Changing the Narrative: Tri-Faith Initiative a Global Model for Peaceful Coexistence

On October 17, the Tri-Faith Initiative and its faith partners celebrated the second anniversary of the opening of the Tri-Faith Center, which marked the completion of a venture that formally originated in 2006 when the Tri-Faith Initiative was incorporated as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Land was purchased at 132nd and Pacific streets in 2011, and the three houses of worship opened in the ensuing years: Temple Israel in 2013, the American Muslim Institute in 2017, and Countryside Community Church in 2019. The opening of the interfaith center in 2020 signified not only the completion of the Tri-Faith Commons, but also the culmination of a unique dream, Tri-Faith Initiative Executive Director & co-founder Wendy Goldberg said. 

“Our mission for the first 15 years was this first project of co-location of a church, a mosque and a synagogue with an interfaith center, that incredible experiment that doesn’t exist anyplace else in the world,” she said, adding that Tri-Faith’s objective has now shifted: “Our new mission is to cultivate inclusive environments, to advance interfaith relationships and understanding.” 

The organization has received worldwide recognition, Goldberg said.

“I think Omaha is proud that this model exists in the middle of Omaha, in the Heartland. We are increasingly hearing from communities around the region — and literally, the world — looking to us to both affirm that religious identity and community bring joy and strife in everyday life, but also acknowledging that religion has a role in public discourse,” she said. “We are creating relationships and opportunities that build trust, to talk about hard things … the glue is that we want to stand together, we want to walk through life together.” 

The Tri-Faith Initiative honors the fact that everyone’s spiritual journey is very individual, Goldberg said. 

“Sometimes when we’re uncomfortable with someone who’s different than us because of their religious identity or their experience with religion, we don’t know their story. And that’s truly what’s making us uncomfortable or fearful or angry, depending on the person,” she said. “We have an opportunity to invite people in to hear each other’s stories, to get proximate with each other. The Tri-Faith Initiative goal is to be that hub, the Tri-Faith Center is the place where we want to invite collaboration across interfaith lines.” 

Understanding our differences goes beyond religion, Goldberg said.  

“We realize that in all of these conversations about race and religion, and gender, and sexual orientation … We want to make sure there are opportunities for people to find more space to be curious about people who are ‘other than’ them.”

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All are Welcome

On Sept. 11, Tri-Faith hosted its first United We Walk event, which was open to the public and involved numerous partners representing a spectrum of faiths, to celebrate Omaha’s racial and cultural as well as religious diversity. More than half of the individuals who participate in Tri-Faith events and activities are not members of any of the three congregations located at the Commons, Goldberg said. She characterizes Tri-Faith as a movement, and said the community is welcome to be part of it. 

“All of our programming is open to the public,” she explained. “There are opportunities to witness prayer, to break bread, to get to know each other, to learn together.”

Tri-Faith hosts an annual conference on race, religion and social justice that has been held in partnership with the University of Nebraska at Omaha; last summer it involved 30 speakers including thought leaders from across the country. The organization also hosts training and workshops throughout the year around the topic of collaboration, along with customized presentations. 

“If you’d like to take a tour, or in turn, invite someone from Tri-Faith to speak at your community group or in your school or at your faith community, there’s the opportunity to request both a speaker or tour on our website [],” Goldberg said. “We encourage people to do that, and to think of us as a convening place; if you’d like to host an event or meeting to use our space or have us come and do a training for your workforce, we’ll be able to do those things. We’d like to be thought of as a resource.”

Tri-Faith also strives to collaborate with other groups in the community, Goldberg said. A good example is the onsite Unity Garden and Hope Orchard, which started in 2019 with eight raised beds and 20 newly planted orchard trees. Three years later, with 16 raised garden beds and maturing trees, 4,000 pounds of produce was cultivated for donation to five different organizations, project leader Bonni Leiserowitz said. 

“We have about 20 people that are totally dedicated to this project to make it better and better. There are about 50 other people that help with many other parts and pieces that make things work. Then there are still other people that support us by a donation of supplies or money here and there. The circle grows,” she said. “Our goal is to have the three faith partners with us each time we are tending the garden. And we welcome all that come to us who are not in any way associated with any of the faith partners.”

It’s part of a bigger picture, Leiserowitz said. 

“We are proof we can and do live together in harmony, not hate,” she said.

Opportunities for Hope

“It shows the generosity of Omaha to raise the dollars to build these beautiful facilities that are open to help model for the world what’s possible, but we don’t want to stop there,” Goldberg said. “We really want to be a convener for Omaha or our region or the world, and we want to cultivate these spaces to advance interfaith relationships and understanding. That’s what’s next.

“We’re stronger if we can find the opportunities to get to know each other, to hear each other. And what we’re saying is we don’t need to agree. We need to coexist peacefully without anger and harm … When you ask someone how they came to their belief, in hearing their story, they become human. And [you] have less opportunities to be afraid and more opportunities for hope.”

The concepts of pluralism and peaceful co-existence open doors to conversation — not conversion — Goldberg said. 

“We advocate for religious freedom without proselytizing; that is core to our basic assumption at Tri-Faith,” she explained. “We also model how diverse religious communities and nonreligious communities can engage with each other in beneficial ways and maintain their distinct identities, while thriving, to defend each other’s right to thrive.”

Tri-Faith strives to create the opportunity to help people gain the skills to have civil and even productive conversations about not only religion but also politics and other issues that can be divisive or taboo, Goldberg said. 

“Sometimes it’s going to be uncomfortable, or sometimes it’s going to be inconvenient. And that’s okay, too; we can still find hope,” she said. “We really want to change the narrative. We have these debates rooted in violence, and it’s an unhealthy narrative. And our politics are about fear and anger. Those things lead to oppression, sometimes for religious minorities, as well. And that’s a threat to our society.”

Goldberg again emphasized hope, along with perseverance. 

“Peaceful coexistence in the middle of chaos and uncertainty of what we’ve lived through in the last three years is hard work, and it’s exhausting,” she said. “But it’s also that beacon of hope that we all need to stay true to, it’s the guiding star to say, ‘This is where we’re heading. And we’re heading there together.’”


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