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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

September 6, 2014 1 comment

I sometimes end up revisiting subjects.  Usually a span of a year or more goes by before I do.  In the case of Rabbi Aryeh Azriel of Omaha, I ended up profiling him twice in the space of a year and going back another year or so I extensively interviewed him at least two more times for additional projects  No worries of overkill or reptition with this man though as he has enough of a compelling personal and professional story to warrant ten profiles and a hundred interviews.  His leadership at Temple Israel Synagogue and his work with the Tri-Faith Initiative alone can fill many notebooks and would in fact make a good book.  You can find my other stories featuring him and his work on this blog.  Immediately below are comments about the rabbi I didn’t have a chance to use – because of space limitations – in my most recent story about him in The Reader (www.thereader.com), which is the story that follows below the comments.  With each interview and story I get to know him a little better and I could second many of the things said about him by his admirers, but they know him far better yet and so I will let their words speak for me.

 

Vic Gutman
“I am a member of Temple Israel. While I’m not a particularly observant Jew, I belong to Temple because of its commitment to social justice. Rabbi Azriel has been an outspoken advocate for social justice, not only at Temple Israel, but in the community. Immediately after 911, Rabbi led a group of Temple members to the only mosque in Omaha (at that time) to help defend it should anyone threaten its members or property. In my opinion, the Tri Faith Initiative would not have been possible without his enthusiastic support and leadership.”

Bob Freeman
“Aryeh would have been hugely successful in any city in the world. It was a great match for him and Omaha that he ended up here and chose to stay. He was able to have an enormous impact on a vibrant congregation and growing community, becoming a dynamic leader in both the Jewish and the secular Omaha communities. In turn, he grew strong, confident and assured he was on the right path, along with his wife and 2 kids. This inner strength enabled him to shape the thoughts of important people who in turn make policy and shape our community and others. He’s done this consistently, day in and day out, for 25 years, making for enormous impact. And he has brought to Omaha an unending stream of national and even international leaders who come here as his friends and confidantes, to draw inspiration from spending time with him while drinking from the same fountains of strength, stability and perspective that Omaha offers.

“Aryeh has profoundly impacted countless individuals, families, an entire congregation, his community and a wide circle of colleagues and friends. His body of work in interfaith and ecumenical affairs has been legion, and provides a strong base of experience and credibility for him to launch the Tri-Faith Initiative, an effort unprecedented in its ambition to model collaborative interfaith relationships.

“It has been my profound blessing to have been close to Aryeh for these 25 years; I know he’s helped make me the person I am today.”

Wendy Goldberg
“Rabbi Azriel is a force for good. His positive spirit and unending energy allow him to connect with people. Relationships are the foundation of his rabbinate. He motivates his team to work for social change. Most common phrase, ‘Let’s do it!'”

Nancy Kirk
“Rabbi Azriel is a man of prophetic vision combined with a clear grasp of the possible. From the earliest days of envisioning a new home for Temple Israel, he saw good neighbors as an essential element of the perfect location. Rabbi Azriel has a clear moral compass that guides his life and has guided the Tri-Faith Initiative. When life is complicated he has a special gift to see the clear center of the issue.”

Jane Rips
Aryeh’s 25 years have flown by in literally the blink of an eye! He has challenged us, guided us, loved us, and helped to create a vibrant and exciting Temple Israel. He is a man of limitless energy and vision. Although his hair is grayer than it used to be, to me he seems unchanged by the passage of time – still passionate about Judaism, Temple Israel and social justice.

Phyllis Glazer
“For 25 years, Rabbi Azriel has been a blessed presence in our midst. He has led our congregation with wisdom, compassion, new ideas, and a delightful sense of humor ALWAYS challenging us to learn, to listen, to think, and to grow. He has made me and my family proud to be a members of Temple Israel. In brief, Rabbi Azriel is my friend, my Rabbi, and a perfect fit!”

 

 

 
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
BY LEO ADAM BIGA

Now apeparing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Rabbi Aryeh Azriel of Omaha’s Temple Israel Synagogue builds bridges between people of different backgrounds and persuasions. Take for example his driving force work with the Tri-Faith Initiative, the project that intends creating a local campus of Jewish, Muslim and Christian houses of worship around a shared communal space.

Recently returned from a two-month sabbatical to Turkey and his native Israel, Azriel was in Jerusalem when the current maelstrom in Gaza erupted. Always the rabbi, he attended the funeral of three Israeli boys kidnapped and killed by Hamas and paid respects to the father of an Arab boy burned alive by Israeli extremists.

Nearly everywhere he went Azriel spread the hope embodied by Tri-Faith and its efforts to build a harmonious faith-based community. The veteran social justice activist and ecumenical champion, whose work with Omaha Together One Community has seen him advocate for meatpackers and victims of police violence, leads this city’s reform synagogue. He is Tri-Faith’s most ardent supporter. He encouraged his progressive congregation to put stakes down in that project’s emerging blended neighborhood when Temple built its new home in the Sterling Ridge Development near 132nd and Pacific Streets.

Open just over a year, the Temple site will soon be joined by a mosque. If Countryside Community Church decides to be the Christian partner in this interfaith troika it would build a neighboring church there.

On his trip Azriel says people embraced Tri-Faith’s vision of unity but their experience with discord tells them its unattainable.

“They cannot understand because of their conditions how it is possible,” he says. “I mean, there’s such a level of futility in the midst of war in believing in and talking about dreams such as the dream of the Tri-Faith. But they were very eager to listen. I told them the story. I told them about the neighborhood we want to create here.

“They definitely all wished me good luck – being skeptical at the same time. I feel really privileged we can do it in Omaha. Of all the places in the world maybe this is the place one can actually make it work.”

It hurt the heart of this Tel Aviv native to be in his homeland when the simmering Israel-Palestine conflict boiled over into full-scale military actions in the Gaza Strip. Those hostilities continue today.

He stayed in Jerusalem, where he was among invited clergy for a Shalom Hartman Institute seminar on, ironically enough, war and peace. He and some colleagues went to the funeral of the three boys.

“I don’t remember ever such a large funeral because people came from all over the world. We heard the eulogies. It was devastating. I mean, those kids were our kids. It was similar to how I felt about the news of the Arab boy.”

Azriel joined colleagues to attend the youth’s memorial.

“We went to the suburb where the child’s home was. They built a big tent outside the house because there were so many visitors. The father and other family members were sitting there welcoming people. We shook hands and expressed sadness.”

Ever since the missiles began flying, Israel’s retaliated with massive air and ground strikes. Thousands of Palestinians have been killed or injured – thousands more, left homeless.

“I don’t know what will happen with Gaza,” Azriel laments. “I don’t what else there is to destroy. A terrible thing.”

Ceasefires brokered by the international community and peace negotiations led by Egypt and Arab nations have repeatedly broken down. Meanwhile, the nearby anti-Semitic states of Syria and Iraq are devolving in the face of Isis and Jihadists. The perpetually insecure Middle East has perhaps never been so unstable.

During his stay Azriel, whose parents still live in Israel, went through a range of emotions.

“I don’t remember those kinds of events happening in Israel growing up. I saw a level of racism and hate on the part of some Israelis after the three boys were kidnapped that I had never witnessed before.”

He decries Hamas for going too far as well.

“This time Hamas had the guts to fire on holy sites. It was something completely new for us. Usually the safest place to be in Israel during war is Jerusalem. This time they went a little bit crazy. They wanted to show how far the missiles can go.”

The blame goes in all directions: “The Middle East is filled with crazy people from all sides, all religions, all colors.”

The tranquil getaway Azriel expected didn’t materialize.

“It wasn’t the way I was planning it. You can’t have peace of mind in the middle of war. To see the funerals of Israeli soldiers and the death and destruction in Gaza – those are things no human being can stay ambivalent to. So many innocent people dead. It’s very hard.

“I know how it impacted my family. To wake up your parents at 2 o’clock in the morning – my father is 89, my mother is 84 – and to tell them to get dressed and go to a shelter. My father comes to me and says, ‘Are you out of your mind, why are you waking me up? I’m 89, I had a full life, I don’t care…’ Then I’m ready leave to go back to America and my father turns to me and says, ‘You know, it is possible this is the last time we’ll see each other,’ and then I fly home with this for 18 hours. Those things left a very heavy burden on me.”

Azriel expressed his heavy heart in a sermon at Temple upon his Omaha return to Omaha, saying he felt “hope, sadness, anger, guilt, loneliness, frustration, determination and despair.”

“On the one hand I am constantly reminded of the great Israeli phrase which translated, goes, ‘We got through Pharaoh, we can get through this.’ I do, however, also ask myself, will it ever end, and will it ever get better? Are we destined to live by the sword? Are we ever going to know peace? At times I feel really strong. At times I feel so weak…

“This is our home and even when it is tough at home, when our home is in danger, we do not walk away, we will not walk away.”

A new resolve by Israel’s pro-American Arab neighbors to help facilitate a lasting accord has Azriel optimistic.

“I actually look at this war still going on as an amazing opportunity to start a whole different order in the Middle East. There is such a different level of negotiation as a result of Egypt as well as Saudi Arabia,, Jordan and other Arab countries interested finally in brining it to an end. They’re the ones that can affect a better change. It has to be done in a genuine, original, authentic way with the people involved in the region.

They’re willing to put money for the first time for construction to rebuild Gaza and help with humanitarian need.

“I think before it gets better it gets worse even with America and the United Nations intervening. Then I think there’s a possibility for more seriousness in negotiating a two-state solution.”

He’s optimistic, too, the Tri-Faith campus will be realized.

“The excitement, the drive, the motivation is so alive, is so there. No one is giving up on any of this. It’s fantastic.”

“What is most remarkable about Rabbi Azriel, Areyh to his friends, is his passion for the people and the mission he cares for .His love for people knows no boundary. Race, relegion or status are foriegn to him,” says Dr. Syed Mohiuddin, president of the American Institute of Islamic Studies and Culture that’s building the mosque.

Fundraising for the mosque is being led by a Jew, Vic Gutman, and is nearly complete. Azriel expects Countryside members to vote yes to its church’s participation. The annual Tri-Faith picnic hosted by Temple Israel drew hundreds in August. This fall a Neighbor to Neighbor program will bring 30 families – 10 from each faith group – together for communal dinners to promote understanding among neighbors.

“It will be an opportunity to go deeper and deeper into why this is so important,” Azriel says.

Visit http://trifaith.org.

Temple Israel Omaha embraces new home and new era

May 26, 2014 1 comment

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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brown web

 

 

 

 

 

cantor web

 

 

 

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.”

 

curtain web

Ark curtain

 

 

eternal light sanctuary web

Eternal light

 

hebrew windows web

Hebrew passage inscribed windows

 

stained glass web

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


 

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

by 

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

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.

 

Upon This Rock: Husband and Wife Pastors John and Liz Backus Forge Dynamic Ministry Team at Trinity Lutheran

February 2, 2014 Leave a comment

Northeast Omaha is often portrayed as an exclusively African-American district and while it’s true that it is the historical center of the city’s black community and it’s where a large number of the metro’s black population still resides, it has always been and continues to be a mixed race area that sees much interaction between black and white folks.  Increasingly, Asians and Hispanics are part of that blended dynamic.  Trinity Lutheran doesn’t have much diversity in its pews for its main Sunday services though it does host chapel services for a Sudanese congregation.  But its social justice conscious husband and wife ministry team of pastors John and Liz Backus take the lead in making sure the church actively engages with the diverse community around it.  They bring very different styles to the pulpit but at the end of the day they are all about love and welcome, service and community, faith and action.  My New Horizons profile that follows fleshes out these two very human servants of God and charts the paths they’ve taken to do the good work they do and to lead the exemplary lives they live, warts and struggles and all.

 

 

Cover Photo

 
New Horizons Newspaper

 

 

Upon This Rock: Husband and Wife Pastors John and Liz Backus Forge Dynamic Ministry Team at Trinity Lutheran

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in the New Horizons

 

The husband and wife pastor team of John and Liz Backus minister to an old-line Swedish-American parish in Omaha, Trinity Lutheran, at 30th and Redick Streets. But their real mission is tending to the church’s impoverished mixed-race neighborhood beset by high rates of illiteracy, unemployment and sexually transmitted diseases.

Upon arriving in late 2008 they found a parish little engaged with its community and desperate to retain a shrinking membership. Under the couple’s leadership Trinity’s stabilized its numbers and added new members. The church adopted nearby Miller Park Elementary School and its predominantly African-American student body. John runs a reading program there for 2nd graders. Trinity conducts neighborhood cleanups, participates in Crossroad Connection Prison Ministry, supports the North Omaha Summer Arts Festival and partners with Omaha North High School.

The pastors continue the church’s hosting of the Ruth K. Solomon Summer Leadership and Arts Academy. They’ve deepened relations with the Blue Nile Sudanese congregation that worships in Trinity’s chapel. They’ve taken a personal interest in Trinity’s long partnership with a sister church in Tanzania the couple visited in 2010.

 

 

Children at the Solomon Summer Leadership and Arts Academy

 

Social justice and multicultural inclusion come natural to the couple, who are adoptive parents of children of color.They support lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender rights. Everyone’s welcome at Trinity.

They live three blocks from the church in an old California bungalow-style house they extensively restored. Their home is an extension of their ministry as they host garden parties and meetings there. They also embrace efforts like the Minne Lusa House across the street.

“We’re glad to be in partnership in caring for the neighborhood,” John says. “We’re doing amazing things at Trinity and now we’re getting the community to do amazing things with us. The first step in redevelopment is recognizing that if you’re not involved in the community you’re just a dead body that doesn’t know it’s dead yet. I’m determined to do my best to make sure that doesn’t happen to Trinity.

“Lutheran churches are often self-insular. But the building at 30th and Redick is not there just to hold services or to be a social organization for us. The church is to be a hospital in a sick place, to be a gathering place for God’s people to go out of the building and do God’s work. It’s not about how many more posteriors can we place in a pew, it’s about are we being faithful to the call of Christ when we walk out the door.”

The Backus’s are among few ordained spouses in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. They say what makes them stand apart from other clergy couples is that they pastor together. Married in 1976, they’ve been co-pastors since 1982. Trinity is their third shared “call” after pastoring stints in Kansas City, Mo. and in Minnesota

“it’s really just a way of life,” says Liz. “We can play on our strengths and we have the other person to talk things over with. It’s been good for us because we can do what we want to do. I was senior pastor in Kansas City and I’m not now, and it’s John’s time to run with it, and that’s good, too.

“Why would you want two of the same people?”

Depending on who’s leading Trinity’s 10:45 a.m. Sunday service, worshipers will either get his high energy flamboyance or her subdued solemnity. His charismatic stage presence was honed during 10 years performing with the touring gospel quartet, The Fishermen.

Despite their differences they stand firm in solidarity about their shared passion to serve others.

“When we’re really wrong we’re really wrong together but when we’re right it strengthens us,” Liz says.

But there’s no getting around they do come from two markedly different backgrounds.

Ordained ministry was his goal from as far back as he can recall while Liz only felt the call after meeting him. Three years older, John entered the seminary while she was in college. Liz soon followed his path.

“I never wanted to do anything else,” he says. “When I was a little kid I would run up to grab the pastor’s leg when he was trying to preach, and my parents would usually catch me but not always, and I’d scream, ‘I want to do this, I want to do this.'”

He grew up outside Chicago. She grew up in rural Indiana. Both came from interfaith families. The only reason he became Lutheran is that his German-American father, who came from an abusive home, found refuge in that church as a boy and remained faithful to it.

“There was this Lutheran family down the street that would take my dad to church. Anything to get him out of the house was good. He loved the church. It was a place of safety for him. He loved his pastor and he wanted to be a pastor. There was no money for him to go to school so he left school in the 8th grade and went on to become a railroad machinist. But he always wished he’d been a pastor.”

John says things got so bad for his father as a boy that he “was kicked out of his house” at age 8. “He walked from Chicago to the suburb of Downer’s Grove and moved in with an aunt and uncle who raised him. That’s who I always knew as grandma and grandpa growing up.”

John was born in Chicago but his family moved to the suburbs when he was a child to escape the harsh legacy of his Italian-American mother’s gangland family and their link to infamy.

“My mother’s father was a driver for Al Capone in Chicago. I know that when Al Capone went to jail and my grandfather needed a job he voted for a certain mayoral candidate a number of times in one election and as a result got a job driving a garbage truck for the City of Chicago.”

He says the story goes that “when my grandfather died a gentleman came to the funeral and put an ice pick in the corpse’s shoulder to make sure he was dead.” Backus says quite a few older relatives on his mother’s side worked as mob functionaries. Some died in prison.

“My mother’s brother is either still in prison or he’s died now. He was a minor league leg-breaker.”

Dysfunction ran through his clan.

“You know in all of your good mafia dramas one person will turn to another and say, ‘You are dead to me,’ well, I watched that play out in my extended family over and over again. My maternal grandmother was angry my mother married someone who wasn’t Italian. That dismissing another human being doesn’t solve the problem because you just fight it out with someone else. That is something my beloved Elizabeth has taught me – that you need to just see things through.”

John’s grateful his folks survived the chaos and made a deliberate decision to move from that environment. Still, Backus is mindful he’s inherited a dark side that if he’s not careful can overtake him.

“That past is true and it’s woven into who I am. It’s so long ago now and yet when someone really angers me my first thought is, What do I need to do this person to get my way? How bad do I need to beat them? That’s horrible and I’m not afraid of confessing this. That’s not who I want to be and so that’s who i choose not to be.”

His love of singing is a byproduct of his parents, who moved the family to Neb., first to Lincoln and then to Elmwood, when he was a teen because of his dad’s railroad job,

“My father loved to sing hymns and my mom was a rook ‘n’ roller – Elvis Presley, roller skates, poodle skirts. She sang rock ‘n’ roll all the time. And I always liked to sing.”

At one point the man he most admired, his father, who taught him to fix anything, was ready to disown him. In 1972 the Vietnam War and military draft were still on. Backus, then 18, held genuine pacifist beliefs and had already applied to seminary, but the real reason he didn’t want to serve is that he feared the obesity he battled then – he weighed nearly 300 pounds – made him an easy target.

“I knew if I got sent over there I’d be dead. I knew some people who’d gone and died. At that time the deferments were all gone.”

 

 

Exterior and interior images of Trinity Lutheran

 

He joined other war opponents in a public protest that culminated in them burning their draft cards. He served a few days in jail for his action and was put on the military’s undesirable list. He’d considered more drastic action. “I was prepared to run. I figured I’d head north (to Canada).” He says his dad disapproved, telling him, ‘If you go you can never come back. But if you stay I will do everything I can to help you.”

Backus gets emotional explaining why his dad reacted so strongly.

“My father was an Army infantryman in the Second World War. He never talked about it but at the end of every month he woke up screaming. We found out later he was in the group that took Peleliu.”

The small Pacific coral island, now known as Palau, was occupied by Japanese forces embedded in trenches, caves and tunnels. Enemy positions could only be rooted out by men on the ground and by so-called “tunnel rats.”

“My father was a tunnel rat. The island was supposed to be occupied in a week but it took months. There were heavy casualties. So it was very difficult for him to see his son refuse to serve his country.”

Father and son reconciled and when John was ordained no one was any prouder than his old man.

“He loved it, he was so happy I stayed with it.”

By comparison, Liz says she comes from “a normal” background minus all the drama or rancor. When the liberal, long-haired John swept into her life it caused a rift between the young lovers and her parents. Her folks ran a printing company in Maryville, Indiana. They expected Liz to complete college and start a career before getting involved with someone, and then preferably with a well-off, buttoned-down fellow.

Spirituality fascinated her from the time her father took her to guitar masses at the Catholic church they attended during her childhood.

“I was always interested in church. I loved the liturgy, I loved a lot of things about it. But I knew I didn’t want to be a nun, so there wasn’t really a place for me I didn’t think.

“I was exploring all kinds of things.”

She aspired to a career in journalism but one year studying it at Indiana University convinced her she wasn’t cut out for it. She was still in high school when the singing group John was in came to town. She joined other area youths to campaign for a man running for congress, Floyd Fithian. The candidate’s nephew was The Fishermen’s lead singer and so the quartet, Backus included, drove to Indiana to lend their support. The youth volunteers were boarding a bus to go canvassing when Backus noticed a lovely coed.

He remembers, “I literally grabbed Floyd by the arm and said, ‘Do you see that girl who just got on the bus?’ ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘That’s Liz Danko,’ and I said, ‘Put her with me.’ And 300-plus letters later, because we lived 500 miles apart, we moved into the same town, Dubuque Iowa, where she was in college and I was in seminary, and a year later we were married. I asked her to marry me the third time I saw her.”

“An unusual courtship,” says Liz. “Yeah, we do not recommend it,” John says, “because you look back and it’s romanticized but at the time it was really hard.”

Among the difficulties was gaining her parents’ approval.

“My father and John had a lot of arguments having to do with his pacifist leanings. The rest of my family loved John but you know parents have such a high stake in everything.”

Then there was their resistance to her being a pastor’s wife.

“My parents thought a pastor’s wife was too hard of a job, that you don’t get any notoriety, you’re not a person in your own light, you’re in somebody’s shadow, you’re on their coattails. They worried, ‘You’re going to marry this man, get pregnant and quit school.'”

John understood their misgivings. “Elizabeth has always been brilliant, an incredible student, great grades. Her dad and mom looked at it as she’s bound to do great things and I’m going to ruin it.”

“They were so upset,” says Liz,

It didn’t help matters, she adds, that “John was cocky and arrogant” and I was young.” Against her parents’ wishes the couple got married after her second year of college. “Not a real happy day but they were coming around.” All was forgiven when her parents saw none of their fears realized. Liz finished school as planned, then after embracing Lutheranism went on to seminary and got ordained. Instead of playing second fiddle to her husband she became his equal partner.

“John and my father got to be really good friends,” she says.

Women ministers were still a new reality in the Lutheran Church and thus Liz was one of only a few females in her seminary class. John’s father was delighted to have a second preacher in the fold.

“His respect for our profession was deep and he was very happy when Elizabeth entered ordination.”

They feel they made the right decision to enter ministry, though there have been doubts and struggles along the way.

“I think at first I was trying to save myself but I learned you can’t. What keeps me going is when the phone rings and somebody says, ‘I just had a baby,’ and they are so happy and they want to tell me. Or they call and they say, ‘My father is dying,’ and they are so sad and they want to tell me. I get to live the heights and the depths of people’s lives and just stand with them and be there with them through all of it.

“It’s an incredible joy and what tells me it’s right is that I’m 60 years-old and I’m having more fun now than I’ve ever had. It’s great.”

Liz says, “I think at first I just was so drawn to the mystery. The call is such a challenge and it’s a privilege to be with people. I think I can make a difference sometimes. Like you can be in the right place at the right time and that’s really humbling and captivating.”

 

 

John, Liz and their granddaughter Presley

 

Their first assignment together was in Lanesboro, Minn. When they adopted children from Korea and Thailand they introduced the only people of color into an otherwise all-white community.

“Everybody loved them,” Liz says. “Being the pastors’ kids they were aware they were treated really nicely but increasingly they felt they were the only people of color. They were big fish in a little pond. Also we didn’t feel we could afford to stay. We couldn’t have sent them to college making what we did. That was really the only reason we moved. It was a wonderful way of life.”

It was there the couple began their advocacy for LGBT rights. The church sometimes moved more slowly then they wanted but they’re pleased by the progress it’s made.

“When we first started speaking out about this in church assemblies it was just a matter of we need to let gay and lesbian people in our churches,” John says. “It’s ended up in this wonderful place we are now where persons who are lesbian or gay or bisexual or transgendered can have life partners and be pastors in this church. It took a long time to get there.”

“Gay-lesbian rights has been very important to us,” says Liz, who was active in groups that lobbied to get women bishops.

In Kansas City the couple brought already progressive St. James Lutheran Church into the reconciling or affirming movement  It was a congregation in turmoil after the previous pastor resigned in the wake of accusations he had inappropriate sexual relations with members.

John says the unsavory situation “left the congregation divided and angry.” “Some of our predecessor’s strong supporters had left but some of stayed and that was part of what we dealt with,” Liz says. The couple set about healing the wounds and doing things the right way.

“One of the strengths of being a married couple is that we have good boundaries,” she says. “We were real intentional in what we did. We didn’t tell an off-color joke. The two of us were always present when somebody was in the office. We kept doors and windows open.”

Before their arrival in 1995 it was a church that talked social justice but they encouraged members to begin practicing it in their own backyard. The couple found a real home in that church community and in the neighborhood they resided in. But in 2007-2008 things changed.

“The work got more difficult,” says John. “Our leadership had always been greeted well. All of a sudden we realized things just weren’t going the way they should. We decided if we didn’t get good results at the next (parish council) meeting then it’s time to leave. The meeting went very badly. We would find out later a relatively small group of individuals had committed to having us removed. It’s much easier to get a pastor to quit then to get them removed.

“That group of people was making life difficult for us. I don’t know their reasons but I know they wanted us gone and worked very hard to make sure that happened. What was most painful for us is that no one came to us and said, Do you know what’s happening? We had the sense no one had our back.”

Feeling it was time to exit gracefully rather than subject the church to another upheaval, the pastors stepped down, though they hoped their self-imposed exile would be temporary.

“We thought, We’ll let them sort this out and let them get back on their feet,” says Liz.

But as time went by the severing became permanent. Stunned, John and Liz felt they were through with the ministry. They gave away all their theology books. That meant finding new jobs, only the timing couldn’t have been worse because of the economic collapse. John tried selling cars and digging ditches. Liz worked at a Panera’s.

“We just couldn’t make a living,” says Liz. “Things just did not work out.” “I applied for 200 jobs,” says John. “It was a very difficult year.”

They vacationed in Yellowstone to clear their heads and unburden theirs hearts. Upon returning home John announced: “I cannot be without a church.” So they searched for pastorships all over the nation. Omaha’s Trinity Lutheran, dedicated in 1922, proved the right fit for this pair with so much to give. They were just what was needed to awaken this somewhat sleeping, struggling urban parish.

 

 

John Backus and Matt Kong

Pastor John and Matt Kong talking social justice

 

He says the Lutheran Church recognizes “there are all these inner city ministry sites that have dwindled for 50 years and are incredibly important places for ministry to take place,” adding, “Often because of financial resources or not knowing what to do they’ll put someone there, a first year seminarian, who’s not ready to tackle the challenges that we as an experienced couple have tackled.” He says he believes “there are ways to make those congregations not just survive but thrive and we’ve already taken the first couple steps toward that at Trinity.”

They acknowledge the way they left K.C., where they expected to retire, hurt them, but they’re grateful to have their new ministry home.

“I think I’m broken now because of St. James,” Liz says. “Probably every other day we have a discussion about why things went wrong there. I mean, this is not over for us. I feel really bad about we were unable to take them to the next step.

“But I also think there is a call here (at Trinity) and that while all this has messed me up I’m not as afraid as I was. We have a steadiness and a wisdom and we’re not afraid of failing. And we have an energy and a drive that just may be what these people need.”

John says, “In eight more years it is our intention to have the parish so ingrained in missionary service that Trinity will be a teaching congregation. My passion and goal is that people can come out of seminary to Trinity and be taught how to do street ministry by a faith-filled congregation.”

The couple see a neighborhood and parish believing in themselves again and feeling good about the difference they can make, a sharp contrast to the hopelessness they found.

He’s encouraged by the generosity people are displaying and the progress beige made. A woman donated copies of The Littlest Lion to every 2nd grade student at Miller Park Elementary. An anonymous benefactor left an envelope with $500 and a note that read. “I like what you’re doing at Miller Park, use this.” Miller Park’s gone from one of Omaha’s lowest achieving public grade schools to one of its highest. Parishioners donated boots to prison inmates on work release.

“That’s God’s physical presence in our life today,” John says. “God doesn’t have to be anything more than that to me because God is alive and active in that gathering of people to love one another.”

Liz says, “We just abide and we keep doing it day after day.”

For a list of services and events, visit trinityomaha.org.

Making Community: Apostle Vanessa Ward Raises Up Her North Omaha Neighborhood and Builds Community

August 13, 2013 3 comments

 

 

It takes a village, the saying goes.  To raise a child, to raise a neighborhood, to raise a community.  That’s what Apostle Vanessa Ward does in North Omaha and that’s the story I tell in this week’s issue of The Reader that comes out Wednesday.   Saturday, Aug. 10 was the annual block party she organizes and it was as usual a peaceful, joyful gathering of hundreds in a neighborhood once known as Death Valley.  The block party is just one manifestation of all the work she puts into raising up her block and surrounding neighborhood.  For her, it’s all about building community.  It starts with transforming lives.  It’s her ministry and mission.  Job well done, soul sister, job well done.  But she’ll be the first to tell you that the work continues.  She’s heartened that her neighbors are beginning to do some of that good work themselves so that the gains that have been made will not be lost but be passed on.

 

 

Cover Photo

Apostle Vanessa Ward
Apostle Vanessa Ward

 

 

Making Community: Apostle Vanessa Ward Builds Community and Strengthens Neighborhood in North Omaha

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Nearly 600 folks turned out Saturday for the 16th Annual Community Block Party hosted by Apostle Vanessa Ward and her husband Keith Ward. As usual this multi-generational celebration of community in a northeast Omaha neighborhood once known as Death Valley went off without any trouble.

During this street festival-reunion-revival Apostle, cordless mic in hand, is everywhere preaching her grassroots doctrine of community togetherness. It’s praise and worship in the guise of kickin’ it.

“Do you feel it?” Apostle likes to say.”C’mon, community, let’s celebrate, let’s do it…” she implores the crowd.

“Let’s celebrate,” rejoins her daughter Va’Chona Graves, aka the Holy Ghost Girl, who emcees from a makeshift DJ booth under a tent. The music ranges from hip hop to contemporary gospel to old school R&B and soul. At various points a dance line forms and little girls to adult women move in unison with the beat.

The laid-back event is held on the very block that Apostle and her husband live on. It’s a poor, working class area dotted by boarded up houses and vacant lots. Their home and yard serve as the hub for the party, whose activities stretch up and down the long block.

 

 

Apostle’s book

 

 

That block, from Fowler to Grand Ave., is part of a stretch of 38th St. starting at Ames Ave. that bears her name in recognition of the work she’s done transforming the neighborhood. Her 2008 book Somebody Do Something tells the story. She’s writing a new book about the evolution of her community building work and her vision for the future.

That vision is much bigger than the block party, which is just one expression of year-round efforts to keep the neighborhood clean and safe. It’s a mission for this community matriarch, organizer, builder, evangelical activist minster. She pastors. mothers and advises her neighbors. She often picks up trash and cooks for them, too.

“I’m trying to teach by example. People respect you when they see that you’re not leading from behind,” she says.

She started two community gardens on nearby vacant lots. The Peace Garden sits atop a tall bank. It overlooks a curbside memorial to a drive-by shooting victim. A corner Hope Garden adjacent to her home is where she conducts Sunday morning services for her charismatic Afresh Anointing Church congregation. Boxed flower beds and a nativity scene adorn it. Her message there is consistent with her exhortations at the party.

 

 

The Hope Garden

 

 

“Alright community, you have to be ready to fight for what you believe in, you have to battle for what’s right.”

This faith warrior and her holy roller faith friends conduct a two-hour call and response service that draws dozens. People walking or driving by take it slow and quiet. Some end up joining the service. The amplified preaching, singing and music can be heard for blocks.

“The neighbors are coming in greater numbers,” Apostle says. “People will wait to cut their grass till were done. The ice cream truck guy won’t even ring his bell. These are things that have evolved  – the respect.”

That same respect and unity infuse the block party

“It just becomes this wonderful place,” she says. “Everybody in the      neighborhood contributes. They manicure the block, they make sure every lot is clean. The young people set up and take down tables and chairs. People donate food.”

Many neighbors have been personally ministered to by her and that’s given her serious street cred with 21-year-old Andre “Right” Boyd.

“I really appreciate everything she does for the youth. Most of us have been raised up by her. I’ve been coming to her for awhile and she helps me out. i have that relationship with her that I can go to her for things. She’s like a mother, she’s like a helper…She means a lot.”

She’s an admired figure.

“I think everybody sees her as a icon. She’s definitely going to have a legend here,” says Tina Knight. “Everybody knows who she is, everybody knows what she’s about. She’s highly respected.”

During a recent neighborhood tour Apostle led she caught sight of some teen boys and, as is her habit, she chatted them up. After making intros one of the boys looked up at the street sign with her name on it and said, ‘Ain’t this your street?” “Well, that is my name up there, yes dear,” she said. “But it’s really our street.”

Getting people to take ownership of the neighborhood has been key.

Nettie Houston says she’s seen “big changes here,” adding, “There’s no problems, everybody trusts each other and we watch out for each other.” She credits Apostle with making the difference in getting “the neighborhood working together.”

Apostle says even little things like greeting people, picking up litter, cutting the grass, bringing homemade cookies to a new neighbor or decorating the street with balloons creates a sense of community.

“Keep Omaha Beautiful statistics show that when a neighborhood is clean crime is down. Are you feeling me? So what do you think happens when you take the time to decorate and serve food?”

The block party features plenty of decorations and food.

Balloon displays line both sides of the street, one in the shape of a cross. Young kids queue up for face painting, balloon animals and the bounce house. A portable basket attracts young fellas for spirited hoops minus the trash talking. Elders play dominos at a card table under shade trees. Grills fire the smoke for the pulled pork sandwiches and beans served at lunchtime.

The Marching Dragons drill team performs. A talent showcase gives kids and adults alike their neighborhood American Idol moments.

There’s no cursing, no drama. It all flows free and

Bound up in this neighborhood’s story is her own saga of heeding the call to minister to an area “under siege” from open air dope dealers, gang members and drive-by shootings. A young man, Columbus Brown, was shot and killed in front of Apostle’s home. The mother of four feared for her own family’s safety.

A gang leader and his crew hung out up the street. “Their presence was very intimidating,” she says. “Corner boys on every corner sold drugs and you had to come through them like a gauntlet to get to your own home. They’d come right up to you and say, ‘You want some of this?’ When friends used to drive me home from church they’d say, ‘Hey, pastor, you sure enough live in the ghetto.'”

Raucous music blared from car speakers. Unkept abandoned rental properties and vacant lots became breeding grounds for negative activities. Then and now the area includes young single mothers and retirees struggling to get by. Some residents are unemployed or underemployed, lacking education or skills to move up. It’s a microcosm of the woes that beset segments of northeast Omaha.

 

 

 Sunday morning service

 

 

Apostle’s seen it over and over and it stands in stark contrast to when she came up there a half-century ago.

“In these very impoverished, transitional situations people come and go. There’s a high risk element of crime, isolation and desperation. People are not interested in knowing each other. It’s very unfriendly.

“When I was a little girl I came up in community. My mom would have talent shows and leaf raking parties in the backyard. She was one of the main organizers of block parties. I saw something that it did – it brought people out, it brought people together and it just forced community. When I grew older and moved into neighborhood after      neighborhood that shared that heaviness, that separation I was never satisfied with it, although I found out you become very complacent to what you’re used to.”

Like her neighbors, she was conditioned by an urban code that says to look the other way and keep silent.

“I had been raised up with the main rules of living in the inner city – don’t get involved, mind your own business and don’t snitch.”

As things got worse she took her first action to address the chaos.

“I broke the rule that governs these neighborhoods and I called the police. That was big for me.”

But she wasn’t yet ready to take the next step.

“I was about to go out and give the facts of what I saw, what I heard but my husband wasn’t having it. We weren’t on the same page at that time for me to take a step that bold. So I backed down…”

A tragedy moved her farther down the path.

“When the young man was murdered in front of my house it just fired me on my journey. I just knew I was going to have to do something. But I didn’t know what.”

She faced an “inner struggle” living in that predatory environment.

“You become hard-hearted. You become angry. After a while you’re hating and hate can never change anything. I hated the gang members. I hated the loud noise. I hated the police helicopter hovering over me. I had become a victim of my own circumstances. The Lord began to show me how cold and callous I had become. Transformation starts inside yourself, so I had to go through a whole spiritual cleansing and healing because I was so hurt.”

That’s when the street became her church and its residents her flock as she intentionally went about softening hearts and reviving the community she knew growing up.

The memory of block parties from her childhood inspired her to recreate those times of “camaraderie and hope.” She’d come full circle.

The first block party she threw in 1995 marked the start of her neighborhood ministry. But to close off a street you must get everyone on the block to agree. That meant getting the gang leader’s OK. Before she could approach him she needed her husband’s approval.

“My husband was scared for my life.”

Keith Ward Sr. says while Vanessa went to talk to the gang’s top dog “I sat on the porch with my shotgun.”

Apostle recalls her anxious approach to the young man and his homies who ruled The Hood with fear.

“I said to him, ‘You know what guys, we’ve got a cloud of gloom hanging over us. Your homeboy’s dead. Everything is heavy. How about let’s have us a block party. We’ll do some dancing in the street and just move this heaviness.’ It got real silent and I waited and finally the answer came: ‘Cool.’ Then I said, ‘Three rules: no drugs, no alcohol, no violence.’ I waited again for his answer: ‘That’s fine.’ I was shaking all the way home i was so nervous.”

Then she went about making it happen.

“I called on different churches and friends. They gave what they could.”

From the start, the family friendly event has held a nostalgic feel.

“All I could see was old-fashioned fun. Hula hoops, bubbles, sidewalk chalk, relays, three-legged races, hopscotch, paper airplanes balloons. Kids running and playing. All the things that engage us.”

About 75 folks attended that first year. The no drugs, no alcohol, no violence mandate was abided by then and has been ever since.

She says, “It’s been made clear that is the standard.” “I know that everything was right because the gang leader came over and said, ‘What do we owe you for this?’ I told him nothing and he said, “Thank you for doing this for us.’ That took me some years to process. When does a person own something and believe it’s for him?”

As neighbors took ownership of the party the numbers grew. She estimates as many as 600 to 700 people have attended in peak years.

Apostle believes that buy-in speaks to how much people crave community.

“That’s what I found out it is. That’s why they come every year. That’s why nobody wants to leave. That’s why it’s been 16 times now and we’ve never had a violent outburst, not even a fight. We’ve never had to call the police to bring peace. How do you do that with that many people in the middle of a neighborhood that was called Death Valley if it’s not something we all hunger for and really want.

“What I see is that people want to get together in a safe environment, they want to connect in love, they yearn for that. That’s what it’s come to be. It’s kind of like a slice of heaven.”

When Apostle’s son, Keith Ward Jr., sees young adults at the party he’s reminded they were small children when his mother began this work. Many are now parents themselves and their babies are the next in line for this each one to teach one modeling.

“There isn’t hardly anyone here that hasn’t been touched by her or advised by her or grown up by her or looked out by her or prayed by her. Hopefully they’ll know there’s a better way for the future,” he says. “If there’s nobody out here like my mother to guide ‘em or show ‘em how we can come together as a community or what it is to be a community then we’re lost.”

He’s proud of her.

“It takes a special type of person to pull this off. It takes a lot of patience, it take a lot of love. She sees everything beautifully. She sees something better in you that you might not even see yourself.”

As the event grew and the area’s criminal activities subsided, her work there drew attention. Elected officials and community leaders have attended to sing her praises and to encourage neighbors to continue building community. Mayor Jean Stothert made an appearance on Saturday. Media covered the party.

 

 

 Apostle with Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert (holding a copy of Apostle’s book)

 

 

Today, when you walk the block the tranquil setting is a far cry from what it used to be. Apostle can hardly believe the change herself.

“I can walk out here at 11 o’clock at night barefoot and go all the way up to the corner with no risk at all. Sometimes when I go out of my house at night I don’t want to slam my door because i don’t want to disturb the peace. This was not the case even 10 years ago. We have arrived and everybody knows i

Much of her best work there happened after she and her husband moved away for two years and then moved back.

“My husband’s health was failing. He had kidney failure. We were going through a time where we were just spiraling down. We got evicted from our house and ended up moving to the suburbs.”

But she still retained a presence on the block.

“I took time off only from living here because every Saturday I would come back to pray.”

She didn’t like what she found.

“It was like suspended animation. Houses were vacant, nothing was moving forward. I set up a microphone at the top of the hill and prayed. I reminded the neighbors of where we came from and what we’ve been through. I’d say, ‘C’mon, we can do this, let’s keep showing love.’ Then I would walk and pray up and down the block, keeping the pot stirred so to speak. I had to leave my comfort zone and think of strategic ways to approach people. That took a lot of work.”

Then she decided she needed to move back to The Hood. That took some convincing of Keith, who didn’t like the idea of leaving the comfortable burbs for “the trouble land.” When she told him her work there wasn’t done he relented. Once they returned to 38th she wasn’t sure she’d do the block party that first year back but neighbors kept asking when she was having it. So she held it. She’s faced doubts about doing it since then, too. It’s a major undertaking.

“It’s hard work,” says Apostle, who dips into her own pocket to cover what donations don’t. “Every year I feel like I don’t know why I do this but I’ve found out this thing has become bigger than me.”

Despite the stability she’s brought to the neighborhood challenges persist. Unsavory persons and activities try slipping back in. But she sees more neighbors being vigilant.

“Every now and then the element still comes back and tests,” she says.

“At one time I thought it was just up to me. There’s other people involved now that want to protect and hold onto it. I get so happy when someone else steps up to call the police. Yeah, it’s more than me. That’s the whole point.”

She feels there’s no reason what’s being done there can’t be replicated.

“Can you imagine a block party here, a block party there, all promoting that love and connectedness? Where could the negative element run? It would only have to succumb.”

While she believes outside individuals and agencies have a role to play in reviving North O she says change must come from within.

“I do believe there are bridges that need to be laid but I do not believe you can bring change from the outside. You cannot come into my neighborhood and bring about change and correction if you’re not part of it. When you live out west and you come down here to preach you’re not connected. What do you know about it and where have you earned the people’s trust? I had to earn their trust.”

She’s sure she’s where she needs to be and she knows what she wants to do next there.

“I think this area is in dire need of a church and a community development center.”

When she looks at the empty lots around her she sees opportunities to offer programs that help people get out of poverty and off welfare.

“On all these empty lots we should be able to have something to help us connect or bridge to the various agencies we have in North Omaha.

We need to get people built up and ready to take advantage of the wonderful things we have. We’ve got to give people the ability to dream. You’ve got to get people to see beyond their circumstances.”

She realizes she may not live to see all her dreams fulfilled but she’s hopeful her children and others will see them through.

“I won’t always live here but I’m raising it to be able to go on beyond me.”

Her best takeaway from the 2013 block party is that the neighborhood has taken it on as their own. “They’re doing it now. If I wasn’t to do another one, it would live on. They’ve grown into it. It’s so rewarding.”

Bro. Mike Wilmot and Gesu Housing: Building Neighborhoods and Community, One House at a Time


Bro. Mike Wilmot saw the joy that a new home can bring people in Africa, where he did mission work.  When he returned to the States to serve Omaha‘s inner city he set about building houses for the working poor as a way to build neighborhoods and community and to give families their first chance at home ownership.  My new story about Wilmot and his Gesu Housing appears in Omaha Magazine.  A previous story I did about him and his work can also be found on this blog.

 

 

 

 

Bro. Mike Wilmot and Gesu Housing: Building Neighborhoods and Community, One House at a Time

©by Leo Adam Biga

Now appearing in Omaha Magazine

 

Jesuit brother Mike Wilmot prefers his actions to speak for him more than his words. Lately those actions have helped put several first-time home buyers in new houses.

After years coaching-teaching at Omaha Creighton Prep, then doing humanitarian missionary work in Sudan, Africa, he’s made North Omaha his ministry base. He helped build Jesuit Middle School and for more than a decade he’s directed Gesu Housing, a nonprofit he founded that builds affordable new homes in high poverty northeast Omaha.

Gesu helps him fulfill a Jesuit credo of finding God in all things. He gravitated to the Society of Jesus as a youth in his native Milwaukee.

“i got to know many Jesuits, who were very influential in my life,” he says. “They were friendly, they were happy, I admired them, and then I kind of said, ‘Well, maybe that’s what I should do.’ In anything that any of us do we want to make the world a better place to live in by spreading the kingdom of God and bringing that to all people, and housing-shelter is one of the ways you can do that.”

Wilmot’s work in the Sudan impressed upon him the difference a suitable dwelling can make in people’s lives. Back in America he realized many urban residents lack a home of their own.

“Everybody should have a decent place to live,” he says, “but it’s not the case, at least for a lot of people it isn’t. It’s proven that kids that grow up in a house their family owns are much better off.”

He says kids and families benefit from the stability home ownership provides.

Enter Gesu (Italian for Jesus) as a provider of quality, affordable houses in a working poor area beset by distressed homes and vacant lots. Gesu mostly does in-fill on empty lots, thus turning neighborhood eyesores into assets. Wilmot lives with fellow Jesuits in the Clifton Hills neighborhood Gesu builds in.

He’s recruited former Prep students as key team members. Dale Barr Jr. grew up in Clifton Hills and has gone from volunteer painter to board member to board president to paid general manager. Dan Hall, whose Hallmarq Homes is the general contractor for Gesu, played ball for Wilmot.

“It’s rewarding work,” says Barr, whose duties include promoting GESU and raising funds. A recent direct mail brochure he sent out netted new supporters. “It’s nice to find people who buy into brother’s vision,” he says.

“It’s a great thing we’re doing down here,” says Hall. “We’re changing the neighborhood one house at a time.”

Gesu works closely with the city to tap HUD dollars that subsidize half the purchase price of each home and make it possible for low income buyers to obtain low interest loans and to assume small mortgage payments, Omaha 100 helps buyers qualify and educates homeowners in maintaining their places.

 

 

 

 

Both the Peter Kiewit and Sherwood Foundations have supplied major matching grants. Kiewit recently awarded a second $250,000 grant but that means new funds must be found to match it. A fundraiser is in the works.

Barr says Gesu isn’t as well known as older nonprofit players in the field but what it offers is hard to beat. He says Gesu homes represent “a tremendous deal,” adding, “If you’ve got good credit, you’ve got a job and you qualify for a $70,000 loan you’re going to get into a brand new three-bedroom energy efficient house for $600 per month.” It’s why he hopes more people discover Gesu and support it.

“It’s not just people getting houses, it’s improving neighborhoods, it’s diverse people living together,” says Wilmot. “It’s been proven the best neighborhoods are diverse economically, culturally, ethnically. That’s the mission of Gesu Housing – to put people into houses and to make the neighborhoods better neighborhoods.

“We’ve got to rebuild the city from the inside out.”

Gesu’s doing its part with 17 homes completed and occupied, five underway and five new ones scheduled to start construction this spring. More support can help build more homes and assist more families to live the American Dream.

“We’ve gone from two houses a year to four and now our cycle’s five,” says Barr.  “That’s gotten us in good graces with the city and HUD because we’re doing it, we’re building them and selling them. We don’t have inventory sitting around.

“We’re making our own footprint with these new houses. We try to be a part of the neighborhood. We ask neighbors what we can do better. We give away hams and turkeys to our homeowners and their neighbors at Christmas.”

Hall says the collective neighborhood is protective about Gesu homes because residents appreciate the investment they represent on their block.

“Neighbors that watch houses for me I give  a gift card. It goes a long way you know in establishing a relationship. You get some security out of it. Once you get people involved if somebody isn’t supposed to be here they’ll run them off or they’ll call me .”

It’s all about building a community, says Wilmot. “We started on Grant Street, then we went to Burdette, now we’re going over to Erskine. Little by little…”

One house at a time.

For details about how to support Gesu, visit http://www.gesuhousing.com or call 402-614-4776.

Episcopal Priest Rev. Ernesto Medina Never Forgets His Latino Hertitage

July 18, 2012 1 comment

As a cradle Catholic I knew little or nothing about the Episcopal Church until a dozen years ago when I began attending services at Church of the Ressurection in North Omaha.  That particular church formed in the 1980s when the all white congregation and the all black congregation of two small, failing churches merged or blended together.  While my knowledge remains fairly sketchy today I’ve come to feel warmly about the Episcopal faith and its great tolerance and acceptance of diversity.  In the following piece I profile an Episcopal priest here, Rev. Ernesto Medina, who has made quite a splash since arriving from Los Angeles in 2007.  His life and work embody much of what the Episcopal Church stands for.

 

 

Rev. Ernesto Medina

 

 

Episcopal Priest Rev. Ernesto Medina Never Forgets His Latino Hertitage

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in El Perico

 

As a person of color and priest in the Episcopal Church, Rev. Ernesto Medina is a minority in a moderately diverse denomination.

The California native practices inclusion as a matter of conscience and as a consequence of being Latino in a white world. This self-described “edgy liturgist” is also a confirmed social justice activist.

The new rector at St. Martha‘s Episcopal Church in Papillion, Medina came to Omaha with his wife Susan in 2007 to serve as Dean for Urban Mission at Trinity Cathedral in downtown Omaha. That position entailed outreach with Hispanics and Latinos in south Omaha. He remains connected to that community as a Latino Center of the Midlands board member. Those ties help keep him grounded.

“I need that home base. I really feel good about it,” he said.

Though he shepherds a predominantly white congregation at St. Martha, Medina implements his heritage into services. He recently presided over a Day of the Dead ceremony in which he had members bring photos of deceased loved ones and place them around the altar. He led worshipers in prayer for the departed. He is happy his congregation’s welcomed an extended Latino family at the church.

Like many mainline Christian churches, the Episcopal Church has struggled with racial diversity, though there are pockets of Spanish-speaking members. “The challenge is they don’t have a voice,” he said. “There’s significant more voice than there used to be. My generation stepped up about 10 years ago. For the first time we produced liturgical material written in Spanish for translation into English.”

Clear back to growing up in San Diego Medina’s balanced being true to his ethnic roots while navigating white America. He was the first in his family to attend college. To his own people, he’s not Latino enough. To whites, he’s too ethnic.

“People don’t get me. I grew up as a Mexican in this culture, yet I’m excluded from both realities. The reality of being in both worlds is normal to me, that’s just who I am,” he said. “I preach in English, I dream in Spanish. I’m American educated, my blood is Mexican. American culture sees me as brown. Latino culture sees me as different because I don’t speak with an accent.

“There’s some real pain in it, but it’s OK, because there’s more joy. There’s certain things I do because of it — I will always seek inclusion for everyone.”

He’s on the board of the Tri-Faith Initiative. It promotes interfaith dialogue among Christian, Jewish and Islamic followers, with the goal of a shared campus.

He’s made waves for his candor. About the Episcopal Church, he said, “structurally it’s the most racist institution I know — at the same time it’s the most inclusive of any denomination I know.” He’s broken barriers, too. “In 2000 I became the first Latino in charge of a cathedral in the church’s history,” he said, when named Provost of the Cathedral Center of Saint Paul in Los Angeles. It put him on the front page of the L.A. Times Metro section.

“I understood what I became a steward of. I know as a priest and by virtue of who I am that I have a responsibility for people. My largest congregation was Spanish speaking and 90 percent of them were undocumented.”

 

 

St. Martha’s Episcopal Church in Papillion

 

 

Long before L.A. he became sensitized to the undocumented when as a seminarian he worked in a pear orchard with migrant workers.

“That summer we got them all legal and documented,” he recalled with glee.

At a reunion he was pleased to find the men and their families leading successful lives.

Fast forward to L.A. in the mid-2000s, when he found himself immersed in the immigration reform movement. “I got caught up in the fervor of it,” he said. Part of the machinery of “making it happen,” he was at meetings that organized the mass marches in L.A. He was also among a contingent of religious leaders who went to the nation’s capital to lobby elected leaders.

“We kicked butt in D.C.,” he said.

Medina earlier announced himself a maverick figure when, in 1995, he was named Missioner for Christian Education for the Diocese of Los Angeles.

“It’s what put me on the national map. I was part of that small group that married the two schools together in the Episcopal Church — the liturgists and the educators. It was very exciting.”

It was in that role he co-developed Authority of Generations, a widely adopted guide for church decision-making and program development that emphasizes inclusion of all ages, particularly the elderly and the very young.

Medina, whose love of travel has taken him all over the world, got to know a group of elders in remote Kivalina, Alaska, located above the Arctic Circle. They inspired him to embrace the doctrine that “elders are the gift of wisdom.” It’s a lesson that was also impressed upon him by his family elders and by a mentor priest.

Early in his own priesthood he served in a parish with a school, and it’s then, he said, he came to appreciate “religion in a pluralistic community and the gifts that children bring to community that go beyond innocence.” That experience led him to advocate for the leadership role children can play in various aspects of church life.

His impassioned interest in building bridges and inviting everyone to the table, he said, “is a continuation of a promise” he made his mother. He said she and her mother once went to a priest for help but were ignored in favor of a wealthy parishioner. After Medina announced his intention to be a priest, he said his mom made him swear he would never forget where he came from or snub anyone.

“That was the condition she placed on it,” he said, “which has been what I hope is a constant in what I do. I have a responsibility to give voice to the voiceless.”

He and Susan, parents to two adult children, have traveled far and wide but they feel they’re right where they need to be now.

“When we came to Omaha it felt like we moved home,” he said. “It’s very consistent with our values set.”

 

 

 

 

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