Omaha’s Countryside church votes to join tri-faith site



Kris Hess joined Countryside Community Church because of its strong children’s ministry and uplifting preaching.

But now she has a new reason to be happy she signed up six years ago.

The congregation voted Sunday to relocate to a planned interfaith site for Christians, Muslims and Jews in west Omaha.

The decision was important because it keeps alive a plan by the nonprofit Tri-Faith Initiative organization to have all three faith groups represented.

Hess said that she voted in favor of moving because of opportunities for collaboration and building relationships with people of Jewish and Muslim faiths.

“We just need to move to this level of greater understanding,” she said.

The 35-acre site near 132nd and Pacific Streets is in the Sterling Ridge retail-office-residential development on the former Highland Country Club golf course, more recently known as Ironwood.

Countryside Church has been at its current location at 88th and Pacific Streets for more than 60 years, and some members said the decision to move was a tough one.

But a strong majority of Countryside members favored relocating.

Of 543 votes, 392 — more than 70 percent — favored moving to the interfaith site. Countryside is a United Church of Christ congregation, and major decisions are made by members voting as a group, not by pastors and other leaders.

The Rev. Eric Elnes, Countryside pastor, said the vote shows that his congregation understands the benefits of collaborating with Muslims and Jews at the site. Specifics haven’t been worked out, but community service and education have been mentioned by interfaith leaders as potential areas of collaboration.

“It strengthens all three faiths,” Elnes said.

The first piece of the interfaith campus landed in place when Temple Israel moved into its new synagogue at the site in 2013.

Plans are underway to build a mosque at the site.

Organizers of the interfaith effort believe that the site might be the only one in the nation where three such congregations are intentionally planning to locate at the same place.

Don Reed, a longtime Countryside member, said he voted against the move, partly because he thinks the church simply wants to look special by joining the interfaith effort.

“It’s being done for the notoriety,” he said.

He also said the current church is in good shape and has enough space. Raising millions of dollars to build a new church is wasteful, he said.

Mike Murphy lives three blocks from the current church and likes the neighborhood feel of Countryside. He was torn when deciding how to vote but ended up saying yes to moving.

Moving farther west will help Countryside stay strong because the church will be closer to residential growth, helping it attract new members, he said.

Countryside member Bill Sellgren agreed.

“There’s a tendency to drive to what’s convenient,” said Sellgren, who voted in favor of moving.

Elnes said he realizes that the outcome of Sunday’s vote might cause some church members who opposed the move to feel angry. But he’s hopeful that many of them will support the decision by the majority.

Rick MacInnes, the lay leader of Countryside’s church council, agreed.

“I wish and hope they join in this journey,” he said.

Vic Gutman, spokesman for the Tri-Faith Initiative organization, said Countryside’s decision to relocate gives the interfaith effort a significant boost.

But he said it’s too soon to say that the interfaith site will become a reality. Tri-Faith leaders and others involved in the effort will meet Monday to address remaining questions, Gutman said.

For example, non-Muslim donors had made major financial pledges to partially fund construction of a mosque if a Christian congregation committed to building a church. The Tri-Faith organization now must ask those conditional mosque donors if they will give final approval to helping fund it.

The Tri-Faith organization is scheduled to announce details on the future of the interfaith site at a press conference Tuesday morning.

Countryside first started considering the interfaith site more than a year ago.

A strong majority of Countryside members voted last June that they believed it to be God’s will that they look into the cost and other aspects of relocating to the site.

A feasibility study was undertaken that examined such details as the cost of constructing a new church, along with what’s lacking and what’s working at the current building.

The new church would have 71,100 square feet, based on a preliminary design. The cost is estimated at about $25 million, including land. Elnes said the cost would be covered through fundraising and sale of the existing church.

Countryside already has $16.1 million in firm financial commitments toward construction, mostly from congregation members, Elnes said.

MacInnes, the church council leader, said the new church would have more usable space than the current building, which has about 63,000 square feet.

With the additional space, the congregation would be able, for example, to expand and strengthen its ministries, MacInnes said. The new church also would have other advantages such as better security and parking.

Contact the writer: 402-444-1122, michael.oconnor@owh.com