know I tried to make this a better place. I want to continue trying to get the right people in the right spots.”

To do the right thing.

Two blended houses of worship desegregate Sunday: Episcopal Church of the Resurrection and New Life Presbyterian are houses undivided

August 30, 2010 3 comments

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).

 

©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.”

 

 

 

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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.”

Contemplative Compassion

July 11, 2010 1 comment

Sometimes a writer can shed light on a little understood facet of society or humanity, and through the prism of a story perhaps bring some new clarity and insight to the subject.  That’s the task I set for myself with this story about a community of contemplative nuns who after a very long presence in my hometown of Omaha left for another city.  Few people had even heard of much less knew anything about the Contemplative Sisters of the Good Shepherd.  Their neighbors could only imagine what went on behind their semi-cloistered compound.  In truth, the sisters for some time now have led rather community-oriented if not public lives thanks to relaxed restrictions.  When I heard they were leaving the campus they occupied not far from where I lived and once attended church and school, I decided to explore for myself who these women were, how they lived, and what they did.  In doing the piece I met an extraordinary woman, Sister Cecelia Porter, whose formidable spirit and gentle soul impressed me, and if I did my job right will impress you, too.  The story originally appeared in the New Horizons and I am glad to share its bittersweet tale here.

 

Mary Euphrasia Pelletier

Mary Euphrasia Pelletier

 

Contemplative Compassion

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in the New Horizons

With the departure of the Contemplative Sisters of the Good Shepherd in November, Omaha lost an exceptional group of older women dedicated to a regimen of prayerful meditation, hard labor and good will. Due to advanced age, ill health and depleted ranks, this once large Catholic community of nuns has moved to the Good Shepherd provincial colony in St. Paul, Minn. While the sisters are gone, the legacy of their amazing grace endures.

The Contemplative Sisters of the Good Shepherd (CGS) is an international congregation founded in 19th century France by St. Mary Euphrasia Pelletier. The contemplatives, a branch of the Good Shepherd order serving marginalized women and children, maintained a presence in Omaha much of the past century. Originally called Sister Magdalens and, later, Sisters of the Cross, their first home here was on South 40th Street. They moved in 1969 to the former Poor Clare Sisters convent at 29th and Hamilton. When the huge old building became untenable a new convent was erected at 3321 Fontenelle Blvd.. Occupied in 1989, the new site was home to the contemplatives until last November. It is now for sale.

Consistent with the good shepherd mission, the sisters pray for the poor, the sick, the dispossessed or anyone else needing spiritual intercession. They accept prayer requests by phone and mail. All who call on them find refuge in their gentle house of hearts. From the quiet of their tree-shaded Omaha sanctuary, complete with chapel and dining hall, the sisters provided solace and support to countless petitioners. It is a mission they continue today from their bucolic St. Paul retreat.

Despite being an enclosed community, the sisters lead lives fully engaged with, not removed from, the world. Indeed, since Vatican II eased restrictions on religious orders in the 1960s, the sisters have enjoyed greater freedom. No longer a classically cloistered community bound by strict monastic codes of silence and isolation, the sisters have used the more relaxed rules to extend their grace to ever more souls. That has meant getting involved in the lives of persons pleading for help, including “adopting” families in distress and distributing food to the hungry.

Sister Barbara Beasley, RGS, an apostolic Good Shepherd leader in St. Paul, said, “If the contemplatives are really doing their job, which is all about spirituality, then they are connected with everything that’s going on. And that’s exactly the truth about these women. The proof of their contemplative life is that they are not turned inwards on themselves. They are the least turned-in people you can imagine. Their interests are outward. Before news of a crisis hits the paper they already know it because somebody has called up asking them to pray about it. They’re truly centered people. They know what they’re about. They know their calling is to pray for ministries, to pray for needs, to pray for everything. They are alert and responsive to what’s happening.” She said while there is no plan to do so, a small group of contemplatives could one day again be assigned here.

 

 

 

The oldest and longest professed member of the former Omaha community, 89-year-old Sister Cecelia Porter, CGS, finds people from all walks of life confiding in them. “They tell us many things. They talk on the phone for hours, especially people living alone. You’d be surprised who it is too. You can be rich and still be lonely. Sometimes it’s hard to listen. We have one sister, Edith (Hesser), who listens and listens and listens to every kind of problem under the sun and everyone just loves her for that,” she said. “One talent God has given me is to pray with others, and to pray with them in a way that they feel they are included in the making of the prayer. If I know your problems I can pray for you so deeply. I can pray almost out of your own hope. People tell me they feel encouraged and helped by that.”

A measure of the impact the sisters made here was the stream of friends and patrons stopping by the convent to say farewell and thanks in the days prior to the move. Denise Maryanski of Papillion spoke for many in describing the sisters’ amazing grace. “Nothing I do in my life, even raising four children, would be as hard as the work they’ve done and the dedication they’ve shown in their life,” she said. “These women are totally pure in spirit. It is perfection. They are as close to being saints on earth as anyone we have met. They just don’t seem to have ugly days. They deal with whatever they’re handed and they deal with it with this joyful spirit and heart. When you’re with them, you just smile. You can’t help it. Even in their darkest hours, dealing with life-threatening illnesses, the joy is still there. They accept the challenges God gives them. You never hear them say, ‘Why me?’ When life looks really ugly to me I think, ‘What would Sister Clare (Filipowicz) do? What would Sister Edith do?’ They’ve enriched our life and been an inspiration.”

As divorced Catholics-turned-Episcopalians, Denise Maryanski and her husband Tony cherish the unconditional love extended them and trace the success of their home construction business to the prayers granted them. “You don’t have to show your Catholic badge at the door. They’re not at all judgmental,” she said. “We know they’ve taken care of us too. Stressful things have happened in our family and in our business over the last two years and all we had to do was pick up the phone and say we were having some issue in our lives and they were right there praying for us. We attribute all our blessings to them.”

There is no limit to what the sisters pray for. “We consider ourselves responsible for the entire world, prayerwise, and we are very thoughtful to that,” Sister Porter said. “That’s one thing about contemplation — it widens the mind so much. We make our prayer fruitful by having an intention, a motive and a thought in mind. It can be a disaster, a tragedy or an accident or it can be people looking for better jobs or better marriages or better health. All of it is a matter for prayer. Whether we know the people or not, we put some spiritual power in their lives that wouldn’t otherwise be there. You never know for sure what your prayer does, but people do call and say, ‘Thanks, it happened.’”

Even with the world as their focus, there are special prayer causes. For example, Sister Porter prays for governmental leaders. And, as a group, they pray for their fellow religious. Sister Eileen Schiltz, RGS, an Omaha counselor who often attended Sunday mass with the contemplatives, said, “At mass they always remember all of our Good Shepherd sisters and ministers all over the world.”

For years, Rev. Lee Lubbers, SJ, of Creighton University, took turns with other Jesuits saying mass at the convent and has relied on the sisters’ mediation for various Jesuit-related endeavors. “It was important for me to count on their prayers for the non-profit educational satellite network (SCOLA) I started in 1981. I kind of count them as the founders of that whole operation, which has become a big network worldwide. I keep them praying for every development. I count on their support constantly,” he said. Typical of the sisters’ caring, he added, was their desire to visit SCOLA and minister to its staff, which they did every year. For him and others the sisters represented a comforting presence where “the important things in the universe were in touch at least, someplace, all the time.”

 

 

Rev. Lee Lubbers

 

In her work counseling abused women and children, Sister Schiltz often calls and asks the contemplatives to pray for her clients and senses a genuine interest in their plight. “I have never been let down. They always ask how the woman or child they’re praying for is doing.” She said the sisters have even taken under their wing children whose parents are imprisoned or deceased — sharing mass and meals with them. She said the sisters have not only provided a prayer-line, but a lifeline to those in need. “I wish I could find a donor for an 800 number so people could call them up in St. Paul and still have their prayers answered in Omaha.”

In a culture like ours, where tangible results are held sacred, something as ephemeral as prayer may seem like wishful fancy to a cynic. For Sister Porter, it is an article of faith. “You can’t see it. You can’t prove anything. The only thing you can live by is faith. But the things we can’t see are so real. Look at your radio or TV. Their reception is based on signals and waves. You can’t see those things, but do you doubt they exist? Or oxygen. You can’t see it, but by golly if you didn’t have it you sure would miss it. Just like those things, you’ve got to have faith your prayers will be heard. I believe with all my heart it can and does happen.”

In a loud, hectic world muddled with distractions, finding the time and space for quiet reflection can be a challenge. It is all a matter of intent and focus. Likewise, being contemplative is more than taking a vow or mouthing words. It means embodying one’s faith and spirit through expressions, thoughts and deeds. “Your entire life has to have a contemplative stance in order to produce any real contemplative fruit, because your mind does not snap like that from one thing to another, usually,” Sister Porter explained, snapping her fingers for emphasis. “You can wear the habit and say all kinds of prayers and do all this stuff and not change your character one bit. To me, it’s more of a thing of opinions and dispositions and actions and priorities. You have to have the depth to know you don’t live here just to wear a habit. It’s how deep you think. How deep you live.”

Sister Schiltz feels these women remind us what our spiritual life can be. “I think they’re a symbol. We need those symbols of contemplative life more than ever now because we’re so rushed and hurried. A lot of people long for that because the world is so chaotic. The contemplatives show it can be done. But it’s hard to live. It’s a gift that God calls you to. Some choose to answer it and some don’t. Maybe we can’t do it ourselves, but it’s something we can strive for in our own way.”

Ultimately, a contemplative life is a calling. Sister Porter heeded the call as a young woman. “I didn’t resist it. I was looking forward to more of the deep mystery of  spiritual life.” But the story of how she came to follow her calling, like the stories of her fellow nuns, is probably not what you would expect. Born Thelma Porter in 1910 Portland, she grew up in Seattle. Her family, she said, practiced no particular faith and were in fact hostile to Catholicism. Her mother died when she was young and her stern father raised her and her two brothers alone. Despite her father’s opposition, she had Catholic schoolgirl friends and came under the influence of local Good Shepherd nuns, whose flowing white habits made them appear “angels.”

At 16, she left home to fend for herself. She only completed a couple years of high school before going to work. By 19, she decided to become a Catholic. Even though she admits she had a rather naive idea of the commitment she was making, she decided to not only take up the forbidden faith but become a nun as well. When she told her father, he disowned her. In her youthful arrogance, she defiantly turned away from him too. They never saw each other again. She also became alienated from her brothers and extended family. The separation hurt.

“As years went by I knew I hadn’t done the right thing. I could have handled it differently. It caused me much suffering and much bitterness. I felt it was my own fault. I was pretty unhappy about that part of my life.”

 

 

 

It was only as she matured she came to terms with what happened. By then, however, her father was dead, the bad feelings between them left unresolved. Amidst the sweeping changes of Vatican II, when many religious reexamined their vows and dropped out, Sister Porter too had an awakening that helped her overcome the doubt and acrimony and rededicate herself to her vocation.

“At that time I rethought my whole life and I came to the conclusion this life has got to be a better one if I live it right because I feel drawn to it. It must be what I’m meant to do.I dropped all the bitterness I had about my family. I realized you can’t undo what you’ve done when you’re young, no matter how much you regret it. The Lord sent me so much satisfaction with my life as soon as I let that go.”

She flourished amid the new freedom Vatican II and modern feminism ushered in. “I just really sort of blossomed in so many ways. I made a lot of new friends. I began to paint. I began to do things and go places. I got elected to the order’s leadership council and went to Europe. I met Good Shepherd sisters aiding women all over the world. It gave me an experience of belonging to the entire world. It also made me realize so many women are not treated equally and are just used in so many ways.”

She believes the ensuing large exodus from religious life was not all bad, but instead a necessary, if painful, purge. “The truth is it needed to be done. There were lots of people in religion because mama wanted a priest and papa wanted a nun. If you kept the routine, that’s all that was required, really. It wasn’t a deep spiritual thing like it should have been.” She speaks from personal experience, having come to religious life with starry-eyed ideals that were soon dispelled. “I didn’t know how to be a Catholic much less how to be a nun. The reason I became a nun was because I thought, erroneously, living a contemplative life would be a religious equivalent to a studious life. That I would write and read and meditate and be untouchable by other things. It was a rather romantic, mystical notion. I never realized we had to work, we had to eat, we had to pay bills. I was the bookkeeper the last 30 years, so I’m very conscious there’s more to life than prayer.”

Besides her faith, music has been her refuge. A trained pianist and organist, she accompanied the sisters’ singing of the psalms since entering the order in 1936. She spent the first 30-some years of religious life in Denver and after the convent there closed in 1969 she moved to Omaha, where she remained active right up until the community’s departure. Her vocation has been both rewarding and trying. As she can attest, a contemplative cannot be an idler. It is a life of rigorous devotion and discipline. Little time is wasted. Scant thought given to personal needs. Orders must be obeyed. Sacrifices made. Slackers need not apply. An unbending routine of required daily prayers and assigned chores fill the hours. The routine used to be even tougher. Rising well before dawn, sisters followed a taxing prayer and work schedule. Until just a few weeks before their move, the Omaha sisters supported themselves working as seamstresses for clothing and fabric manufacturers and making altar breads for churches.

 

 

 

 

“Because we’re considered a relaxed community now, our day starts at 6 a.m. But when we were younger we got up at 4:30. In the old days the thinking went if you had any spare time you were not doing something worthwhile. You were supposed to be doing some kind of labor at all times. You were expected to just keep going, even if you were sick, until you couldn’t go another step. The harder you were on yourself, the better. That was the way religious life was. And, boy, it was hard,” Sister Porter said. “But after Vatican II we began to live more like the world lives. We didn’t have to work quite so hard. Our life was divided between work and prayer and leisure, but leisure was the thing that always suffered. Personally, as far this new thinking is concerned, I’m right with it. Why treat your body like that? And the fact I’m here at my age, and in good health, tells me it works.”

She feels past hardships likely contributed to the health crisis that beset several members of her community last fall. With the weakest unable to work (some were transferred months earlier to the St. Paul infirmary), the aging nuns, their ranks already depleted by illness or death, lacked the necessary vigor and numbers to maintain the Omaha facility. It was the final straw that broke the convent’s back.

“Four of them could hardly walk they were so old and tired. They were to the end of their strength. They simply couldn’t go on anymore. It’s just my opinion, but their life was probably too hard when they were younger. We were going to hang on here another two years, but things fell apart so fast we had to act.”

Leaving Omaha has been a strain on the sisters, all of whom are in their 70s and 80s and own deep-rooted ties to the area. Of their relocation, Sister Porter said, “You have no idea of the trauma it really was. I’m only now beginning to be quite accepting of what’s happened. I just need to forget it. I think I will. I always know I’ll have a lot of friends there who love me.” And there is the camaraderie among her sisters of the cloth. “The loyalty among us is something you can’t believe.”

The people they served so faithfully through the years remain close to their hearts. She said she and her fellow sisters appreciate the outpouring of support Omahans showed through donations of time, talent and treasure, whether landscaping the convent’s grounds or supplying the religious enclave with food or helping maintain financial records. More often than not, she said, these Good Samaritans became dear friends. She firmly believes such relationships marked the Holy Spirit in action.

“God has blessed us in so many ways with so many friends. Everything we ever needed seemed to show up before too long. Food and books and just about everything you can think of. In that way we got to know so many people. All of those people came to us by God sending them,” she said. “Somehow, our friendships with others seem to be founded more on deeper things in life. It often begins with us praying for them, and somehow the bonds just develop into something very personal.”

John Hoich was introduced to the sisters 11 years when, as owner of his own landscape and lawn sprinkler business, he gave them a bid on a sprinkler system. Hoich, a single lapsed Catholic at the time, soon found his life transformed.

“When the sisters got done with me I told them I’d knock the sprinkler system down to cost if they prayed for me. I installed the system at cost and, boy, did they ever keep their end of the bargain. They pretty much adopted me at that point and I just fell in love with them. I started bringing trees out and planting them. I donated money. Every time I’d come they’d sit me down and feed me. They constantly ministered to me too. They prayed for me. They prayed I’d get married to a Catholic woman and have a family, and three years ago I married Denise and two years ago we had healthy twin boys. I really believe Denise came into my life and my business grew due because of them. They’re powerful, powerful ladies.”

The sisters got to know Hoich’s wife and boys and even attended a pig roast he held on an acreage he owns. Along the way, Hoich, orphaned at a young age and raised in foster homes, gained a renewed appreciation for his faith and for the goodness of others. “They reminded me to keep my priorities straight. To keep God first, family second and business third,” he said, “They taught me the spirit of giving and caring. They walk and talk their belief, yet they’re down to earth.”

Friends like Hoich say the sisters may be gone but will not be forgotten. Letters and phone calls have already been exchanged. Visits have been made or are being planned. “We’ll keep in touch. This chain will not be broken. It is that much an integral part of our lives. They are our extended family,” Denise Maryanski said.

As for Sister Porter, she’ll be turning 90 soon but far prefers embracing the here and now to wallowing in the past. “Time doesn’t hang heavy on my hands and I don’t look back. I’ve had so much in front of me all my life I’ve never had a minute when I didn’t have something to do and there’s still a lot of things I want to do.” In February she goes to Atlanta for meetings of her order. In July she’s taking a month’s sabbatical in her birthplace of Portland. She is content with where her chosen path has taken her. “I made sacrifices for this life. I could have had a better education. I could have married and had a family. But I think I’ve done something extra special. My life has been worth something.”

 

 
 

Devotees hold fast to Latin rite

June 15, 2010 5 comments

Tridentine Mass celebrated on Palm Sunday in t...

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I was raised Catholic.  Long after I became a lapsed Catholic, my mother and an aunt attended a church on the south side of Omaha that offered a Mass said in Latin.  I am barely old enough to remember that Masses said in Latin, with the priest’s back to the congregation, were once the standard Mass of the church.  Then Vatican II came in and the Latin Mass was quickly abandoned, as the church, to its credit, began opening the service up, through language and music and engagement, to make it a more accessible, welcoming, inclusive experience. The Latin Mass was relegated to fringe or alternative status, but its proponents, though small in number, were fierce in their devotion to it. When a priest friend of mine became pastor at the very church my mom and aunt attended, and he told me about the schism in his own church between the Latin adherents and the mainstream Mass followers, I felt called to do a story.  The following story, originally published in The Reader (www.thereader.com), is the result.

Devotees hold fast to Latin rite

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

 

There is a small band of tradition-minded Roman Catholics whose affection for the largely disbanded Latin Mass is so strong they endure a certain scorn to attend this austere, orthodox ceremony that, as local Latin rite worshiper Steve Mahowald puts it, “more effectively expresses the mysteries of the faith I believe in.”

The fervor that Mahowald and his fellow worshipers — who can be regarded as the fundamentalists of the Catholic church — have for the Latin Mass is what has kept this old sacramental rite alive amid these liberal times and made its followers a thorn in the side of church hierarchy, who view dissent as a threat to unity. While the Latin Mass is not officially disapproved of by the church, which effectively abandoned it in favor of the modern, vernacular rite — the Novus Ordo — in 1969, it has been suppressed in recent decades and its adherents have been made to feel like they stand uneasily on the fringes of mainstream Catholicism.
Starting in 1969, when decrees from the Second Vatican Council held earlier that decade replaced the heavy, somber Tridentine Mass said in Latin with the lighter, more upbeat Novus Ordo said in the vernacular tongue, the traditional Mass not only fell out of disfavor with the church but its celebration became an act of defiance against religious leadership.

Defenders of the Latin Mass and the traditions bound up in it openly questioned church leaders. Splinter groups within the church evolved, notably among followers of renegade French Bishop Marcel Lefebvre and his Society of St. Pius X, who openly rejected the Novus Ordo, along with the modern trappings accompanying it, and instead continued embracing the Latin Mass and all other things traditionally Catholic. Lefebvre, who defied the Pope by consecrating four bishops to aid him in his crusade, was excommunicated.

Later, the Society of St. Pius X reached an accord with the Vatican that allowed the nearly schismatic group to provide the Latin Mass for those faithful still attached to it. For decades, Society priests have crisscrossed the country on an informal circuit to celebrate the Mass for devotees of the old ways. Often, these Masses are held secretly, in settings other than churches, because many bishops have been slow to recognize indults by the church granting permission for the Latin rite.

Local “Latins” or “Trads,” as they have come to be derisively called, petitioned then-Archbishop Daniel Sheehan during the 1970s and early ‘80s for permission to have the Mass at a local church, but their entreaties were denied. Frustrated by what they considered aberrations or abuses in the new Mass, including altar alterations and displacements, the introduction of non-sacred music and the use of laity as liturgists and extraordinary ministers, Trads solicited the Society of St. Pius X for priests to come and offer the Mass they knew and revered.

 

 

 

In Omaha, the Latins organized under the name St. Michael Chapel. The group furtively attended their outlaw Mass, not unlike the huddled few apostles in the Bible, at various locations around town — ranging from the Sapp Brothers chapel to Lil Willy’s restaurant to a series of motels before finally settling on the Ramada Inn Airport.

The group made regular pilgrimages there, where a large 5th floor party room was turned into a makeshift place of worship. An altar was cobbled together from tables draped in linens. The faithful, whose numbers ranged from 50 to 100, variously sat in folding chairs arranged in front of the altar and knelt on the floor. A closet was used as a confessional and a bar in the back for storing vestments. A member outfitted a suitcase to carry nearly everything visiting priests needed for saying Mass — the ciborium, the chalice, the cruets, et cetera.

Members of St. Michael Chapel faced the odd dilemma of worshiping at what once was and what they still believed to be the one true Mass but having to attend that rite outside the confines of a church and without the permission of their own bishop. Timothy Fangman, a coordinator with the group, said at the time, “It’s very embarrassing and it’s very humiliating to attend Mass in a hotel room. Some officials regard us as renegade dissidents, but when in reality we have been more faithful to our religion than many of them.” A worshiper from that group who requested anonymity because she “doesn’t want to get into trouble” said, “I can’t say I felt embarrassed. We did feel persecuted in some ways. But, to me, it was such a relief to find this Mass and to find the faith still lives. Most of us were ready to put up with anything. Going through what we did made us appreciate it more, too.”

All during the time the local Latin community struggled to be taken seriously by the archdiocese, they had an ally in the Rev. Lucian Astuto, the then-pastor of St. Patrick Catholic Church in south Omaha. Sympathetic to the group and their convictions, he made his church a forum for the Latins and worked behind-the-scenes to validate their position and their passion. Finally, in 1984, Sheehan allowed the Latin Mass to be said, one day only, at St. Pat’s following a decision by the Vatican’s Congregation for Divine Worship, which left the rite’s celebration up to the discretion of local bishops. In 1988, the Ecclesia Dei promulgated by Pope John Paul II further legitimatized the Mass and established an order of priests, the Fraternity of St. Peter, with a mission of ministering to the traditional faithful and celebrating sacraments in Latin.

According to Archdiocese of Omaha Chancellor Rev. Michael Gutgsell, the Pope’s action wasn’t done merely to placate “a certain group or devotion of people, it was a public and universal recognition of the legitimacy of the 1962 Roman missal and a matter of the unity of the church. The schism of Lefebvre is, of course, the backdrop for this particular permission of the 1962 missal. Rome devised a means to safeguard the unity of the church by providing this special fraternity with an authorized missal and other sacramental rites to allow priests to exercise their priesthood in union with the Pope.”

 

 

 

 

An “unauthorized” Latin Mass is offered in Omaha at Mary Immaculate Catholic Church, 7745 Military Ave. Gutgsell said the group sponsoring the rite, the Congregation of Mary Immaculate Queen, “is not in union with Rome. They have sort of created their own community. They do not recognize the Pope. They do not recognize Archbishop (Elden) Curtiss.” Officials with Mary Immaculate Church, however, assert they do heed Papal authority, just not its infallibility.

By the late ‘80s the Latin Mass was a fully-condoned fixture at St. Pat’s, where Astuto, now retired, celebrated the rite. In recent years St. Pat’s has hosted a Fraternity of St. Peter priest to serve the traditional faithful there. Although the Latin Mass is secure for now, Trads still feel marginalized in their own church and fear they may not have their beloved celebration much longer. They point to the fact their Mass is confined to only one church, that services are relegated to inconvenient times and that vigorous promotion of the rite is at least implicitly discouraged by the church’s ruling class. “It is though they’re keeping us in check where we can’t do a lot of damage,” said one worshiper who preferred to remain anonymous. Another worshiper who also requested anonymity, said, “You get the feeling, even if you’re not paranoid, that they don’t like you.”

As confirmation of that, Rev. Eric Flood, the Fraternity of St. Peter priest stationed at St. Pat’s, said, “I’d say at best we’re tolerated. I think we’d fit any sociological analysis done on a minority group. We’re often scared, thinking that we can’t speak our own mind or proffer our own opinion because what we say may take away the good things that have been handed us. I, myself, have been ridiculed when I’ve given talks about the Fraternity. I’ve been scolded by people who say, ‘You’re not with the church — get out of here. You’re the one causing the problems.’ In some churches Latin rite priests hide their missals from the pastor. I do know of some places where we’re not even allowed to advertise in the diocesan newspaper or even put out a sign saying, ‘Latin Mass here.’”

He said such reactions stem from a widely held misconception the Mass is forbidden, “I think it’s fair to say maybe half of all Catholics don’t even know there’s such a thing as a Latin Mass or they think it’s not allowed. There are others who think the Latin Mass is just here temporarily. That in another 10 or 15 years it’ll die out. But, in fact, we see the trend is that won’t occur.” He estimates 100,000 Catholics attend the Mass in the U.S., where more than half of all dioceses have it, and the Fraternity’s seminaries, including a new one just outside Lincoln, Neb., are filled to capacity.

 

 

 

 

St. Patrick’s, 1404 Castelar Street, continues as home to Omaha’s lone sanctioned Latin Mass. The faithful attending the rite there — 7 a.m. Monday through Saturday and 8:30 a.m. on Sunday — are drawn by a common set of beliefs and an overriding desire to keep this core sacrament of Catholicism free of what they regard as not only cosmetic changes but fundamental deviations in the way the mainstream Mass is said today. Here, in this tiny brick church, both the profound presence of silence found in long stretches of the Latin Mass and the strange but sublime sounds of Gregorian chant sung during many intervals of the rite set the other-worldly tone for the sacred proceedings.

The priest, garbed in full vestments, is a figure of reverence in the restrained way he moves, in the fact he keeps his back to the congregation and in the quiet way he recites the long litany of prayers that are the foundation of the Mass. The faithful, ranging from silver-haired seniors to a surprising number of families with young children, display a reserved, pious countenance, with much bowing and genuflecting, and little talking. As was customary before Vatican II, women are veiled in head coverings and wear loose-fitting clothes revealing little more than their submission.

Latin rite followers flock to the traditional service because, for them, it retains a sense of sanctity and wonder they find missing from the new Mass. “I guess it comes down to the reverence — the fact that I feel God is here,” Marcia Hardman said after a recent Sunday service. “You go to the others (English Masses) and you get a lot of music, you get a lot of entertainment, you get a lot of whoopdedo, but you don’t get much else. You’re looking for God all the time and you’re just wondering where He is. I think we’re mainstreaming people right out of the church.”

Maurcicio Abascal, a native of Mexico City who moved with his wife and five young children from Texas to Omaha two years ago, said, “I find with this Mass (the Latin) we can worship with more reverence, with more dignity, with more devotion. It is respectful and it leads people to really understand they are present on Mount Calvary.”

For the faithful few that attend, the Mass is a sanctuary from the unending changes they feel have been made to this most solemn expression of their faith. As Hardman said, “I watched the changes come and I didn’t like the changes. I think it was change for change’s sake. That’s not a good idea.” Sharon Cooney, who regularly attends with her husband Tom, said that before the Novus Ordo, the Latin Mass provided a constant source of identification for her faith. “Wherever you would go, all over the world, there used to be a Catholic Mass you could go to and it would always be the same.”

Then, when the new Mass arrived with much of the old rite’s rituals stripped away, she felt the underpinnings of the sacrament undone. “I felt crushed. Church was not a worship place anymore. It was more of a meeting place. The Mass lost its sacredness. I call it a production now. Our church is built on tradition. The tradition started with Abraham when God spoke to him and he built an altar to worship God. Our Mass has developed from Abraham to Jesus at the Last Supper to all down through the line. Well, every church now has their different service. The priest doesn’t even follow the same words. You’re not sure what you’re supposed to say in responses.”

In the aftermath of the reform movement that swept through the Catholic church in the 1960s, heralded by the Second Vatican Council’s call for full active conscious participation by the faithful, the traditional Latin Mass was revamped all around the world. In America, this meant it was no longer said in Latin but in English or Spanish or whatever language predominated each parish. The priest, who out of reverence mainly faced the altar, began facing the congregation.

 

 

 

 

The altar itself, traditionally an ornate tabernacle at the head of the church, often got scaled-back and moved from its place of awesome prominence to more pedestrian settings in order to be closer to the people. The Gregorian chant sung by the choir was replaced with more contemporary hymns. Many of the prayers said by the priest in the old rite were eliminated and responses only uttered before by the altar servers became the new province of the faithful. Kneelers in some churches were removed. Instead of receiving the Holy Eucharist by kneeling at the altar railing, the congregation began received it while standing. The consecrated host, historically placed on the tongue, was now presented in open hands.

The decorum of the Mass dramatically changed too with the addition of the sign of peace before communion. Where before, no overt interaction occurred between worshipers, handshakes, hugs, kisses and words of peace are exchanged. In later years, the laity have played an ever bigger role in the liturgy — from reading scriptures to distributing communion.

As traditionalists rejected the new order of things, rifts developed — even in families. “When the new Mass was introduced it brought about a lot of confusion and hard feelings…Families were torn apart by it,” Mahowald said. “I‘m the youngest of nine children and my family now thinks I’m crazy for going to the Latin Mass. Some of my own children go to the Novus Ordo. Free choice. But they’re all going to Mass — I’m happy about that.”

Cooney added, “People sort of look down on you” when they hear “you’re a Latin riter.” As change upon change piled up, traditionalists were left feeling out in the cold — that their church was betrayed by progressivists and “modernists” in what amounted to “the Second Reformation.” In describing what it’s like to remain rooted, perhaps stubbornly, in tradition while the whole church around them is swept up in change, one believer said, “How did I get so wrong just by standing still?” Allied by their shared rebel status, believers have formed a close community. Many know each other by name and subscribe to publications like The Remnant that champion traditional Catholic practices.

Flood said many faithful feel uneasy with the laxness in the sacraments today, especially when priests go well beyond the intentions of the Novus Ordo to create something altogether new again. “The Mass has changed so dramatically and for reasons that are unexplained to the faithful that people are lost and question how they should worship God. Worshipers here are tired of changes in the English Mass. So many go from church to church and find so many differences that they wonder when it’s going to stop. So often with the new Mass it becomes what the priest wants to do. You don’t see that so much in the Latin Mass, outside the homily, because the priest is really structured. I am told where I have to keep my hands and where I am supposed to stand, and to not sway from that requires humility on my part. It requires an act of obedience to follow all the rubrics. For the faithful, there is a solidity in the Latin Mass in that it doesn’t change.”

According to Rev. “Roc” O’Conner, an instructor in the theology department at Creighton University, “the original idea” of Vatican II reformers was “that only sections of the liturgy would be done in the vernacular and then, what happened was, that goal was just kind of overrun because there was such an initial delight in having the Mass” in the native tongue.

He said those decrying changes made to the Mass ignore the fact this rite has seen many revisions before, albeit not on so encompassing a level as those imposed by Vatican II. “There was great variety probably through the time of Charlemagne in the 9th century. Charlemagne was the first person to mandate a certain way of doing things for the sake of the unity of the empire. Then, with the Council of Trent in 1570, the missal of Pius X came to predominate.”

He said when it comes to the question of which Mass most truly reflects the faith, one must consider the Mass is a reflection of that “living-breathing organism” — the church — that has been in a process of formation for two millennium. “

 

 

 

There’s a battle of history in this whole thing. Is the Latin Mass used today something that’s been celebrated for thousands of years or does it really mainly go back to 1570? Which tradition do you want? It depends on your definition of tradition. Even things like “the Last Gospel” and the prayers to St. Michael the Archangel are accretions that got put in and became traditional. So, do you want to go back to the 4th century or the 9th century or the 16th century? It depends on where you want to land.” As he sees it, the church’s strength lies in the worshipful rituals that have evolved among ethnic groups over time to become standard. The church, he said, is “not just a museum piece. At the local parish level remarkable things come out of the people. It’ll be interesting to see what effect the growing Hispanic community has on mainstream practices.”

Steve Mahowald, whose personal faith journey has ranged from a traditional Catholic upbringing to spiritual estrangement to a reawakening while serving time in prison, said the new Mass has “lost its focus” amid all the change. He echoes the view of other traditionalists who feel the bright, shiny, noisy new Mass impedes reflection. “It’s forced the people into a position where they can no longer contemplate. They can no longer sit back and meditate on the mystery of their redemption, which is their role in the Mass.”

The role of prayer at Mass, O’Conner said, is not just an individual matter but a communal one, too. “Something the Council (Vatican) looked at is some movement towards a corporate sense of worship. We’re still far from that, I think. It seems to me people are still pretty passive in church.” He said the notion of how the church prays can be looked at from different vantage points. “Is it a lot of individual separated units each contemplating and therefore implicitly in community? Or is it people growing in a sense of themselves more explicitly as a community and then offering worship as part of that body? People go to where they’re being touched.”

O’Conner believes people today “are looking for more of an integration” of old and new. He said the problem in discussing the relative merits of the Latin Mass and the Novus Ordo is that “you get an ideological battle. It’s either one or the other. And, to my mind, it’s more of an integration of the sense of the sacred and the community, instead of one or the other. I know a lot of parishes today are employing chant, either in translation or in Latin, at various celebrations. There’s also been a growing use of incense. I think we’ve learned something in the last 33 years, but not everything. It’s part of a development.”

Meanwhile, the Latins intend to remain true to their traditional beliefs. “I’m going to stay right here where I am,” said Sharon Cooney. “There’ll always be a remnant left.”

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