Omaha is a small city in the center of the Great Plains, the largest metropolitanA Metropolitan is the title given to a bishop, used especially in the Orthodox family of churches today. area in the state of Nebraska. A city of 419,000 in a state of less than two million, Omaha is notable not only for its size but also for its diversity. While African Americans form the largest minority group in Omaha, Latino residents are increasing at a rate of 174 percent annually. Omaha’s Asian population has grown by almost 90 percent since 1990 while immigrants from Africa are steadily increasing as refugees from Sudan make their way to this crossroads on the prairie. The religious landscape of Omaha reflects these demographic changes and the resulting interfaith initiatives are putting Omaha on the map anew.
The Louisiana Purchase in 1803 brought the first white settlers to the region, along with steamboat technology, and fur trading. By the time of the American Civil War and Nebraska’s induction as the thirty-seventh state in the Union, most of the native peoples who lived in the area that would later become Omaha had been forcibly relocated to reservation lands. By the turn of the twentieth century, railroads and agri-business had replaced steamboats and fur trading and Omaha rivaled Chicago in agriculture and livestock distribution. Early in the century, the city welcomed an influx of Czech and Jewish immigrants as well as MormonsThe Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also called the Mormon Church, was launched by Joseph Smith (1805-44) who discovered a new revelation, the Book of Mormon, which became, along with the Bible, the “latter day” scripture of the new commu..., followed by African American families from the rural south in the wake of World War I. Among them was the family of Malcolm XMalcolm Little (1925-1965) is one of the most well-known African Americans who embraced Islam. He took the name Malcolm X upon joining the Nation of Islam while in prison. He spoke forcefully for black separatism in the face of white predjudice and violen.... During World War II, Omaha became the birthplace of the B-29 bomber, a signal of the region’s leadership in aerospace technology. Since the 1970s, the city’s industries have attracted engineers, doctors, and other professionals from around the world.
Omaha has become a hub for many religious communities for whom the city is either the only place or one of very few in the state of Nebraska where their community gathers to worship. Such is the case for Mormons as well as Serbian and Antiochian OrthodoxIn general, orthodox means having a “correct opinion or outlook” and is a term used by people in many religions who claim authority for traditional views and forms of their religion. Christians. It was this influx of professionals during the 1970s that led to the founding of the Hindu TempleA temple is a house of worship, a sacred space housing the deity or central symbol of the tradition. The Temple in Jerusalem was the holy place of the Jewish people until its destruction by the Romans in 70 CE; now the term “temple” is used by th. Ref... of Omaha. After nearly two decades of meeting for worship in private homes of community members, the Temple was built in 1993 and attracts people from around the state.
The Hindu Temple’s website acknowledges that it “has enjoyed a great deal of interaction with other religious traditions in the community,” and is proud member of the Lincoln Interfaith Council. In a similar way, the Islamic CenterAn Islamic center will typically include a mosque, school, and area for social and cultural activities. When a new Islamic center is being organized in the United States, attention is paid to community needs, including a weekend or full-time school, indic... of Omaha describes the city as “the ideal place to raise [a] Muslim family” since the people “have strong Midwestern values and are tolerant towards people of other faiths,” noting that “the experience of most Muslims in Omaha has been positive.”
There are many Omahans who are working together to make sure that everyone’s experience of their city is positive. “Wait, you’re a Muslim? But you’re not even brown!” was the exclamation that led to the founding of RavelUnravel, a multimedia storytelling initiative of Project Interfaith. A Muslim college student recounted these words, concerned that, as the recipient, she was not given space to define herself; it was the student’s telling of this story that led interfaith activists to want to “tell Omaha’s story, one story at a time.” Now with over 940 videos and a growing cache of multimedia entries, RavelUnravel is reaching far beyond the Great Plains.
Omaha is home to several other vibrant interfaith partnerships and programs that provide social services, empower minority communities, or work to prevent homelessness. Omaha is also home to the nationally renowned Tri-Faith Initiative, a collaborative—and, at times, contentious—effort to build a tri-faith campus where a synagogueSynagogue, shul in Yiddish, is the most widely used term for a Jewish house of worship. Meaning a “place of gathering,” it is the central institution of Jewish communal life. The structure and role of synagogues has changed through the centuries, but ..., churchThe term church has come to wide use to refer to the organized and gathered religious community. In the Christian tradition, church refers to the organic, interdependent “body” of Christ’s followers, the community of Christians. Secondarily, church ..., and mosqueMasjid (plural masajid) in Arabic means “place of prostration,” or the place where Muslims bow in prayer; in English, this word has become “mosque.” A masjid contains a prayer hall in which there is a mihrab or prayer niche, and a minbar or pulpit... would be next door neighbors.
The city’s motto, Fortiter in Re—“Courageously in every enterprise”—seems apt as Omaha seeks to embrace its new multi-religious reality.