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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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Making Judaism Relevant in Prayer-Life Cycle Rituals

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Azriel says living out Judasim must be a daily thing.

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

Art and Music in New Temple Reflect Spirit of Congregation

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Ark curtain

 

 

eternal light sanctuary web

Eternal light

 

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Hebrew passage inscribed windows

 

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Stained glass windows

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Tri-Faith Initiative campus rendering

 

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

©by Leo Adam Biga

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then there’s the interfaith engagement.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 
 
 
 

Rabbi Azriel: Legacy as Social Progressive and Interfaith Champion Secure


 

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

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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.

 

 

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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

April 27, 2013 Leave a comment

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.”

 

 

 

 

Everything Old is Newly Restored Again at Historic Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Omaha

July 15, 2012 2 comments

 

One of the most popular religious figures in Omaha is Rev. Tom Fangman, pastor of Sacred Heart Catholic Church.  He oversees a parish that includes the church, an elementary school, and community outreach services offered through the Heart Ministry Center.  These and other activities serve the poorest of the poor in poverty stricken North Omaha.  A few years ago the historic church underwent a major restoration and in this article for Omaha Magazine I quote the pastor describing just what a transformation this makeover entailed in a neighborhood and community in need of whatever positive change that can come their way.  This blog contains other articles I’ve done related to Sacred Heart, Fr. Fangman, and the Heart Ministry Center.

 

 

 

 

 

Everything Old is Newly Restored Again at Historic Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Omaha

by Leo Adam Biga

Originally published in Omaha Magazine

 

In today’s parlance, everything “pops” now at historic Sacred Heart Catholic Church as the result of a 2009 restoration that Rev. Tom Fangman, pastor of the northeast Omaha parish, likes to call “an extreme church makeover.”

The $3.3 million project made long overdue improvements to the 108-year-old church at 22nd and Binney. Designated an Omaha landmark, the church is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The parish was founded in 1890 at a nearby location. The land for the present church was donated by Omaha business magnate and philanthropist Herman Kountze. The stone, late Gothic Revival style edifice with a 124-foot spire was erected there in 1902.

This long history has been much on the mind of Fangman. The Omaha native has served Sacred Heart for 12 years. As steward of the church, he feels responsible to the rich legacy it represents and for which he is keepsaker.

But a poor parish like his that serves an underprivileged neighborhood has few resources. What little it does have goes to Sacred Heart School and the Heart Ministry Center. Supporting the needs of at-risk youths and adults  takes precedence. That reality resulted in letting things slide at the church. Two years ago though Fangman decided repairs could no longer be put off.

“We didn’t do it out of luxury, we did it out of necessity,” he said. “Almost everything was in such dire condition that it needed to be redone or made new. Our stained glass windows had been declared dangerous by three companies because the lead was so old it was cracking and bubbling. The windows were falling apart.

 

 

 

 

 

There were cracks across the ceiling, and there were times when I’d be saying Mass and paint chips would fall down.

“We didn’t know how much longer the boiler was going to work.”

The first thing he did was assemble a project team led by: architecture firm RDG; general contractor Boyd Construction; Brother William Woeger with the Omaha Archdiocese; and Sacred Heart members Mike Moylan, a real estate developer, and Stephanie Basham, an interior designer.

Specialists from around the nation were brought in along with local experts, including Lambrecht Glass Studio, which restored Sacred Heart’s exquisite stained glass windows, and McGill Brothers Inc., which did cleaning and tuckpointing.

Rather than do a piecemeal fix over years, the consensus was to tackle the whole job at once. Fangman announced the capital campaign in 2008 and within a year all pledges were secured. “There’s no way our parish ever could afford anything like this,” he said. “We reached out and I spent a lot of that year going out and talking to people.” He made the case and folks responded.

“It’s close to a miracle.”

For Fangman, caring for the building meant respecting the history of the parish and preserving this place of worship for future generations.

“This is an important church in Omaha. It’s pretty sacred to lots and lots of families,” he said. “I just felt like we owed it to the people that started this parish 120 years ago. They built something and gave us something beautiful and lasting, and we have been the recipients of that. I just felt like we owed it to the people that gave this to us over a century ago and we owe it the people that will come next.

“It’s bigger than just what we’re doing today.”

Besides, he said, “Sacred Heart deserved a facelift.”

Years of crud were meticulously cleaned away. Grime, grit, soot. Decades worth cast a dark veil over the exterior, obscuring the pink limestone that, finally revealed again, resembles the subtle pink marble facing of the Joslyn Art Museum.

“The new vividness and brightness is amazing,” said Fangman. “I do feel like I am in the old Sacred Heart, but everything feels so new and preserved. It was very important to the whole team we maintained the integrity of the building.”

Even longtime friends tell him they can “hardly believe it’s the same structure.” “It’s exciting to see the pride that our parishioners have in it and in its beauty,” he added. “I still get choked up when I walk in there.” He said the project seemed to encourage neighbors to do fix-ups to their properties.

 

 

 

photo

 

 

 

Teams of craftspeople took over Sacred Heart during the intensive six-month project. Floor to ceiling scaffolding was put up. Crews worked day and night. To accommodate it all on such a short schedule the church was temporarily closed. Sanctuary items were removed. Services relocated to the school gymnasium across the street. Fangman said area churches were “gracious” in accommodating weddings and funerals.

The project’s  comprehensive scope encompassed: replacement of the roof, the gutter, the floors and the heating system; laying a new foundation; installing the church’s first air conditioning system; building a baptismal font; restoring the chapel as well as all the church’s extensive stained glass windows, murals and woodwork, including the pews and confessionals.

Watching it all unfold with curiosity and appreciation was Fangman. “We were under the wire so much, but everybody came through. We had people who were looking out for us.” And maybe a touch of divine intervention. He said a team of workers from New York City came in on their own one weekend, for free, to paint a chapel backdrop not in the budget. He said a craftsman who worked on the baptismal font described having a spiritual experience that prompted him to relocate his wife and daughter here from Florida. The family now attends Sacred Heart. The daughter is to baptized at the very font her father helped fashion.

It’s another example to Fangman of how “there’s so many God-things with this project.”

 

 

 

Sacred Heart Church

 

 

 

He said the revitalized church is a visible, tangible sign of Sacred Heart’s good works. He hopes more people come there to worship and to support its social justice mission. He prays it also stands as a symbol of revitalization for a community with great needs and sends a signal that Sacred Heart is there to stay.

“We’ve been here and were going to continue to be here.”

Fangman never knew a makeover project could be so impactful.

“When I started, it wasn’t clear to me what it would mean and how beautiful it would all turn out. It turned out better than I ever imagined.”

On Nov. 23 Archbishop George Lucas presided at the restored church’s dedication and the altar’s consecration.

The restoration project had turned up time capsules from previous events. Just as his predecessors did Fr. Tom composed a letter describing the latest milestone and placed it in a capsule for a future pastor to discover.

One more link in an unbroken chain of faith.

Omaha Corpus Christi Procession Draws Hundreds

June 13, 2012 2 comments

I am a cradle Catholic but until Sunday, June 10 I had never observed or participated in a procession.  I intentionally immersed myself as a reporter in the Omaha Corpus Christi Procession that weekend for the purpose of not only getting a story, which follows, but of furthering my own spiritual journey.  I was not disappointed on either count.  There’s something ancient and ancestral and magesterial about a religious procession that taps deep currents in many people, including me as I found out.  I am glad to have experienced it and I intend to do so again.  I have always responded to the high theater of sacred services and I believe I am more open today than before to feel the spirituality of these experiences.  Hopefully this story, soon to appear in El Perico, does a fair job of capturing the event.  My blog doesn’t feature many stories related to religion and spirituality but there are some, including a feature on the sponsor and organizer of the Omaha Corpus Christi Procession, St. Peter Catholic Church.  You’ll also find a features on Sacred Heart Catholic Church and its pastor, Rev. Tom Fangman.  Check out the story I did on some followers of the Latin Mass at St. Patrick Catholic Church in Omaha.  I recently posted an upcoming cover story for The Reader (www.thereader.com) on the Omaha-based Tri-Faith Initiative, a collaboration between the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska, Temple Israel, and the American Institute of Islamic Studies and Culture that is well on its way to building a campus with a church, a synagogue, and a mosque.  There are also features to be found here of various religious figures, including Rev. Don Doll and the late Fr. John Markoe, and extensive profiles of some of Omaha’s leading African-American ministers.

 

 

 

 

Omaha Corpus Christi Procession Draws Hundreds

©by Leo Adam Biga

Soon to appear in El Perico

 

Seven hundred Christian faithful followed a 1.4 mile procession route on June 10 in honor of the Feast of Corpus Christi.

The pageantry-filled Catholic procession celebrating the body of Christ began at Our Lady of Lourdes Church on South 32nd Ave. and ended at St. Peter Church on 27th and Leavenworth, Each worship space was filled to overflowing.

Corpus Christi processions are a centuries-old tradition but until recently Omaha hadn’t seen one in years. When Rev. Damien Cook arrived as St. Peter’s pastor in 2004 he found a growing immigrant Hispanic membership hungry for processions and devotionals and he organized the first march in 2006. It’s been held annually since and more parishes have followed suit.

“We try to make it more and more festive each year. It’s just beautiful,” says Cook.

“This is a big day for our Catholic church,” says Teresa Ribera.

The ceremonial ritual takes months of planning and scores of volunteers. It’s part of St. Peter’s restoring the sacred mission.

For most, the procession’s a testament of faith.

“This is a public expression of our love for Jesus,” says Don Carney. “There’s something splendid about a public expression. I get a great peaceful feeling when I do this. The neighbors seem to like it too.”

Jean Fisher says, “It’s very uplifting to have so many people here, It just kind of jumpstarts your faith and really confirms you in what you believe.”

Solemn services kicked things off at OLL and culminated at St. Peter, their majestic sanctuaries well-suited to the occasion. Plenty of reverent activity happened in between, as did a melange of the sacred and secular that resembled Easter, Fourth of July and Day of the Dead.

In this intercultural convergence of Old World meets New a very public and colorful declaration of faith unfolded in the streets.

There were priests in golden vestments, deacons and seminarians in black and cossacks, nuns in brown habits, children in white First Communion-attire and Knights of Columbus honor guardsmen wearing red sashes. The centerpiece was a golden vessel, called the monstrance, holding a consecrated host. Priests, including Cook, took turns holding it aloft under a fringed canopy borne by escorts.

 

 

 

 

The faithful, including many families, dressed in everything from Sunday best to picnic wear. Parents pushed strollers and pulled wagons. Only stray sprinkles, not forecasted storms, dampened the breezy, overcast day, though the threat kept numbers down, says Cook.

Inside, for the exposition, elaborate praise and worship services featured organ and choir music.

Servers carried flags, banners, incense burners, chalices, crucifixes and altar bells. Outside, the sound of jangling bells mixed with recorded choirs reciting hymns, psalms and chants in English, Spanish and Latin. Piped-in music and prayers, relayed by speakers in a pickup truck, cued the crowd to respond.

Girls carrying baskets filled with rose petals and confetti strew their contents along the path to symbolize heavenly showers of grace.

En route from OLL to St. Peter the multitudes stopped for benedictions at makeshift altars in Hanscom Park and the Gerald R. Ford Birthsite and Gardens. Adoration of the eucharist found people kneeling in the grass and intoning verses as priests hoisted the monstrance for all to see.

As the procession made its way down Woolworth Ave. and Park Ave. the incongruity of the ethereal and the earthy struck home. The area’s been plagued by run down, high crime rental properties. A sign of hope amid the blight is restored apartment buildings, whose clean facades and landscaped yards pop. In what community activists are trying to return to a walking neighborhood a procession helped lead the revival.

Steve, an area apartment dweller, looked out at the passing caravan from his stoop and said, “I think it’s very inspiring to be honest with you. It’s something you don’t see every day and it’s something I think a lot more people need to see. It’s a gathering when there’s not a lot of people to be gathered anymore, you know.”

Procession veteran Jim Keating says, “We process through the streets as a way to give witness to Omaha that God loves the whole city.” Ramon Davila echoed others  in saying he participates “to be a witness that Jesus is alive.” Some call it “walking with Jesus.”

By the time the slow moving pageant reached St. Peter’s at 4 p.m. the crackle, pop, sizzle and whistle of fireworks joined the singing, chants and peeling church bells.

A huge banner of the risen Christ hung from the church’s balcony. Streamers and flower garlands decorated the exterior.

A gawking area resident said, “It’s awesome, I’ve never seen it before.” Two women watching with wonder etched on their faces said the “impressive” sight was worth the drive from Council Bluffs.

The event began at 2:30 but many gathered at OLL before 2. The grounds, parking lots and streets served as staging areas for the religious and lay contingents participating. Members of the sponsoring parishes were joined by believers from other local churches and apostolates.

Among the early arrivals was St. Peter member Julie Steadman. For her, “the reverence” of the event and its communal spirit are what draw her.

“Just to have everybody come as a community together and follow the blessed sacrament and pray and offer the devotions is a very powerful, very spiritual experience,” she says. “A wonderful calmness and reverence comes over the whole ceremony and procession that says something important is going on here .”

Steven Kiernan, a visiting seminarian from Philadelphia, has seen his share of processions and he described this one as “beautifully executed,” adding, “So many people coming out for something that long is especially unique.”

Omaha Tri-Faith Pioneers Seeing the Fruits of Their Interfaith Collaborative Take Shape

May 26, 2012 9 comments

You wouldn’t necessarily think of Omaha, Neb. as a place for an interfaith collaborative involving the three Abrahamic faith groups but that’s exactly what it is thanks to the Tri-Faith Initiative, a non-profit moving ever closer to its plan for a church, a synagogue, and a mosque on a single campus.  Like most Midwest cities Omaha’s a decidedly Christian stronghold with quite small Jewish and Muslim populations.  It’s also a place where diversity hasn’t always been celebrated or embraced.  Yet the Tri-Faith is an impossible to ignore reality here that’s making waves near and far.  My story below, which is to appear in a future edition of The Reader (www.thereader.com), tries to get at how it is this partnership has been able to reach this point and find itself poised to realize something that perhaps has never been done before, anywhere.  I’m proud it’s happening where I live.  My blog contains a profile I did of Tri-Faith executive director Nancy Kirk, who like all the principals in this endeavor is a highly accomplished person of diverse interests.  What unites them all is a sincere desire to do the right thing by moving past dialogue to action where interfaith relations are concerned.  You’ll also find on this blog a story I did a few years ago on something called Project Interfaith and its director, Beth Katz, and a very long piece on the interfaith relationship forged by two famous figures, Rev. Edward Flangan, the founder of Boys Town, and his close friend and supporter, Henry Monsky.  A smattering of other religious themed stories I’ve done are also on the blog.

 

 

Dr. Syed Mohiuddin and Rabbi Aryeh Azriel

 

 

Omaha Tri-Faith Pioneers Seeing the Fruits of Their Interfaith Collaborative Take Shape

©by Leo Adam Biga

To appear in a future edition of The Reader (www.thereader.com)

 

Omaha’s not always embraced diversity but the local Tri-Faith Initiative may be a history-making model of interfaith cooperation. It’s proceeding with an audacious plan to locate a church, a synagogue, a mosque and an ecumenical center on a combined 35-acre campus.

Organizers say they’ve not found an equivalent gathering of the three Abrahamic faith groups – Christianity, Judaism, Islam – in a single dedicated setting. Not surprisingly, the project’s drawing much attention from media and scholarly attention. Observers are struck by how this partnership between the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska, Temple Israel and the American Institute of Islamic Studies and Culture has gone from concept to dawning reality in only six years.

The initiative echoes local community engagement efforts from the past – Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties – and present – Ak-Sar-Ben, Omaha Community Foundation, Building Bright Futures, Empowerment Network – that coalesce various partners to tackle social-cultural needs.

The Reader met with four “pioneers” behind the Tri-Faith experiment for their take on how the initiative has managed sustaining itself. They say one reason why this alliance has gotten so far so fast is that mere dialogue was never the end goal. Rather, it was a means to realize a brick-and-mortar sanctuary for promoting ongoing interfaith relationships.

“There are many wonderful dialogues going on across the country and around the world, and I’ve been involved in some of those, where people come together for great meetings to talk about interfaith issues,” says Nebraska Episcopal Diocese Canon for Tri-Faith Ministries Timothy Anderson, who will lead the unnamed Episcopal church slated for the campus. “But then you go back to your hotel, pack your bag, get on a plane and fly home. The uniqueness of this is that we are home. The next day we wake up and my neighbor to the right is still Jewish and my neighbor to the left is still Muslim and I have to learn each day how to live in my faith to love my neighbor as myself.”

 

 

Outside the pitched battleground of the Middle East, Jews and Muslims have every reason to be friends.

“I think Muslims are in a way in America the Jews of the past,” says Rabbi Aryeh Azriel of Temple Israel. “I think there is a tendency from time to time to select a new scapegoat. Jews are extremely aware of the ‘game’ that was played with their lives. We paid a price for being a scapegoat for many, many years.

“There is a level of understanding on the part of the Jew when the game is being played with other minority groups. Until the Obama presidency there were many opportunities for Americans to denigrate or to view Muslims as The Other, the stranger, the one that is not welcome, similar in a way to how Jews were treated.”

Azriel says progress between peoples of different faiths or cultures can only occur “when you’re able to step away from where you are and go to uncomfortable places.” Getting past surface niceties to deep interpersonal connections, he says, is what’s made the Jewish-Muslim relationship work in Omaha. Years before the Tri-Faith, he notes, Temple reached out to invite the Muslim community to celebrate Thanksgiving at the synagogue. Muslims have reciprocated by inviting the Jewish community to their celebrations.

“It’s mainly about relationships. If you don’t visit each other’s home, if you’re not in relationship with people, the dialogue becomes completely nebulous and artificial after awhile,” says Azriel.

It’s why, for him, meaningful interfaith exchanges must go beyond talk and tolerance to practice collaborative good works, such as creating a neighborhood where three faith groups co-exist in harmony.

He acknowledges some Temple members resist the partnership. The other groups report similar reluctance or skepticism. It’s meant less than 100 percent buy-in. But that’s where Azriel says leadership can make a difference.

“I really think a clergy that doesn’t challenge his congregation, doesn’t comfort those that are challenged, but also doesn’t disturb those that are comfortable should not lead a congregation. Sometimes you need to be stubborn and continue with the dreaming. So we continue walking on the bridge, even though at times it doesn’t look completely solid and safe. So what? There is a price to pay for daring and a price to pay for stagnation.

“You don’t just wait for something to happen but you mobilize all the resources together to accomplish this. That’s what’s so unique about this combination. All of us know dreams can only be achieved after hard work.”

Dr. Syed Mohiuddin, Islamic Institute president and co-founder and chair of the Department of Medicine at Creighton University, says the relationships hinge on mutual respect and trust. “That’s where it starts.”

In late 2011 the partners backed their words with financial stakes by announcing the purchase of adjoining parcels of land at the site of the former Ironwood Country Club, on the southeast corner of 132nd and Pacific, now part of the Sterling Ridge mixed-use development. The Tri-Faith vision took another major step to fruition when Temple, which completed its $25 million building campaign, broke ground April 15 on its new synagogue. It’s expected to open in August 2013. The other two partners are in the planning and fund-raising stages of their own buildings. A $2.5 million anonymous matching gift kick-started the Islamic Institute’s fund drive.

A fourth structure, the Tri-Faith Center, will be a shared, nondenominational facility for educational-cultural events and activities. It’s also in the planning stage.

The level of support shown for this faith-based collaborative defies the tensions and conflicts that keep different religious traditions apart.

Temple Israel groundbreaking

Rendering of the new Temple Israel synagogue

 

 

The feel good story of the project’s formation is already becoming lore.

As the oldest and largest synagogue in town, Temple long ago outgrew its present facility. Whereas the reform Jewish congregation traces its history back to 1872 and serves 750-plus families, the Islamic Institute formed only in 2006 and counts but a fraction of Temple’s members. Still, the Institute needs a permanent home of its own to accommodate a growing Muslim population. Each cast its gaze out west, where most members live.

Temple already had the experience of a Christian neighbor in First United Methodist Church to the north and of a shared parking lot with the Omaha Community Playhouse to the east. The Jewish and Islamic communities already enjoyed a rapport strengthened when, in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Azriel led Temple members in a cordon around the local mosque as a show of solidarity. He and his Tri-Faith bretheren describe it as “a pivotal moment” that “forged” the relationship.

Temple’s search for a new home took a collaborative turn when member and Tri-Faith board chair Bob Freeman broached the possibility of building with a faith partner. Not only would there be cost savings from a joint site selection and shared amenities, but opportunities to do interfaith programming.

Azriel says the congregation has “a history of being on the cutting edge of justice work,” which is a theme in his own career. He initiated a Black/Jewish dialogue series at Temple and his justice work has earned him various honors. He insists he’s hardly alone in tackling social issues. “The leadership of this congregation has been deeply involved in the daily life of this town. So many of our people are on the cutting edge of philanthropy, sit on nonprofit boards and are basically the bloodline of what this city is all about.”

It wasn’t long before Azriel and Mohiuddin spoke about partnering. After consulting with their boards they decided to pursue an interfaith project with a Christian participant. After the Catholic Archdiocese of Omaha rejected the idea the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska was approached. It just happened to be considering a new church in West O on land held in reserve. Then-bishop Joe Burnett asked Anderson to explore joining the two other faith groups in a joint venture. Anderson met Freeman over a game of golf to discuss the possibilities.

Rev. Canon Tim Anderson

 

 

Ironwood proved a symbolic spot for the Tri-Faith. It was founded as Jewish-only Highland Country Club in 1924 in response to Jews being barred from other clubs. Owing to Omaha’s declining Jewish population and a desire to be inclusive, Highland eventually opened to all who could afford it. Tri-Faith partners now refer to Hell Creek, which runs through the property, as Heaven’s Bridge.

All of it plays well in the press. But as the founders take great pains explaining, none of it would have happened without the deliberate efforts of people committed to putting aside differences to make tangible an interfaith community built from the ground up.

Azriel says, “Here is something we are doing intentionally. This is not haphazard. this is not by coincidence. We decided those three communities have to be together and then you bring them to a neighborhood to create it. So there’s a deep intentionality that emerges as a result of the comfort level of the relationships. You can’t get there by coincidence.”

At the end of the day, says Freeman, it’s not platitudes or mission statements or white papers that drive the Tri-Faith.

“As is often the case in collaborative projects it’s the people that make it work and we’ve had a group of amazing people committed to working on this. They’ve sustained that enthusiasm and commitment over five-six years. When I look at the people who have been around the table every one of them is very successful in their own walk of life. These are people who when they take something on they don’t fail, they lead it to a successful conclusion.”

Freeman, who’s worked on several Omaha collaboratives, says the Tri-Faith has been “an unequivocally positive experience.” An attorney by trade, he’s quick to point out that “we’ve had interactions that have been less than perfect but that’s life.”

“But life is about overcoming challenges and obstacles and recognizing different perspectives and being accommodating and continuing to move forward when you’re doing the right thing,” he says, “and we’ve had an uncommon aggregation of really strong, successful, goal-oriented people who’ve just willed this thing forward and been really good at problem solving.”

The Tri-Faith posed many potentially intractable, deal-breaker issues but Freeman says great care was taken to mitigate and mediate these.

“We did some things early on that probably helped contribute to success. We immediately talked about some of the harder issues and had a consensus on how we would address them, so we were able to take them off the table.”

Azriel concedes that when there’s an international flashpoint in Jewish-Muslim relations, fears, insecurities and resentments surface.

“Of course this comes up always as part of the discussion, issues of trust, of loyalty, of what-if scenarios. So you have definitely some of the Israeli-Arab conflict penetrating the conversation and people asking questions or suggesting that maybe its not the right way.

“You talk a lot, you try to respond, you try to bring the person who is asking to a level of comfort but the most important part is to invite them to a meeting with Muslims and Episcopalians.”

It’s in breaking bread and participating in celebrations with each other, he and his colleagues say, that people of divergent backgrounds and beliefs find their common humanity. That’s why the Tri-Faith sponsors events that bring people of different faiths together.

The Tri-Faith made its first big public splash in 2009 with the communal Dinner in Abraham’s Tent. An annual picnic is held. More events have followed, including workshops, panels, a children’s camp and high school programs.

“We were able to establish positive momentum and credibility through programs and projects we pulled off very successfully,” Freeman says.

 

 

Events outside its control become teachable moments. For example, the organization used the 2008 Gaza conflict to present a unified voice. Mohiuddin says, “We were able to come together and wrote a joint editorial in the World-Herald which expressed the concerns we had     without blaming anybody. I thought it was a remarkable accomplishment.”

“I think that was a crucial point in our relationships, that we could move through that and stay together and be of one voice against violence on any side,” says Anderson.

Freeman says the Tri-Faith was able to draft a statement because the partners had set a precedent for addressing the elephants in the room.

“If you’re going to put three houses of worship together in a neighborhood setting there’s some things about that that can be threatening to one another and we immediately got into that. We talked about how we’re not trying to influence each other in our intramural religious efforts.”

In other words, no prosleltyzing. A memorandum of understanding laid it all out.

“An understanding was reached not to go after each other’s congregations to recruit members,” Freeman says. “We recognized the need to be separate, the need to be autonomous. There has to be autonomy. If any of the three want to do something internally in their congregation, in their building, on their land they have to be able to do that and neither of the other two should have any say at all in what that is. Certainly there can be a sensitivity to the impact that might have on your neighbors but nobody should tell anybody else how to govern or operate within their congregational religious life.

“One of the byproducts of that was we don’t want anybody’s faith to be watered down. We’re not trying to make Judaism more Christian, we’re not trying to make Islam more Jewish. So the separateness has to make us independent and even stronger in our own faiths and we’ve seen how that can effectively work.”

Mohiuddin’s experience bears out Freeman’s words. “The most important thing we’re doing is expressing the beliefs we have and as a result we understand our own faith better than we did before because we have to explain it to people and that actually makes your faith stronger, it doesn’t weaken it,” Mohiuddin says.

 

 

“I think we’ve become better Christians, Jews, Muslims by entering into this and trying to live out what our faith really says it’s about, and it’s not about politics, it’s not about power,” says Anderson.

Freeman points to other things the Tri-Faith’s done to solidify itself.

“We incorporated and formed a 501c organization early on (2006) so we would have an identity. We were then able to do some fundraising and get some money in, which enabled us to hire professional help along the way and get good consulting input, so it wasn’t entirely a   volunteer-sustained effort. I think a lot of us felt expanding beyond just a bunch volunteers who met for coffee lent it credibility.”

Two key professionals brought in were Nancy Kirk and Vic Gutman, Omahans with long experience in arts administration, communications and public event planning. Kirk came on as executive director in 2008 and Gutman as media relations director soon after.

Freeman believes the city deserves credit, too, as “a nurturing, incubator environment for multi-group, creative, collaborative initiatives and projects.” He adds, “I think there’s a willingness to try and work together in recognition that something can be greater than the sum of its parts. There are amazing public-private partnerships that develop here. These models exist all over town and result in people working together and trusting each other.”

“The high level of trust people were willing to have in the Tri-Faith Initiative early on,” he says, “is a byproduct of a community spirit that fosters these kinds of things.”

Mohiuddin, who came from his native India to complete his medical studies at Creighton University decades ago, says, “Omaha has been my home for over 40 years and I’ve gotten to know the city, its culture, its style, and it’s just very welcoming.”

Azriel, a native of Israel by way of Baltimore, says the Tri-Faith is comprised of partners “not only predisposed to welcoming The Other but whose religious faith told them this is the way. It will be very hard to create this same scenario in people who are faithless. I think the right moment came and the right people assembled around the table, and then life has never been the same.”

Mohiuddin says, “If you look at any of the wonderful things that happen in the world, you need a core, usually a spark, which acts as a nucleus around which everything turns. It just happens to be in Omaha, it just happens to be us.”

Like his fellow pioneers Mohiuddin says the Tri-Faith could have easily disbanded by now “if we had allowed ourselves to get discouraged by the dissenting voices, if we did not have the courage of our own convictions.” Indeed, he attributes its survival to “the conviction of the founding members to stay with it,” adding, “We had such a strong belief that what we were doing was necessary and that this was the right thing to do and the right time to do it.”

On a more practical level, says Freeman, the partners are motivated to see the project through because it means a new house of worship for each faith group, plus an interfaith center. It’s the prospect of bringing these “homes” to completion, strengthening all three faith communities in the process, that supersedes everything else.

The Tri-Faith pioneers welcome the attention the initiative is generating and hope their work provides a framework for more interfaith collaboratives. But Mohiuddin speaks for his colleagues when he says, “I can’t be distracted” from the work at hand.

The partners have come too far now to be sidetracked and lose sight of the prize. Not when the campus Mohiuddin calls “our dream land” is so close at hand.

Faith without action is dead and the Tri-Faith is nothing if not an action-oriented movement. One with a life all its own and a promised land  to be filled.

From the Archives: Minister Makes No Concessions to Retirement, Plans Busy Travel, Filmmaking Schedule


I have had the opportunity to meet and interview many men and women of God and most of them exhibit a humility, gratitude, and generosity that I can best understand and articulate as grace. They cultivate the attitudes and take the actions of mercy and love that all of us are called to do, no matter what our faith tradition or even if we do not claim a faith that has a name or creed.  The best ministers are open-minded and compassionate and committed to what they believe and do. They’re also unafraid to ask questions and to rattle the status quo now and then, even to challenge their own beliefs from time to time.  The retired Rev. Richard Linde is such a man.   I wrote this profile of him more than 20 years ago and in one way or another this piece has always stuck with me, not because of my writing, which is pedestrian at best, but because of the man and his unconditional embrace of life.  I liked the fact. too, he was both a minister and a filmmaker and while his work making travel films didn’t have anything to do with the church or religion or spirituality per se it was still another expression of his love for humanity and the wonders of creation.

I was also impressed by Linde having studied at Princeton and Harvard, where he earned a business degree of all things, and having earned a doctorate as well.  Again, like any good minister, he has always been a searcher and seeker in pursuit of knowledge.

NOTE: In preparing to post this I discovered that Rev. Linde now lives in Colorado and that he has authored a couple books: The Christ of Every Road, a fitting title for a man who has traversed so many paths: and Chaplain Richard Linde, We Also Fought, the chronicle of his own experience as a young navy chaplain during World War II counseling sailors readying for the planned invasion of Japan, casualties from the Pacific Theater, and submariners returned from torpedoing Japanese ships.   I have no doubt that he followed his plans after leaving Countryside to make the film about the United Church of Christ and to do more traveling. I also have no doubt he’s still as active and engaged as his physical abilities allow and that he’ll remain a seeker in some way, shape, or form until his final breath.

 

 

Countryside Community Church altar

 

 

From the Archives: Minister Makes No Concessions to Retirement, Plans Busy Travel, Filmmaking Schedule

©by Leo Adam Biga

Originally appeared in the Omaha Metro Update

Retirement is a state of mind.

Take the Rev. Richard Linde for example. Although the 60-something Protestant minister is fast approaching his August 1 retirement date the veteran globe-trotter isn’t planning to slow down much. Sitting idle just isn’t his style.

Besides, Linde has better things to do, like chasing rainbows and memories half-way around the world.

Soon after stepping down from his 17-year post as senior minister at Countryside Community Church in west Omaha Linde will slip into his worn, but comfortable shoes as a traveling man and go off to meet old and new horizons.

Much of the United Church of Christ minister’s life has been a search to balance his fiercely independent and inquisitive nature with organized religion. His many travels mirror his quest to somehow square knowledge with faith. His guide, he said, has been God. “A lot of my life has been serving God as I feel God directs me, not as the church directs me to go.”

While long ago coming to peace with himself, he’s still a restless spirit and has many miles to go before retreating from life. “I’ve never been a person who hangs around the house and I don’t think I ever will be. I don’t want to be. I don’t want to play shuffleboard in Forida either,” he said. “I have some other things I want to do. I’m probably going to work nine months out of the year and my wife and I still like to travel.”

Linde concedes he may cut back his work schedule to 40 or 50 hours a week during “retirement.”

He will combine work and travel when he begins filming a documentary September 1 for the national United Church of Christ, a project that may take two years.

It may surprise some of Linde’s acquaintances that for 25 of his 45 years in the ministry he made travel films as both a hobby and second profession. Indulging his love for travel, he photographed the diverse cultures of the Middle East, Czechoslovakia, Jamaica, Iceland, Luxembourg, Monaco and other parts of the world. He lectured widely with his films and sold several to television.

While Linde hasn’t made a film for more than 10 years the United Church Board of Homeland Ministries knows they have a filmmaker in the fold. With his newly commissioned film they want him to retrace the church’s early Congregational roots in Europe and migration to America. The denomination is the result of a 1961 merger between the Congregational Christian Churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Church. Linde will document the historic route taken by church followers, including Pilgrims, by shooting overseas and in the States.

“We’re talking about staying in England, then in Switzerland, and coming to New England and Pennsylvania and later going across the Plains with the great migration to the West. And I’m hoping to end up in Hawaii because the Congregational story there is interesting. Author James Michener, in his story of Hawaii, downplays the part of the missionaries. I think his emphasis is wrong,” said Linde, who wishes to set the record straight as he sees it.

Hawaii has special meaning for Linde, who was stationed at Pearl Harbor while a Navy chaplian in the Second World War. At age 20 he was one of the youngest chaplains in the Pacific. Anxious to be part of the war effort before it ended, he left seminary college to enlist in the chaplain corps and was assigned to Pearl’s submarine base in 1945.

Pearl Harbor submarine base chapel

 

 

“The Royal Hawaiian Hotel was the rest and recuperation annex for the sub base and I became the chaplain of the hotel, holding my services in the Bamboo Room,” he said, laughing at the incongruity of it all. “It was neat duty. I had a lot of interesting counseling there. The officers and (enlisted) men were very, very tense. A lot of fighting would go on among themselves. There was blood and teeth through the Royal Hawaiian from sailors fighting.”

On a lighter note, he said big band leader Ray Anthony and his orchestra often gigged there. “Some of his instrumentalists would play for my service the next morning. They would be so tired from playing most of the night that I’d tell them, ‘Oh, c’mon guys, play a little faster,’ and they’s just go, ‘plunk, plunk, plunk,’ he recalled with glee.

Linde also traveled all over the Pacific on the sub fleet flagship tender, the USS Holland (AS-3), where he saw firsthand how superstitious sailors coped with fear. “The submariners were very individualistic. On most subs they had a Buddha (effigy) and before they would fire a torpedo they would rub the stomach of the Buddha for good luck. But the guys, surprisingly, were quite religious. At that time there was only one chaplain for every 1,000 sailors – there was a lot of counseling.”

Royal Hawaiian Hotel

 

 

Although Linde never saw combat he said he was scared plenty of times.

The veteran returned to Hawaii with wife Randi three years ago. It was the first time he’d been back since the war. And at his wife’s urging they stayed at the Royal Hawaiian Hotel he’d been “bragging about all these years.” To his dismay the place had changed and the Bamboo Room was only a distant memory. He realized how much time had passed when, after regaling the desk clerk with his stories, the young man said, ‘I wasn’t even thought of then.”

Linde, who never preached in the base chapel because he was too “young and junior an officer,” found he’d gained stature with time. “When I went back I asked to go onto the base and they asked me to preach. All the ranking officers of the fleet were there lined  up in front me,” he said proudly.

It’s doubtful whether Linde’s hoped-for return to another exotic port of call from his Pacific past – Shanghai, China – will prove as inviting given ongoing tensions between the U.S. and China. “I want to go back to Shanghai, live there a month or so and do some writing about the way it was then and the way it is now.” Then was 1946, when Linde was the only chaplain for 15,000 U.S. Navy personnel in Shanghai, which even then was a large cosmopolitan city and sea port.

“I loved Shanghai. The Bund (its waterfront), the Palace Hotel, the famous clubs. Like so many of the major cities in China it was built by western nations. I was on the edge of the Bund, where the ships were in the Whangpoo River. They would tie up there and the sailors would come ashore.

“I had my services in the Majestic Theater, which was very large, the size of the Orpheum (Theater in Omaha) I suppose. I would get written up in some Shanghain papers for things I would say. You see, there were some very conflicting things going on there,” he said, alluding to the city’s weird melding of sophistication and feudalism. “For example, they had just started to invoke the old Chinese custom of, when there is theft, cutting off the thief’s right hand, and thievery went way, way down.”

Crime, including a thriving black market, was rampant. So were anti-American feelings. Adding fury to the maelstrom were growing tensions between the country’s Nationalist and Communist factions.

“I remember one time I pulled up to the Park Hotel, where I lived, and ran up and ran right back down. In the little time I was up there all three of the locks of my jeep were stolen. I never did know whether they were thumbing their noses at the U.S. Navy or they just didn’t have time to steal the jeep. I was part of practically the last group to get out before the Communists took over.”

 

 

Seven V-boats with submarine tender Holland.

USS Holland (AS-3)

 

 

 

 

After his discharge Linde finished his theological training, which began at Princeton, by getting his degree from Drew Theological Seminary in Madison, New Jersey. He also worked as youth director at a Los Angeles church for a time.

Still unsure of the ministry as his life’s work, he applied to the Harvard Business School. “The amazing thing was that I got accepted. That was a great surprise to me and I thought it was too good to pass up. I used my GI Bill to go there.” His Harvard years marked a turning point in his personal and professional life and a crucible of faith.

“The people that went there worked so hard, and I knew I’d be just like the rest of them if I went into business. I wouldn’t have any time then for religion. I decided my real emphasis, my real interest in life was religous faith. I decided to go with the church rather than do religious work as a sideline, which I had been thinking of.”

He did earn an MBA degree. But more importantly it ws while his back East that he met his wife of 40 years now. She was a Wellesley girl.

“I met her the night she had signed a contract to teach school in Turkey. She was leaving in two months and when she left she was wearing my (engagement) ring. We had a furious correspondence writing to each other every day. After about 10 months we met in Geneva, Switzerland. I came from Boston and she came from Izmir, Turkey. We were married in the Cathedral of Saint Peter, where John Calvin, the famous Medieval reformer, preached.”

Linde and his wife led a tour group to Geneva four or five years ago. When informed of the cathedral’s significance to the couple some group members had the sextant open the closed chapel where the Lindes took their vows. “We stood at the altar where we had been married and all the women had tears and the flashbulbs popped.”

He has been leading tours for many years, including recent excursions to England and Holland. He’ll lead a Scandinavian trip this summer.

Summers have long been Linde’s time to travel. Taking advantage of the month off he had each summer he used his vacations to “moonlight” as a filmmaker. He began tinkering with movie cameras in the 1950s while preaching in his native Ohio. It wasn’t long before he turned his 16 millimeter Bolex on the international sights he visited each summer.

The self-taught filmmaker became serious about his hobby when he discovered his low-budget productions were not only engaging but marketable. He sold eight of his films to national syndicated television networks.

“I guess I have a good eye for what a good picture is and what good action is,” he said. “I was showing one of my films in New York City to the Jamaican Trade Board and their officials said, ‘That’s the best film that’s ever been made on Jamaica. If you ever want to go again and update Jamaica you see us.’ So one summer I didn’t have anything else to do and they gave Randi and me plane tickets, reservations at the best hotels and a car.”

He said sponsors, such as national trade boards or airlines, usually paid his and Randi’s ways overseas. While he sometimes used local cinematographers on location he mostly handled the camera himself. He also scripted the movies after compiling and editing the footage. “It usually takes me two summers to make a film.”

Linde retained an agent to book himself and his film on the national lecture- travel film circuit. There were enough engagements that he had written into his ministirial contracts permission to travel on the road as needed. He spoke and presented the travelogues at universities and art centers nationwide. In 25 years he missed only one engagement – due to a raging snowstorm.

“I never ended up with any profit. The money went right back into the next film. It was something fun for me to do.”

 

 

 

 

Front Cover

 

Front Cover

 

 

 

A lecture stop 20 years ago introduced him to Omaha. “Impresario Dick Walter brought me here to lecture at Joslyn Art Museum for one of his travel film series. That’s when I first saw this beautiful city and became interested in living here. Before Dick Walter brought me out here I was like other people who thought this was someplace you fly over on your way to someplace else.”

After taking the Countryside Community Church position in 1973 Linde continued making films and lecturing for a time. He quit filming because new, more expensive technology overtook his grassroots methods. He sounds a little wistful talking about those halcyon days when he and his films were featured attractions. Perhaps that’s why he jumped at the chance to lead this United Church in Christ faith community. He thrived on all the travel then (and still does) because it relieved stress. “From a health standpoint I think it was really the making of my job. I could go an airplane and fly to Denver or Miami or Los Angeles. I’ve been blessed with a lot of energy in my life, so I can fly someplace, give a lecture and come back on the red-eye express and still be at my office the next morning. I was able for years and years to do that. And I considered it fun. I liked the plane ride, the people applauding and the whole thing. For me, it was a lot more interesting than puttering around the house.”

He also credits his wife for helping smooth his comings and goings. “Fortunately I have a wife who understands the necessity of my being away from home a great deal. Usually I am at home for dinner but if I’m not some evening it’s not a crisis.”

Although he said his film career really didn’t “have much to do with the church, that’s one reason I’ve liked what I’ve been doing because I’ve been involved in a lot interesting, different things.” His openness to new, eclectic experiences is consistent with the liberal underpinnings of his church.

“One reason I’m in the United Church of Christ is that there’s an enormous freedom. We call it autonomy. You really don’t have a hiearchy over you telling you what to do. It’s mostly a relationship between the people here at Countryside and the staff. That’s very important to me because I didn’t want to be a churchman as much as I wanted to serve people. Counseling has been important to people over the years and I decided just before I came here to go back to school and get a doctorate in counseling (from Butler Univrsity) so I could be a professional rather than just a gifted amatuer.”

He said his search for knowledge has helped resolve personal crises of faith. “I’ve gone through two maybe three periods of intense questioning of everything I believed, and I think I’ve come out with a much stronger faith each time.”

Early on he chafed at his fundamentalist upbringing. “Pretty much what I grew up on was, ‘Well, you have to take it on faith. Just believe.’ I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to know why. That’s partly why I went to get a doctorate – I wanted to know why.”

Jamaica

 

 

Despite straying from the fundamentalist teachings he was reared on in Ohio Linde said his early years “did give me a strong impetus toward religious faith.” He added, “My mother particuarly was very religious. She read Bible stories to me.” Even as a child Linde challenged prevailing wisdom: “I always thought I knew more than the Sunday school teachers, which I probably did.”

When as a young man he told his mother of his plans to enter the ministry, he said, “she was disappointed,” adding, “She wanted me to be a good Christian boy but she wasn’t quite sure about my going into the ministry. I was surprised by that but I went anyhow.”

“I’ve really wrestled with my faith and I’ve come out with answers that, to me, are satisfactory. But they’re not the answers I had when I was a little boy in Sunday school.”

Linde feels many of Countryside’s 2,000 members are, like himself, questioners who demand answers. Others, he said, are from conservative backgrounds. He welcomes them all. Whie\le describing his church as liberal, he adds, “It doesn’t mean we don’t beleieve in anything. It means we will accept people of many different variations of faith. We don’t stuff people into one little box and say, ‘This is what you have to believe.’ This is one reason why people join Countryside. In our denomination we’re one of the largest and fastest growing churches in the U.S.”

To appeal to what he calles “a very young congregation on the sunny side of 40,” Linde has adapted his preaching style.

“I was brought up in the era when you weren’t supposed to use any personal references or illustrations and preaching was pretty stuffy. Years ago I rebelled against that. Using Jesus as a model I’ve used more illustrations and stories, trying to show what life is like and what it can be like and sometimes what it isn’t like. The fact is I’ve tried to preach like I make movies – a series of sequences and images, without trying to explain what it means.”

In general, he said “churches are learning what people really need. There is an ethical, a values and a religious hunger. Whether you want to admit it or not, there is something deep down inside of each person that does want values. People will come to a place where you don’t try to pound it into them but where it’s openly discussed.”

He said people are just as receptive to men of the cloth today as in years past. He feels his role is as vital as ever and perhaps more so not only because times are hard but because he views his vocation differently than before.

“My own perception has changed. When I first started out I was embarassed to be a minister. I’m not anymore. I think what I’m doing is very important. The reason, for instance, I’ve been in the church doing counseling is that I think what the church, what religious faith has to offer is more important than what a secular counselor has. Just adding the element of faith to psychological knowledge is a plus.”

A new building on Countryside’s campus will help the church further address people’s needs. He said the Family Life Center, set for an Easter completion, will offer “counseling, therapy and enrichment” to families.

Overall, Linde said the church’s mission is “essentially to improve the quality of life in our community and city and world.” An example of  its world outreach is Countryside aiding 18 children and their families in Amaititlan, Guatemala, where the Lindes visited recently. “My wife and I want to go back to Guatemala and go to language school. During our winter it’s their springtime and just beautiful down there.”

After all the trails he and his wife have followed, it’s not surpising then that the couple’s three grown sons have heeded their parents’ wanderlust ways and tranplanted themselves about the globe. One lives in Vail, Colo., another in New York City and the third in Taiwan.

Linde is not the type to dwell on his own many traveled roads because he’s always on the verge of some new journey. He confided, “I haven’t talked about myself this long in a long time.” But with his Countryside career about to draw to a close he thought the time right to reflect.

“We have an outstanding church here and I hope it will continue. I followed a good minister here (the Rev. Bob Alward) and we’ve continued to grow, the church has prospered in the 17 years I’ve been here, and I just hope the fella who follows me can continue what’s been done. Having the church prosper is very important to me.”

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