Omaha is a small city in the center of the Great Plains, the largest metropolitan 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 Mormons, followed by African American families from the rural south in the wake of World War I. Among them was the family of Malcolm X. 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 Orthodox Christians. It was this influx of professionals during the 1970s that led to the founding of the Hindu Temple 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 Center 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 synagogue, church, and mosque 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.
Omaha is the largest city in the Cornhusker State with a population of nearly 409,000. First inhabited by the Omaha and the Ponca nations, the region that came to be known as the “Gateway to the West” attracted European settlers after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 and waves of Czech, Jewish, and Mormon immigrants in the early 1900s. After World War I, African-Americans from the American South seeking economic opportunity in the meatpacking industry settled in Omaha. The Hispanic and Latino populations in Omaha have quadrupled in recent decades, securing the places of Roman Catholicism and Evangelical Christianity as the city’s two largest religious groups.
Amid growing religious diversity, innovative interfaith activity is flourishing in the Heartland of America. For more than six years, Omaha’s Project Interfaith has engaged in creative programs, from video interviews to speed dialoguing. The city supports two interfaith community-building organizations, Omaha Together One Community and Neighbors United. Countryside Community Church offers a lecture series, classes, and events through their Center for Faith Studies. Countryside is also among a group of faith communities who established Together, Inc., a food pantry and “homelessness prevention agency.” The future of interfaith relations in Omaha looks promising, as the Tri-Faith Initiative is now developing a multi-faith neighborhood, where a church, mosque, synagogue, and interfaith center will build on common ground.
Promising Practices and Leadership Profiles
Promising Practice: Cultivating Relationships and Creating Social Media in the Heartland
Directory of Religious Centers in Kansas City
The Pluralism Project is no longer updating its directory of religious centers outside of Boston, but you can find an archive of the Kansas City directory here.