By The Rivers Podcast

A month ago, my friend Rabbi Alan Shavit-Lonstein, who leads the visionary interfaith study and lifecycle center By The Rivers in St. Paul, recorded this interview with me on the eve of our sabbatical.

In it, I muse about the importance of learning about other faiths, not so we can assert our superiority, or because we can show how open-minded and knowledgeable we are, but because it’s important to just listen to each other….

Click Here to listen.

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“We’re looking for a place where we can intentionally choose our neighbors.”

Today’s The Day!  Monday, August 1: the day we fly to London.  Tomorrow morning we will be met by our son Carter and Jennifer, his fiancée. Screen Shot 2016-08-01 at 7.13.52 AM Meanwhile, read my latest post about the remarkable experiment now taking shape in Omaha, which I visited last week…

The Mosque

The gentle cardiologist had a soft voice, and sometimes I had to lean closer to be sure I heard every detail.  Sitting in a booth at an Omaha restaurant, we were sipping ice tea and lemonade, and Dr. Syed Mohiuddin was telling me about being in his mosque on September 11, 2001.  “Rabbi Azriel was the first person to come.  He intended to protect us.  We will never forget that moment.

The story of the Tri-Faith Initiative could well start there, although I’m also curious about how an Israel-born rabbi and a congregation of Muslims in this midwestern city had become friends.  As it turned out, there was no attack by anti-immigrants or Islamophobes that day, but their instinctive solidarity was telling: these people really do know each other.  They really do love each other.

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And their actions are speaking loudly.  The synagogue is finished.  The mosque is under construction.  The church is on the drawing board.  Within a few years, there will be three congregations and an interfaith center on a single campus in a beautiful location.  Dr. Mohiuddin (left) and I met with Wade Heidemann (right), the construction supervisor, at the construction site on Tuesday afternoon.  A cement pumping truck with its graceful long neck was reaching up and out to fill in a trench carefully prepared by five guys in the hot sun.  The hillside had been carved flat to accommodate the basement level of the American Muslim Institute’s striking new building. Groundbreaking was two months ago. In the construction trailer, Wade showed us the drawings for all the levels of the building, which will include a small basketball court, a prayer area, and day-care rooms.

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The front of the building will be all glass, facing the neighbors, Temple Israel.  The synagogue is already there, built in 2013, right across the unfortunately-named Hell’s Creek from the American Muslim Institute.   Dr. Mohiuddin told me the footbridge would be called Heaven’s Bridge.

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The top of the minaret is a five-pointed star, which is very American, but could also be Somali, Algerian, Cuban, or Filipino.  What really struck me, though, was that this was going to be a nondenominational mosque.  Not Sunni or Shi’a, not Sufi or Ismaili, not Somali or Saudi or Turkish.  Just Plain Muslim.  I can’t think of ANY Christian churches that are truly nondenominational.  Christian denominations branch like trees; almost never like rivers:

  • The National Cathedral is sort of nondenominational, but it’s pretty Episcopalian.  The Catholics built their own, the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in D.C.  The name is uniquely Catholic.  Not to be confused with Virgin Birth, Immaculate Conception is a term which neither Protestant nor Orthodox folks use.  It refers to an 1854 Papal teaching that Mary was born sinless, thus assuring that Jesus would, some years later, be born from a “vessel” untainted by Original Sin.
  • The Church of South India is a combined Protestant denomination in an overwhelmingly Hindu country.  That’s a parallel to the Omaha Muslim situation.
  • a search for nondenominational churches in Google yielded page after page of evangelical Protestant churches.  That’s nowhere near as broad as what AMI is hoping for.

A nondenominational mosque couldn’t happen in the Middle East, Dr. M said.  Maybe Malaysia.  He urged us, when we go to Malaysia, to figure out how Sunni and Shi’a manage it.  He said that AMI is committed to a new paradigm of respect between religions, as well as between Muslim denominations.  AMI used to be called the American Institute of Islamic Studies and Culture.  It’s not just a mosque.  In that sense, it’s similar to the Islamic Center of Minnesota in Fridley.  Here’s a photo of Dr. Mohiuddin, President of the AMI and Professor of Cardiology at Creighton University Medical School.

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The Tri-Faith Initiative

Dr. Mohuiddin pointed out how the logo of their Muslim Institute shows the pages of scripture extending out of the box.  Opening borders is essential to the work of any inter-faith initiative.  In fact, leaders of all three faiths spent years meeting, hosting panel discussions, and dreaming about how, someday, they could do something substantial together.  He told me that in 2006, the TFI officially incorporated, and in 2009, they hosted Dinner In Abraham’s Tent, for 900 people, at which three national leaders spoke passionately about the special creative genius at work in Omaha.  They were Episcopal Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts Schori, Islamic Society of North America President Dr. Ingrid Mattson, and Rabbi Peter Knobel, from the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

“We’re looking for a place where we can intentionally choose our neighbors,” wrote Temple Israel’s Vic Gutman at the time.  They were outgrowing their existing worship space and parking lot.  At first, when the land became available, it was just Temple Israel, led by Rabbi Azriel and some very enthusiastic lay people like Gutman and Bob Freeman; and of course the American Muslim Institute.  By 2011, the two congregations, Jewish and Muslim, were buying land together, and Temple Israel broke ground on the east side of Hell’s Creek.

Earlier today, I was reading about singer-songwriter Craig Taubman, who bought an old Presbyterian church in L.A. and turned it into a shared house of worship called the Pico Union Project.  It’s now home for Korean Christians, the famous Womens’ Mosque America, a whole bunch of Jewish groups, a weekly salsa group called Vida Sana, and a cool-sounding midsummer night’s shabbat.  In response to all the hand-wringing about how people of different faiths need to have dialogue, he said,

             “I’m tired of the dialogue. I’m trying to create an actual practice….                                        the only way to love your neighbor is to know your neighbor.”

For a time, the third neighbor–the Christian partner–was going to be the Episcopal Church.  The Diocese of Nebraska put a million dollars into the initiative to help buy the land, but when Bishop Barker took over in 2011, he asked some very basic questions: ‘Do any of our existing parishes want to move?’ (No.) ‘Will a significant number of Episcopalians leave their existing parishes to join a new one to be built on the TFI campus?’ (No.)  ‘Are the major donors in our Diocese enthusiastic about building a new parish on the site?’ (No.)

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I met Bishop Scott Barker on Wednesday in his office in downtown Omaha.  He’s a native Nebraskan who knew most of the people involved in the Initiative, and I could tell that he had not relished the process of giving up this particular amazing dream.  But the Diocese had no choice: with only 8000 members in the entire state, their main priority has to be strengthening the few parishes they have in growing urban areas like Omaha and Lincoln. They also need to keep tending lovingly to the little churches in all the shrinking rural towns.

Fortunately, the people of Countryside Church were ready.  Quietly the leaders of the Episcopal Diocese and Countryside discussed a handoff, and an official invitation was extended.  Countryside pastor Eric Elnes invited the congregation to spend 40 days in their small groups and in bigger forums to discuss whether it was worth considering the invitation to pick up and move.

 

The Church

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Countryside is a Congregational church, which means it is considerably more autonomous than Episcopal churches are.  It’s got 1000 members, a location in a great Westside neighborhood, a rather modern building, with plenty of staff, an actual coffee shop inevitably named Common Grounds, and ample parking.  They’ve been host to Interfaith Dialogues of various kinds for twenty years or more.  Their senior pastor is a nationally-famous bridge-builder.  At the end of 40 days, 70% of the members voted yes to taking the invitation seriously to become the Christian partner in the TFI, taking over from the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska.

Their next step was to invite an architect to meet with everyone and talk about what they would want, ignoring money for the moment.  When I spoke to him Wednesday, Senior Pastor Eric Elnes (below) explained it was either what they were being called to do, and Screen Shot 2016-07-28 at 7.50.12 AMthey’d need to find the money; or it was not what they were being called to do; in which case they wouldn’t have to worry about finding the money.  The result: a proposal to relocate on the other side of Hell’s Creek from the synagogue, in the greenest church building in the country, with a sanctuary and classrooms more or less comparable to their existing facility, as a committed partner in the Tri-Faith Initiative.  Instead of talking about loving some abstract neighbors, they were going to move in next door.  The second vote was more than 70%.  Here’s the bell tower of Countryside’s present building on Pacific Avenue:

 

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About 10% of the congregation decided to leave, which was not unexpected, but certainly sad.  But the initiative has otherwise energized the congregation, and the buzz of creativity enlivens the many small groups which helped immensely in discerning whether this was God calling or some lesser ambition.

Shortly after the vote, the church decided to invite clergy from Temple Israel and the American Muslim Institute to take part in services.  An upcoming sermon series on the life and identity of Jesus ended up being the perfect venue, though some worried that it would be too divisive: Jews and Muslims do not worship Jesus as the Son of God.  It was perfect, though.  People don’t have to agree with one another to learn from one another.  From my friend Rabbi Alan Shavit-Lonstein I have learned that a lot of those “gotcha” passages in the Gospel where Jesus appears to be ambushed by Pharisee debaters could have been, instead, sincere discussions among people dedicated to creating a new Judaism.  The Christians and the Pharisees were the only groups to survive the Roman destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E.

And I’ve learned that the world’s billion-plus Muslims believe in the miracles of Jesus, his mother’s virginity, and they expect to meet Jesus himself on Judgement Day.

The TFI campus is a part of a former golf course.  From the hillside above, here’s a view of the site of the future Countryside Church, now being graded.  The AMI building I visited Tuesday is out of this picture to the left.  Temple Israel is the beige-and-white building across the creek, behind the trees.

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The Synagogue

Temple Israel, Omaha’s biggest Reform synagogue, has a breathtaking campus.  There is a spacious lobby, a library and classrooms with floor to ceiling windows, an office wing, an outdoor amphitheatre, a courtyard, a stained-glass walkway toward the sanctuary, an intimate chapel with a round skylight, and a welcoming sanctuary.

Program Director Scott Littky (right) showed me around the place, Screen Shot 2016-08-01 at 7.02.17 AMand also raised some interesting questions I had never thought about.  The three congregations are all members of the Tri-Faith Initiative, but how will they relate to each other and to the TFI?  Who will organize joint activities, and how will staff at each institution relate to each other and to the shared work of the TFI?  I will be curious to see who comes in as Executive Director of the TFI, which will have its own building and board, carefully composed of members of all three congregations.

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Scott also pointed out that each of the three congregations has a different culture when it comes to the division of labor among staff and members.  Everyone at the mosque, so far, is a volunteer.  Soon, they will hire an Imam, and later on a building manager and childcare center director.  Countryside and Temple Israel both have 20 or so professional staff already.

I was lucky enough to sit in on the regular Thursday morning Adult Ed class: 30 seniors, mostly Jewish but a few Christians like me, led by Cantor Shermet.  Her topic: ways to heal stress in our lives.  She surveyed the stresses in Omaha’s Jewish community right now.

  • at Temple Israel, the beloved 28-year Rabbi Azriel has just retired and the two new rabbis don’t “know” us yet.
  • Some in the congregation are concerned that the Tri-Faith effort might be too much of a drain or a distraction.  And they think maybe they need to keep such thoughts to themselves.  Shermet reassured everyone that Tri-Faith was a very important part of life at Temple Israel, but said they are making it very clear to prospective rabbi candidates that they will be serving the people of Temple Israel, not the Tri-Faith Initiative.
  • The local Jewish Day School is struggling to keep up enrollment.
  • People are torn between involvement in religious activities and the many other demands of their daily lives.Screen Shot 2016-08-01 at 6.59.54 AM
  • The news from Israel is so discouraging.
  • Being a member of a sometimes-misunderstood minority in Omaha is challenging.

The group clearly enjoyed the discussion, and thinks highly of Cantor Shermet.  She went on to remind everyone of the Jewish resources of prayer, study, family life, and singing which all help heal stress.  Here’s a photo of the bimah of Temple Israel’s main sanctuary.

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So a Rabbi, an Imam, and a Minister walk into a bar…

Comedy Central’s Daily Show With Trevor Noah sent reporter Ronnie Chang to Omaha this last winter to humorously misunderstand the Tri-Faith Initiative.  Dr.Mohiuddin, Rev. Elnes, and Rabbi Azriel all play along, including walking into a bar.  The congregations went on to host a series of Ask Me Anythings at that same Irish pub, mostly attended by Countryside people.

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The power of those small conversations

Alvera & LM on her 94th birthday

My mom, Alvera Mickelsen, died a few weeks ago at the ripe old age of 97. I’ve shed some tears, but she was so ready to go.

My mother had lived a full and independent life until age 94 when she suddenly fell, broke her femur in three places and ended up bedridden in a nursing home, too weak to even turn herself over in bed. This photo of us was taken on her 94th birthday, just a few months before that terrible fall.

Mom hated being in a nursing home, but stayed practical and stoic, in part because she figured she’d  follow the usual post-fall trajectory of a 94-year-old woman and die within six months. Instead, she lived another three years. She was always gracious. She didn’t complain. But she was like a plane on the runway, waiting to be cleared for takeoff; watching while her friends—mere youngsters in their 80s and early 90s—roared past her to the Big Beyond. It was like they were butting in front of her in line.

So although it sounds awful, her death came as a relief, first to her, but also to me. I had been feeling really ambivalent about traveling with John and leaving my mother so weak and vulnerable. She had excellent care. She urged me to go. But it didn’t feel right. So while I still have grieving to do—you’re never really ready to lose your parents, even at this age– I will now be able to travel with a much lighter heart.

My mother was a lifelong Baptist and feminist who supported progressive causes. This made her an oddity in her conservative evangelical circles, but she didn’t care. She cast her first presidential vote for FDR and her last for Obama. About ten days before she died, when it was clear she was now failing fast, we talked about the upcoming election. She was horrified by Trump.

“Well, it doesn’t look like you’re going to be around,” I said, “But I’m pretty sure we’re going to be electing our first woman president this November.”

My mom weighed less than 90 pounds at this point and could barely talk. But she raised her arm and made a clenched fist salute. “Yes!” she whispered. “Yes. Yes. Yes!”

Her signature issue was, in the words of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune obit,  “arguing, despite considerable pushback, that being a feminist is a Christian responsibility.” But she influenced me in other areas too.

Here are three stories I told at her memorial service last Saturday at GracePoint Baptist Church in New Brighton, MN

1) “When I was seven years old, we lived in Wheaton, Illinois where my father taught at the graduate school at Wheaton College.  In the spring of 1965, my dad accepted at job at Bethel Theological Seminary in St. Paul, MN, so my parents put their house on the market. My mom decided to do For Sale By Owner to save money.

It was the For Sale by Owner sign that raised the neighbors’ alarm bells. Our modest house was a couple blocks from the small “black” section of Wheaton. A realtor could be trusted to not sell a house on a white street to a black family—it would kill their realty career. But my mother? The neighbors weren’t so sure.

A little context: Wheaton was a nearly all-white very conservative suburb, 30 miles west of Chicago.  Congress had passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act only nine months earlier.  So the whole political movement for equal rights and open housing was still pretty new.

On a warm Friday night, shortly after the “For Sale By Owner” sign went up, my mother was standing out in front of our house with a bunch of neighbors watching as we kids played and rode bikes up and down the sidewalks.

“Alvera, we saw your sign and we sure hope you aren’t going to sell your house to any Negroes,” said our neighbor, Dave, who lived two doors away. “I have the same concerns,” chimed in our next-door neighbor, Mrs. Cook,  “Alvera, you must promise us you won’t sell to blacks.”

Just then, two little kids collided on their bikes and the adult gathering quickly broke up in the scurry to wash off scraped knees and look for Band-Aids.  So the question was left hanging.

As my mom told me some years later, she had a hard time sleeping that night. She believed in open, integrated housing. Yet at the very moment when she was asked to put her values on the line…she hadn’t said anything. It wasn’t completely her fault—the bike collision had gotten her off the hook. But still. It bothered her.

The next morning, my mother went and knocked on Mrs. Cook’s door.  I tagged along because I was always following my mother around.

The Cooks were childless, retired missionaries who filled every stereotype of cranky old neighbors. If I was playing a game and my ball accidentally rolled five feet onto their lawn, they went ballistic. Ditto for the time I drew chalk hopscotch on their driveway. Mrs. Cook made me wash it off, standing over me as I scrubbed saying, “I hope you’ve learned your lesson, little girl.” She almost never called me by name. It was always “Little Girl.”

“Good morning,” Alvera said when Mrs. Cook opened the door. “Listen, I know it’s early, but last night I didn’t get a chance to respond to what you said about selling our house. So I wanted to let you know that I will sell my house to whoever gives me the best offer. If that’s a black family, I will happily sell to them.”

There was pause. Mrs. Cook did not look happy.  “I’m sorry to hear this,” she said tightly. “But I certainly hope you didn’t stay up all night worrying that we might be racists. Because I’ll have you know we spent years being missionaries in Africa. We love Africans. We treat Africans just…like…children.”

“Well, thanks, “my mom said briskly. “I just wanted you to know” and Mrs. Cook quickly closed the door on us.

“But she HATES children,” I announced as we stepped off her front porch.

“Shhhh,” my mother said.  “I said what I needed to say. I don’t need to argue with her.”

2) Fast-forward three years. It’s now 1968 and my mom is teaching writing at Bethel College. I’m 11 and tagging along as she picked some mail up at the English department. On the way out, we ran into an African-American colleague of hers, Dr. Thomas, who taught in the music department. It was rare to see a black person at Bethel in those years; even rarer to see a professor.

She introduced me; they chatted a bit and in our car on the way home, she said, “Dr. Thomas is a wonderful man. He’s from Chicago. He once told me that, a few years ago, the Chicago police stopped his brother for a traffic violation—it was something very minor…and no one knows what happened next, but the cops beat his brother to death. With their nightsticks.”

“What?!?!?” I said, “Why would they do that?”

“No one knows,” my mom said wearily.

“Did the police go to jail?”

“No.”

“Well, that’s not right,” I said.

“No,” my mother said. “It isn’t.”

Look, these small, private conversations are not big dramatic acts. It’s not like my mother was marching with Dr. King. But in 1968, there weren’t a whole lot of white mothers were telling their white 11-year-old daughters that the police were killing black drivers for no apparent reason. And that conversation is one of the reasons why, nearly 50 years later, I support Black Lives Matter. Because this has been going on for a long time and it’s long, long past time that we ended it

3) Fast forward another 25 or so years. It’s in the early 1990s. My father has died, but Alvera is in her mid-70s, still going strong as the group Bible teacher for an all-women’s tour of Israel around the theme of “Women in the Bible.”

I wasn’t on this trip, but Alvera told me it was a little unusual because half the women were white; half were African-American and they read some parts of the Bible very differently.

For example, the white women saw Sara as the faithful wife of Abraham and mother of Isaac. And the black woman saw her as the slave mistress who drove Hagar and her son, Ishmael out into the desert to die, where they survived only because God sent an angel to help.

As my mother liked to point out, both views are correct. The Bible shows both Sara’s faithful and as well homicidal side. My mother liked how the Bible often doesn’t clean things up and instead shows flawed, complicated people living in flawed, complicated cultures.

Anyhow, on one of their tour days, her group was visiting the West Bank and their assigned licensed guide was a young, brash Israeli who didn’t know much about the Bible and who, in Alvera’s opinion, kept giving a particularly biased, propaganda-heavy narrative about the Palestinians.

After a few hours of this, Alvera felt she needed to provide some counter- balance for her group—she was, after all, their designated teacher. “There are usually two sides to any conflict, both in Biblical times and today,” she announced as she began to give the Palestinian version as the bus drove to the next site on their schedule.

The Israeli guide quickly cut her off. “You’re an ignorant woman,” he said. “For starters, there is NO SUCH THING AS A PALESTINIAN. They don’t exist. Palestinian is a political term. They’re just ARABS!”

“Well then, under your same logic,” Alvera shot back, “there’s NO SUCH THING AS AN ISRAELI. Israelis don’t exist. Israeli is a political term. They’re just JEWS.”

The Israeli guide was furious; he and Alvera went back and forth. I think he had no idea who he was tangling with. She looked like a little old white-haired lady in tennis shoes. But she had been a top debater who later taught and coached debate at the college level.

Alvera looked at her group, most of whom seemed panicked by the open argument and ready to dive under the bus seats for cover. But several of the black women—who knew all about being marginalized and disrespected– had fire in their eyes. They were having none of this. One of them stood up. “Excuse me,” she called out to the Israeli guide. “EXCUSE ME. But did we just hear you correctly?? Did you just call Alvera ignorant?!?! 

You notice in all these stories, my mom stepped up for causes that weren’t necessarily hers. She wasn’t black. She wasn’t Palestinian. But when it came to injustice, if my mother saw something, she said something. She didn’t shout. She was always gracious. But she said something. She approached life with an open mind and open eyes, so her world got bigger not smaller as she got older.

She was woke, as the kids say now. And she stayed woke.

And that’s no small legacy. Most of us will never be famous or powerful or command vast audiences. All we have our own small circles of influence. But that’s where we are called, in our own small way, to speak up, especially for the people with less power.

We don’t know if our voices will make a difference.  Most of the time, they probably won’t. I am confident, for example, that my mom did not change Mrs. Cook when she went to her front door and said she’d sell happily sell our house to a black family.

But she did change me. Man, did she ever change me.

House and Houses

Next week, after our family members have gone back to their homes after this weekend’s memorial service for my mother-in-law, I’m going to take a short trip to Omaha.

The Tri-Faith Initiative was conceived by civic-minded religious leaders on the eastern edge of Nebraska.  When the buildings are finished, a synagogue, a mosque, and a church will share campus space on what was once a golf course.

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The three faiths all trace their ancestry to Abraham: 3800 years ago, he took his wife west to begin a new life, convinced that God would show him a new land and give him descendants as numerous as the stars.  Up the Fertile Crescent they traveled, to the Promised Land as well as to Egypt and Arabia, living as nomads most of the time.  In that respect, Lynnell and I will be imitating them for the next year.  Now he is honored by Jews, Christians, and Muslims around the world.

There is plenty of disagreement about the specifics of his life.  The Old Testament says he nearly sacrificed his second son, Isaac, to prove his obedience to God, and that his wife Sarah, Isaac’s mother, never lived with Abraham again after that.  Christians say that Isaac was a foreshadowing of God’s son accepting death.  Muslims say that it was Ishmael, Abraham’s firstborn son whose mother was the servant-woman Hagar, and that Ishmael volunteered for the grim duty.  The Biblical holy places are in what would become Israel, but the Qur’an describes Abraham and Ishmael rebuilding the Ka’aba, the Stone House in the center of their holy city of Mecca.  This is an architectural rendering of the mosque now under construction in Omaha.

AMI Mosque in Omaha

People often use religious traditions to separate themselves from one another, but there is an awful lot of common ground among these three faiths: ideas like creation of a good universe out of primal nothingness, disobedience by the first human beings which caused alienation from our creator ever since, a series of leaders including Noah, Abraham, Moses, and the prophets, a tradition of scripture emphasizing both justice and mercy, and ethical codes.

Setting aside for the moment all the scriptural warrants for ethnocentrism and intolerance–not easy to do–it’s very important for us to stand on that common ground.  That’s what the folks in Omaha are doing.  Here’s  a photo of the beautifully sunlit gallery of Temple Israel.

Temple Israel Omaha

I will be meeting with leaders of all three congregations, touring the only finished building (Temple Israel), and walking the building site of the mosque.  The Christians are lagging behind a bit, as a result of a change in leadership: the Episcopal Church had planned on being the third partner, but last year gave way to the UCC, who will relocate Countryside Church a couple miles to the new site.  I am curious to find out how that all happened.  My Episcopal loyalty feels a twinge of regret, but I’ll put denominational partisanship aside.

Below is a conceptual drawing that Countryside UCC is working from.  The diagonal axis points to the center of the campus, around which all three buildings will cluster.

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During the summer of 2017, we may visit an even more ambitious tri-faith initiative, The House of One in the former East Berlin.  With help from the Federal government of Germany, where religion is state-supported anyway, a group of idealists has designed a four-house worship and study community and hired a rabbi, a pastor (Lutheran, of course!) and an imam.  Here’s the plan:

House of One

The columns on street level reveal the ruins of a church bombed in World War 2.  The arched door on the left is the entrance to the mosque.  The Christian space will be on the far side, and the synagogue will be on the right.  A very tall central tower will allow views all over Berlin, and there will be a huge green sphere, barely visible inside the tower in this picture.  I imagine the sphere symbolizes this fragile Earth.  The central tower will feature a common hall which will be quite spacious and big enough for common gatherings to include, as they put it, people who have no particular beliefs as well.

In the photo below are members of the Omaha Tri-Faith Initiative.  Maybe I will meet some of them next week. I am keeping them all in my prayers.  They are really doing the Lord’s work, difficult though it may seem.  But I bet it’s not that difficult.  Making friends, sharing meals, getting excited over construction plans–all that sounds like fun.

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Rest In peace, Alvera.

A few years ago, I postponed my sabbatical because Lynnell’s mom fell, broke her femur, and began spiraling down into increasing immobility.  She was 94.  It wasn’t her first break. She had broken both legs in a horrible car crash 30 years earlier; broke a leg again while traveling in Spain, and now walked with a kind of awkward gait, and yet even after that, she had managed to travel the world, carrying her own luggage, thank you very much.

We thought it likely she would die in those next few months, but the life in her has been surprisingly persistent.

She died last night in her sleep, after years of saying she was ready to return to God, to die and join three siblings, Berkeley, her parents, and so many others.

She’d been living at the Episcopal Church Home in St. Paul.  To our sons: if you have to send me to a nursing home, send me to that one.  The place is arranged in small residential “houses” with nice kitchen-and-dining areas and courtyards in which I could see myself happily pulling weeds someday.  The mostly-African and African-American staff has been unfailingly loving and gracious.  Lynnell and Ruth are over there now, collecting personal items to save and putting most things aside to be given away.

Last night, as they did day after day, Lynnell and Ruth told their mom of their love, and the completeness of her life.  They told her that everyone is fine and will always be grateful.  If tonight is the night you die, they both said, that will be okay, and we will all be together again one day.

Alvera’s been the perfect mother-in-law.  Like my own mom, she didn’t meddle or ever act like she knew what was best for me (ok, my mom tried that a couple of times, but I got mad and pouted, thus proving the childishness that I think she was responding to).  Alvera admired my work and adored our children, but mostly she was grateful that I was a good husband to her daughter.  But being a good husband to Lynnell is not that hard!

As a young woman, Alvera Johnson lived in Michigan City, Indiana, where her carpenter father had moved the family from a farm outside of town.  There were hardly any jobs for him in the city, either, during the Great Depression.  She went to college at Wheaton, where Lynnell would later study, and spend 1938 at Linfield College in Oregon (photo below) taking care of a relative’s home in return for room and board.

Alvera, 1938 Linfield College, Oregon

Back in Chicago after graduation, she studied journalism at Northwestern (I know: she had a brilliant mind.  No one could beat her in a debate!).  She began teaching journalism at her Alma Mater and met an equally brilliant young professor of Biblical Interpretation named Berkeley Mickelsen.  They married, had two daughters, and when the politics of patriarchy and Biblical literalism made the place too uncomfortable, he accepted a similar post at Bethel College and Seminary in St. Paul.

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They both taught at Bethel at the time Lynnell and I met, in 1983.  This photo is taken on October 12, 1984, at my parents’ house in Detroit.  Berkeley died in 1990, but Alvera kept up their shared work in promoting Biblically-based feminism.  The organization they co-founded, Christians for Biblical Equality, lives on; although gender equality is even less popular now in most Baptist circles than it was in the late sixties.  Her special gift was taking Berkeley’s sophisticated and nerdy analyses of the context of the early writers about Jesus and explaining them for a popular audience in plain English.

She told the truth about those first generations of Christians whose churches were often owned and led by women, and about their beloved Jesus, who counted women among his best friends and most trusted followers, even if he probably never married.

It has been an honor to know and love and be loved by Alvera.  At her memorial service in two weeks, I will introduce the scriptural passage that guided her life, from Paul’s letter to the Romans:

           “Be not conformed to this present world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind so that you might know what is the good, pleasing, and perfect will of God.”

Following Charlie’s Creep

If you aren’t a gardener, you can skip this post, because it’s so nerdy, but there is a spiritual point, and I promise not to belabor it.

There’s a weed called Creeping Charlie that is actually quite a nice ground cover.  It grows fast, on fragrant vines, along the ground, under your grass.  Every few inches along the vine, Charlie sends some roots down to anchor himself, and his leaves are heart-shaped and as green as you could want.  But lawn purists like me insist that Charlie is a weed.  Never mind that clover grows similarly on trailing vines, but Saint Patrick’s shamrock, which he used to explain the Trinity, is a relative of clover, and horses happily munch clover, and the flowers of clover are really lovely, and so as far as I am concerned, it’s allowed in my lawn.

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Our infallible nextdoor neighbor, Ed Crandall, used to pay his sons a dollar for a grocery bag full of Creeping Charlie, and as I recall, the price was too low to inspire any serious pulling.  Charlie is not easy to remove: you have to pull gently if you want to get the roots, which of course is always your goal in weed pulling.  Look at American military adventures  in the Middle East and see how important it is to get to the roots: it’s not worth the bother if the thing is going to regenerate.

So today I was pulling weeds, mostly Mr. Charlie.  I tried lots of techniques, like combing the roots with my fingers to locate the vines, and twisting a cluster of leaves in the hope that I would get ahold of the hidden support system.  A few times, I was patient enough, and being on sabbatical, patience is something I can afford.  When I was patient, and very gently pulled sideways along the ground, I could see the vine straining eight or ten inches away, a clue that these few leaves in my hand were part of a chain that spread far away.  Pulling horizontally, the same way Charlie grows, yielded an amazing chain.

I was mostly kneeling on all fours in the shade, hearing three or four familiar bird calls and realizing that I don’t know which species is making which song.  Lynnell was off to watch Germany and Italy play soccer on the big screens at Brit’s Pub downtown and our houseguest Melanie was at the kitchen table, working on her application for another internship (this one in Paris, her home city).  It was a lovely afternoon.  One time, as I coaxed loose a pretty big root system, an earthworm slid into view, and spent a minute moving in the shade of the grass toward an undisturbed hole back into the earth.

Such a busy and purposeful world, with its underground tunnels and its systems of roots and vines.  And it’s invisible unless you are interested.  On this perfect summer day, religion seems like that: the human effort to pay attention to the invisible worlds that support us.  Whether God is more like the bird songs, the path of the worm, or the miracle of photosynthesis is something to wonder about.  Meanwhile, the ever-patient Creeping Charlie lets me feel accomplishment at banishing him from fifty square feet of lawn.

A visit to a Mayan saint

A year or two ago, on this same trip from our church, our group had the chance to visit the home of a Mayan priest who we have known over the years of coming to Guatemala to work for the Mision San Lucas Toliman.  In his home, up a very narrow and steep stairway, there is a shrine to San Simon, known locally as Maximon.  Probably the same saint as the ancient Mayan deity Mam, he is a bit of a tough guy, depicted in statues with a cigarette in his mouth and bottles of liquor on the altar as offerings.  (Photo: Tribal Art Wiki)

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We visited again a couple of days ago, all fifteen of us, squeezed into the top floor of the house outside the little booth in which the shrine is found.  Our friend welcomed us and sent his granddaughters for fifteen eggs, on which we wrote our names, each in a different color.  Then he began building a very small and elaborate pyre on a big iron disk with eight colors of sugar, eight colors of candles, five balls of copal (incense), and some cigars.  He invited us to pray or make wishes, so that the Holy Spirit and/or local spirits might know what was on our minds.  And then, after he got a good little fire going, we put our eggs in the fire. (Thanks to Cheryl Stevens for this photo)

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Apparently, there are many ways for eggs to behave, from exploding to cracking and leaking to just plain roasting without the shell being disturbed, and our friend the priest did his best to explain the meanings associated with the fate of each of our eggs.  His explanations were pretty simple, general, and all quite positive, so as a fortune-telling exercise, I don’t think I learned much, but when he took us inside the shrine, face to face with Maximon’s statue, it felt very intense and serious.  He sprinkled and dabbed some blue and some clear liquids that I imagine were alcohol-based, and prayed to God for me, my family, my work, and my studies.  It was a bit like going into the confessional booth.

The man and his family are obviously very poor.  He has eleven kids and a half-dozen grandkids, who joined us.  They were curious, intelligent, kind, and playful, but quite aware that Papa was doing something important.  He brought out a smaller carved statue of Maximon/San Simon, and one of the children told me he even owns a tiny one.  Cheryl Stevens took this picture, also.

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Of the priest’s many siblings, only two have continued their grandfather’s indigenous religion in addition to their Catholicism.  I wondered which of these children might someday pour sugar on a fire in this same house in front of other skeptical, curious, and respectful visitors.

Maximon has shrines in most of the villages around the great Guatemalan Lake Atitlan.  We were encouraged to visit the shrine in Santiago Atitlan yesterday by a man greeting passengers at the dock.  The shrine is a popular destination for tourists in the know, but we were headed for a shrine of a different kind: the pilgrim church of Santiago, and the study of its late heroic priest, Fr. Stanley  Rother.

Known affectionately by his Mayan name, Apla’s, Fr. Rother was murdered by a right-wing death squad in July, 1981.  He had taken sides with the indigenous people of his town, the Tsutuhil Maya, who were being murdered and “disappeared” by the army.  Having been warned numerous times that his name was on a list of those to be terminated, he finally went home to Oklahoma City earlier that year.  But his conscience told him that if he really was the “shepherd” of his spiritual flock, he needed to imitate the Good Shepherd he so often preached about, and get back to the people who needed him.  He knew that he stood a good chance of meeting the same fate as Jesus.

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In his study are plaques describing his solidarity with the poor and a bullet hole in the floor, covered with glass.  Fr. Rother may well become a saint in the next decades, in tribute to his integrity and compassion.  The walls of the church are lined with statues of other saints, all dressed in vestments of many colors.  This one is a woman mourning the execution of St. John the Baptist.  It could be his mother, or the young princess whose evil mother the queen told her to demand John’s head as retribution for his having spoken truth to power.

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Our guide and trip leader Bill Peterson showed me a carved figure of Maximon on one of the panels behind the high altar in the church where Fr. Rother preached, taught, and died.  The were also depictions of the Holy Spirit as a quetzal bird, and scenes of indigenous farmers growing corn.

Discouragingly, there were also plenty of racist statues, including a fair-skinned angel subduing a dark-skinned devil, and conquistadores all over the place, triumphing and planting crosses.

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Within just a few few decades of Ferdinand and Isabella’s cruel decree of religious intolerance, the Spanish were spreading diseases and looting gold all over what we now call Latin America.  In 1492, despite 700 years of mostly-peaceful coexistence with Jews and Muslims, the Catholic king and queen ordered all noncatholics to convert, depart, or die.  Their missionaries, once settling in the “new” world, were considerably more tolerant, allowing lots of syncretism like the merging of  Maximon and Saint Simon. The church in Santiago Atitlan contains a sacred plaque in the floor in the center of the church, opened once a year to reveal the ancient Mayan “navel of the world.” In fact, the church was built on a Maya temple, a small pyramid set on this exact spot connecting upper and lower worlds.

As we travel the world this year, in search of trees and rivers of religion, I’m hoping to notice how both branching-out and flowing-together happened.  Here in the mountains of Guatemala, where rivers rush down, chocolate-colored by sediment, we see mostly the erosion of human respect and generosity.  We see more separation than unity.  We see the results of conquest by what my cousin Paul calls Spain’s obsession with military honor: men with short-barrel shotguns guarding drug stores and gas stations, high walls around the compounds of the prosperous, and indigenous people, carrying huge loads of firewood uphill on foot, praying to their saints or gods for whatever this day will require.

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(Photo: Alamy.com)

So glad to be taking this trip!

A year ago, we celebrated my cousin’s wedding in New Orleans (photo).  Now, we are on the brink of a trip we’ve been imagining for 25 years.

We’re looking for ideas, contacts, referrals, recommendations, warnings, whatever you’ve got.  Our plan is to travel the British Isles in August and September, France and into Spain in October, Spain and into Portugal in November, and then maybe Italy, Greece, Egypt, Morocco, we’re not sure.  Home for Christmas.  Then Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, India, and Israel in winter and spring.  Everything subject to improvements and updates.  We are living in beta!