PAYING ATTENTION 245
Paying Attention to Each Other
Congregations and religious leaders operating in the first forty
years of Omaha’s history typically came out forcefully on moral
issues affecting citizens and community life. The religious style in
the 1800s was to “tell it like it is” ~ or at least like you think it is.
The first half of the twentieth century brought more discreet
responses from congregations and their leaders. Actions were taken
and statements made in the first six decades of the century, but they
were seldom announced in public and therefore were not covered in
the local media. All of that changed in the sixties.
In the last forty years of the twentieth century, many
denominations were organized and vocal, and were covered in the
media. The media went after news items which were not public.
Though most congregations were never publicly identified, the
concerns of people of faith about moral issues ~ especially those
affecting the welfare of citizens ~ were discussed and presented in
all types of forums within local congregations, and in associations of
congregations and religious leaders.
As part of that, in the last forty years congregations demonstrated
the dramatic shift in strategies as they created and supported over
100 new programs and initiatives to meet specific situations. Indeed,
there are so many they can not all be described here.
An overview of religious-sponsored action shows the amazing
shift of strategies in this time. It is almost as if someone opened a
door to “New Resolutions about the Community” on New Years
Day, 1960. Hopefully, concise summaries of the varied actions will
help us feel the scope and impact of this remarkable development.
What had changed? Older Jewish leaders are quite frank to say
that until 1964 they did not feel they had the right to speak out in
246 OMAHA BLOSSOMS
public. “Rabbis would lose their credibility in the community if they
Why 1964? That is the year that a Vatican Council stated that
Jews are not “Christ-killers.” Most Christian leaders saw this
statement as a “non-event,” getting around to saying what most
Christians had thought for years. However, it was a change in reality
for Jewish people and therefore must be a part of our collective
Older Jewish leaders report that it would have been out of the
question to speak publicly before World War II. After the war,
reports of the Holocaust gave them a “sympathy audience” for quiet
comment, but not a license to speak out about faith and injustice.
They report there was no doubt about their right to speak openly
within the congregation. Rabbis were not restrained. However, in
public they were very careful.
Another major change came from the Second World War: black
citizens had fought for their country and they no longer felt like
stepping off the sidewalk to let someone else’s ideas go by. It took a
while, and some had difficulty getting past the angry stage. But
within twenty years leaders emerged who were willing to take on
any establishment or privileged position.
Third change. Jews, blacks and low-income whites were seldom
found in the professions before World War II. However, veterans
returning home were offered college and professional training,
without the restrictions known throughout the history of our nation.
In a few quick years a new breed of teachers, doctors, lawyers and
ministers were moving into positions of leadership. Usually they
brought different perspectives.
Fourth, the gentle shapes of society in 1960 were never going to
be that predictable again. “White flight” from integrating
neighborhoods and schools had a devastating effect on communities
and churches. ‘Old” families that had not changed a thing suddenly
learned they had to change or get out. It was a symbol of the
national scene as new leadership was forming and those long-silent
found their voice. Life would not be the same again, and people
were going to have to talk to each other if they were to share in
planning their future. Some persons were not willing to do that.
PAYING ATTENTION 247
Fifth, unprecedented prosperity in the fifties and the challenge to
authority in the sixties provided a dramatically different stage on
which these new leaders could act on their interests. Several
unexpected events within synods and conferences of traditional
Nebraska church assemblies illustrate this in striking fashion.
In each, the “old guard” brought in programs and budgets, honed
through months [and years!] of committee work, as is the nature of
church planning. The plans were presented to the final body for
adoption. New leaders, sometimes in quite awkward ways, laid
aside ~ or threw aside ~ the carefully-constructed budgets and
replaced them with something considered more responsive to their
new understanding of the human situation.
The good news: wise “old guard” heads heard the new drum-
beat and responded by supporting the changes. It took a few leaders
longer than others, but that it happened at all is indeed remarkable!
In view of the preference for tradition and business-as-usual
among institutions, the changes were dramatic and fast. They were
not fast enough for several black Christian leaders, who left the
church and used other bases to effect change.
Community Relation Offices
Regional Christian and Jewish bodies, going by all sorts of
“judicatory” names, formally organized or strengthened several
agencies which could identify and respond to local issues. Almost
all had a salaried staff, paid from assessments and contributions from
the congregations. The five largest are described here.
♦ The Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith [ADL] brought an
office to Omaha in the 1940s. A national network has helped the
Jewish community be especially alert to persons and groups with
an anti-Semitic agenda. That sensitivity made League members
active colleagues with other groups which were being oppressed.
Harold Adler directed the work of the League and the more
specific community action in the 1960s. Rabbi Sidney Brooks
was a public participant, and active for justice.
♦ The first Christian organization organized in the midst of the
turmoil was United Methodist Ministries, established in 1966
with the Rev. Jerry Elrod as Executive Director.
248 OMAHA BLOSSOMS
♦ In 1969, the Lutheran Church in America sponsored GOAL: the
Greater Omaha Area Lutheran ministry. The Reverend Vic
Schoonover was Executive Director. Later, the American
Lutheran Church and Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod joined
the project. The name changed to Lutheran Metropolitan
♦ The Rev. William T. Peters and soon the Rev. James D.
Hargleroad were directors of Omaha Presbytery’s Commission
on Church and Race. It became Presbyterian Metropolitan
♦ The Catholic Social Action office had the Rev. Jerry Burback,
the Rev. Jerry Millenkamp, the Rev. Jack McCaslin and the Rev.
Vincent Mainelli in leadership and joined the other leaders to
develop strategies to help in traumatic situations.
The above names were in the news often, representing their
groups as they challenged conventional thought in the tense times.
The mission of these offices is well represented in the Lutheran
statement of purpose:
to help solve “the Urban Crisis”
to work with Blacks to open up opportunities in
employment, housing and education
to work with predominantly white congregations in
Nebraska to improve understanding of the racial problem.
Their goals were unimagined in the 50s.
There was good cooperation by black pastors, but the funding was
white and the expectation was that these leaders and boards were to
keep pressure on white congregations to learn about the realities
experienced by Black and Indian citizens, and of challenges to low-
income white families.
This group of executive directors formed the core reflection and
response team, varying the plan according to the issue. They each
had a board and a system for “grass roots” input. Many other
denominational groups joined in the projects, according to the
interest expressed by members and leadership.
PAYING ATTENTION 249
A new style of decision-making gave more flexibility to
congregations which wanted to be more active. In the old days, even
if there was not serious objection to a proposal, the idea would often
wiggle to a lonely death in the middle of the room, surrounded by
benign inaction. Now, “We counted the ‘Yes’ votes.” Examples
Variety of Human Services
“Human Services” is such a tiresome term, but it describes well
what is meant. The number of new religious-sponsored service
organizations since 1960 in metro Omaha is unprecedented in our
history. Indeed, this movement has no similar model in any era of
A precise comparison to other cities is not possible, as a
comprehensive look at caring services is seldom done. However,
metro Omaha’s record in this unique period is impressive.
The following pages contain descriptions of new organizations
which were planned by religious leaders or representatives and were
supported by various groupings of members.
Not one of these projects had the support of all church members.
Such is the nature of voluntary groups. If someone in a board
meeting wants to take sandwiches to the homeless the wise leader
counts the “Yes” votes to see if there are enough people to make it
happen. The others need to find their own project. Those who did
agree with a proposal on an issue formed the boards, volunteered as
needed to direct the work, and gave the money to finance it.
Each denomination had its own style. For example, in reviewing
the work of their denominations in this period, a leader of the
Episcopal Church said they tended to give money to established
agencies, the Lutheran pastor remembered that they tended to stress
direct help to specific programs and the United Church of Christ
leader said they identified projects which they urged local churches
♦ The Urban Studies Center was developed by churches in 1969 to
provide a setting for Nebraska and Iowa members to learn first-
250 OMAHA BLOSSOMS
hand about racial difficulties and to offer sensitivity training
sessions to businesses and industrial enterprises for helping their
employees deal with human relations.
The training for church members was bold and direct, but well
received. Many a farmer had never met a Charles Washington,
editor of the Omaha Star and long time activist, who had an unusual,
colorful and direct style of telling what it is like to live in a white-
controlled society as a black man. He was appreciated by rural folk,
much to the surprise of local white leaders who had encountered the
feisty Washington! Rural people were learning they had to be just as
plain spoken to survive and they appreciated a good model.
The ‘school’ was located in Clair Memorial United Methodist
Church, on north 25th Street. Subjects covered were: “Putting
urban issues in perspective,” “Black Revolution,” “Black
Capitalism,” “Racism,” “The church in the ghetto.” The Sponsors:
Roman Catholic, Episcopal, United Presbyterian, United Church of
Christ, Lutheran Church in America and the United Methodist
Church, which developed and guided the program.
♦ Religious groups backed state Senator Edward Danner’s Human
Rights Bill in 1969. It allowed city councils to enact ordinances
for the protection of human rights. Active supporters were
Lutheran Church in America, the Anti-Defamation League, the
Omaha Priest Senate and the Omaha Rabbinical Council, as well
as the Omaha Legal Aid Society and the Urban League of
♦ Franklin Credit Union, formed in 1968, was given staff support
and operational space by Wesley House in the Methodist
Community Center. The purpose of the program was to provide
consumer education, financial management and a system for
saving for northside citizens.
Distrustful of banks, and often treated poorly by haughty bank
personnel, many black citizens had no money account of any kind.
They soon learned that here was a place that could help them, and
when the Credit Union was discontinued through serious
mismanagement twenty years later African-American leaders were
ready to go into banks to work with white bankers, to become
bankers, and even to help organize a new credit union.
PAYING ATTENTION 251
♦ Project Equality began in 1967, with the purpose to persuade
organized religious groups not to purchase goods or services
from business firms which did not employ minority persons.
Money for the budget was contributed by Episcopal,
Presbyterian, Church of the Brethren, Lutheran, Jewish and
Methodist groups. Over 400 employers joined in the pledge.
When Project Equality closed down in 1973, the officers
presented their remaining funds [$2,000] to the Urban League to
support its jobs-skills bank. Operating like a bank with people as the
deposits, the directors connected qualified minority persons with
interested local employers.
♦ The Omaha Coalition Against Apartheid sought to put pressure
on South Africa during the apartheid struggle there. With broad
Christian and Jewish support, the coalition requested
denominational pension fund boards and the City of Omaha to
divest their investment portfolios of any corporation that did
business with South Africa. The Omaha City Council ordered
divestiture for city pension funds and asked other divisions of
government to do the same. Most religious pension boards
followed the divestment proposal.
♦ Laotian refugees who had escaped the turmoil in their country in
the late seventies found an uncertain future when brought to the
United States. Several Omaha congregations created local
committees to help specific families with clothing, housing, food
and language until they were able to find jobs. Methodist
Hospital is a creative example of employers who arranged for
work units with a director who could speak Laotian so that
refugees with no use of English could be guided in the strange
new world of American business employment.
♦ A clever church-related effort unmasked racial hiring practices in
Omaha. White and black volunteers contacted every business
which had several employees, with a simple interview question:
did this firm have any black employees? The Urban League
Guild printed a list of all who said “Yes,” making no reference to
those who were missing from the list.
On one weekend, those attending worship found on their
windshields a document titled, “Businesses of Good Will.” Several
252 OMAHA BLOSSOMS
employers who were not listed made strong objection, saying they
had found one minority person in their plant [!] or they were
planning on hiring one. The point was made and change effected.
♦ A significant religious organization coming out of the racial
trauma of the sixties was the Concerned Organized for Urban
Progress [COUP]. Vivian Strong, a fourteen-year-old black
child, was shot and killed by an Omaha police officer on June 24,
1969. The officer was fired and later reinstated. Bail was set for
only $500. The amount of bail enraged an already upset black
citizenry. “Stealing a loaf of bread, for a black person, brings a
bail of $300 or $400. What is one of our children worth?!”
Riots that summer on the streets of north Omaha drew passion
from the appearance of official indifference to a painful event.
♦ Black church response included four pastors who walked north
24th Street, day and night, for a long period. Individually, they
would engage angry young persons in conversation, listening,
urging a long-term perspective and pledging to stand with them
in confronting injustice. Their tireless witness was especially
When respected black leaders said, “We doubt the sincerity of
the power structure,” the religious community formed COUP, to
represent the wider community and make formal objection to city
officials from the wider community. COUP was created by the
religious community-relations offices named earlier: Catholic,
United Presbyterian, Lutheran, United Church of Christ, Jewish and
United Methodist, plus the Disciples of Christ Reconciliation Task
♦ In the late nineties and in a climate that called for new methods,
to reach both black and white church people, Trinity
Interdenominational Church organized other pastors and
churches in a plan to directly combat racism and to enable
ministery with the poor.
Can We Talk?
An example of unexpected decisions made in a tense church
setting is the 1969 session of the Nebraska United Methodist
Conference, which stands as a key historical moment for many in the
PAYING ATTENTION 253
community. Threats of racial riot, nationwide shouts for reparation
payments from white institutions to black groups, and local passions
met the state delegates as they filled Omaha First Church the first
week in June.
The term “Black Power” was born in this period and was quickly
adopted as a positive wording in the African-American community,
where citizens proudly began to refer to themselves as “Blacks.” It
replaced the “New Negro” consciousness language which dated back
to the twenties.
Informal hearings at Omaha First Church went into the night.
Black leaders spoke openly of their pain and hopes. Remarkably, the
white audience, most of whom came from all-white communities,
was able to set aside offensive language of demands for reparations,
without even attempting to respond, and to join with old and newly-
emerging leadership to state what the churches should do and could
Leadership teams, mostly white, had ‘perfected’ a dramatic plan
for the newly united denomination to adopt at the first all-Nebraska
meeting since forming. Some delegates “forgot to breathe” as they
witnessed these hardworking new committee chairs coming back to
the full session to state their carefully-honed proposal was not
Extended, confrontational debate identified several black-
supported projects. The leaders asked delegates to have their home
congregations give $100,000 a year in new money to make it all
happen. They did.
♦ A strong black-controlled bank, radio station and strengthened
credit union resulted from this initiative. Other religious groups
and a small but effective cadre of white business leaders who had
key contacts were essential colleagues in making it happen. The
fledgling credit union needed investment and several church
bodies in Omaha stepped in with critical deposits.
The bank, at 52nd and Ames, was managed on a most
conservative basis and succeeded. The radio station probably did
more than the other projects to change the esprit de corps of the
African-American community. They had a voice and their own
sound! The bank and radio station were eventually sold, but they
254 OMAHA BLOSSOMS
accomplished new objectives which were necessary for the seventies
From a safe distance, present readers may find it hard to imagine
the turmoil in the community and the personal risk of being visible
in that time. There were rumors that local [white business] money
was being distributed to encourage uprisings. No one knew what
weapons were on the street at a given time. [Thankfully, weapons
were not in the quantities to be found in the 90s!] Quotes from the
mayor, city council members, police administration and officers
came several times a day and highly volatile individuals were calling
for strong response from every side.
Changes were coming so fast not every one knew about them.
Some were on board and some were left behind. Nervous people
were wringing their hands that things would never be the same
again. They were correct.
One year later, on August 17, 1970, a bomb set off in a house
killed Officer Larry Minard. There was no doubt that it was a set-up,
with a phony call for police to come [to an empty house] to help in a
domestic disturbance. But there is continued doubt among many
citizens as to who did it.
The neighbors remember that the police had that house blocked
off for several days before the bombing, with much activity in the
vacant house, and then completely left it for the day of the bombing.
A 14-year-old child’s witness was critical to the prosecutor’s case.
Under pressure, he changed his testimony during the trial.
Community members observe that “Something was going on.”
The court said David Rice, a prominent young black Christian
activist, was responsible for the plan. To report fairly thirty years
later, one must say that those who knew him accepted the verdict as
the judgment of the legal system, but they still do not believe it.
They doubt the killer was a black person but they firmly state that
killing a police officer is a terrible act, totally unacceptable. “The
black community had to pay a price for this terrible act, and David
was nominated” is a common comment.
PAYING ATTENTION 255
The facts surrounding these two tragic deaths are no longer
relevant to feelings. The reality is that the ambivalence of black and
white citizens about the sad events affected the dialogue, trust level
and reactions in tense events for the next thirty years, and will
continue to be rehearsed within African-American walls every time
Rice and his friend, Poindexter, come before the penal system for
A large number of arrests of black citizens in north Omaha in the
next few weeks of 1970 added fuel to the passions. Omaha Human
Relations director Roger Sayers urged blacks and police not to
overreact to incidents and what was being said. An Omaha World-
Herald editorial stated: “We have to pick up the pieces of shattered
confidence and work harder to get along with one another.” 8-19-70
The next day the Sun Newspapers observed that “all of us lose a
little of our humanity” in such tragic events.
COUP leaders and black pastors tried to provide for venting
feelings and for a dialog that would help the community move on.
At a clergy forum that proved to be controversial, leaders made a
clear statement expressing sympathy and regret at the loss of life.
They then gave the floor to three black and two white citizens they
had invited to the forum. The guests were asked to “air their
grievances” to the ministers, without any judgment or response
The Omaha Police and the press were critical because the police
were not invited to be present and therefore could not respond to
complaints. The leaders of the forum felt the tension was so great
that they as pastors should provide for some time for protesters to
“vent” without a target or the anticipation of a defensive response. It
was a pastoral act, they stated. However, the media was there and
reported on what each critic said to the ministers. The police felt
that this put them in a most unfair position. No response was the
rule of the forum, but not of the community when citizens learned
about the comments.
Religious leaders made a public statement that citizens must deal
with tensions and that the police should take the lead in improving
police-community relations. Various voices called for minority
recruitment to the police force, a police-citizen dialog, and some
procedure by which persons who feel abused can file a complaint.
256 OMAHA BLOSSOMS
In the November between these two traumatic deaths, the
International Association of Chiefs of Police [IACF] completed a
review of the Omaha situation following the killing of Vivian Strong
by a police officer.
They said there is a “noticeable and disturbing chasm between the
police and the minority group persons they serve ..... Consultants
received the impression that the rank and file [officers] look upon the
concept of police-community relations as an isolated function
completely divorced and distinct from routine police operations. [A
program] will fail miserably if police officers are uninvolved ....”
The IACF had scores of recommendations. Their bottom line was
sobering: “We believe the prevalent attitude of the police mirrors
the greater attitude of the community as a whole.” [!] 80/11-24-69
A radical community justice group was formed by several black
citizens, hoping to organize protection of citizens by citizens. They
called for federal marshals to come to Omaha until accord was
reached. Nothing more happened.
♦ COUP  offered a $1,000 grant to start the process for
providing an ombudsman for the city of Omaha, to help citizens
work through their complaints. There was deep frustration
among those who felt that “No one hears my complaint.” One
black pastor’s observation symbolized the feeling: “They fire a
police officer for breaking windshields but not for breaking
Four years filled with diverse voices and carefully-strategized
official inaction passed before a new mayor called together a Task
Force with broad representation: police and ministers, black and
white, elected officials and neighborhood members. Addressing the
subject helped. However, the frustration about a power system
perceived to be unresponsive was a concern of many in the
community and feelings did not change.
Thirty years later, the issue of trust remains a major issue in North
Omaha. The gloss of many words is unconvincing and officials’
objections to possible effective solutions are evidence to residents of
intentional stonewalling. Black leaders feel the professional
evaluation by the International Association of Chiefs of Police has
not received adequate response by officials. They long for the day
PAYING ATTENTION 257
when arrest and punishment are not affected by the color of a
At heart, it is not an issue of police performance, for citizens feel
most do an excellent job. The issue is honest answers to troubling
questions. “How can I get dependable information, or know that an
unbiased person has reviewed the testimony?” is the type of question
often asked by earnest citizens.
Following an incident, the police have private investigations,
appropriately so. Persons know the full story is not available there.
A citizens commission was appointed, to investigate questions about
conduct of an officer. However, its members can not receive
confidential information. Again, this is appropriate because private
information can not be shared with a large volunteer group.
Therefore, the minority community is left with no assurance that
citizen questions have been answered. Distrust is increased, again
In the hope of solving the dilemma, the City Council authorized a
professional position, which had a record of developing trust in other
cities. They felt a Police Auditor could be the professional who
would review confidential material and assure the citizens that their
questions had been asked and answered in a satisfactory manner.
Even if they may not know the answer, troubled citizens can trust an
answer has been given. Hopefully, case closed.
Supporters of the concept hoped it would also relieve unjustified
criticisms of an officer in a much more efficient manner than the old
system. They feel good officers need support.
The concept has been well received among the minority citizens
but a few officials in Omaha express hesitation, which increases the
distrust. The implementation is too recent to be evaluated and the
future is not certain. However, no other alternatives for the
rebuilding of trust have been proposed.
♦ “Urban Update,” a consultation between black and white pastors
during the troubled times, provided data for white pastors to
share with their congregations. A one-day hearing at Augustana
Lutheran Church in November, 1971, brought angry critique of
the churches from black leaders.
258 OMAHA BLOSSOMS
They said “Black churches find it very comfortable to preach on
Sunday and to minister to the sick and dying.” White churches
“stick to their neighborhoods” and find it safer to give 100 baskets of
food on Thanksgiving than to be honest with the membership about
♦ Mad Dads was begun in 1988 by a coalition of Christian leaders,
in response to violence among young people. Strongly African-
American, but welcoming anyone, the movement has
emphasized the importance of adult role models and sensitive
leaders and has been bold to talk directly with gang members and
other threatening persons. Mad Dads has a favorable national
response, with units in other cities and a national organization.
♦ The leaders of every major Christian group in Omaha publicly
objected to the “October 6” attack on Israel in 1973, taking out a
half-page ad in the Omaha World-Herald [10-12-73]. The attack
was a major threat to the security of Israel, even though the war
♦ By any measure, the Salvation Army is the most remarkable
venture in religious volunteer human services in Omaha. They
have been active in Omaha since 1877, having come to Omaha
by the initiative of First Presbyterian Church . Family services,
mentoring for youth, daily feeding programs and plain good
caring reach thousands of persons a month. A new Adult
Rehabilitation Center enhances the staff’s ability to help addicted
persons adjust to life as they are coming off of treatment.
Christian without apology and including worshipping
congregations, the Salvation Army has earned and received the
respect of the broadest possible spectrum of businesses,
congregations, clubs and organizations. Their annual fund raiser has
every type of group ringing a bell. The dedicated efficient use of
those donations is not questioned.
♦ The Salvation Army and the American Red Cross are the heavy-
weights in our disaster response planning. Following the
national disaster of the September, 2001 terrorist attacks, citizens
are more mindful of the importance of the workers who prepare a
PAYING ATTENTION 259
response system that is appropriate for crisis situations. The
coordinating style of these two agencies is a great gift to the
♦ Boys Town was begun as a home for boys in 1917 but during
this period aggressively went into other areas of children’s need.
The Boys Town Institute for Communication Disorders for
Children has quickly developed a national reputation for quality
research in children’s disorders.
♦ Father Flanagan High School was founded in 1983 in North
Omaha by Boys Town and continued for fourteen years to
provide an alternative school for youth who were in trouble in
other schools. It was a bold venture, with a well-thought target
and heavy financial commitment, and was well-received by the
community and by the youth who were given help. Boys Town
made the decision that the money could serve better in a similar
♦ The Boys Club, to become the Boys and Girls Club, had good
church support when it was founded in 1961 as a place where
boys could release energy in a supervised setting. Its mission
was enlarged to give families support ~ especially single-parent
families as parents and family tried to provide a stable
environment for raising children. Boys and Girls Club
progressed to the point where it was able to purchase the large
Father Flanagan high school building in 1997.
♦ Masons and Protestant churches have built the Omaha Home for
Boys into a major institution providing youth services to boys
and girls. Begun in 1923, the Home has an impressive base
campus at 51st and Ames and created new programs in this
♦ Cooper Farms, an extension of the Omaha Home for Boys,
provides a similar range of services for boys and their families.
An example of creative service is a shared program with Uta
Halee to help boys and girls relate to each other in a supervised
setting, in preparation for a return to their schools.
♦ Uta Halee was formed in 1950 by what is now known as Church
Women United, a coalition of 14 denominations with a particular
emphasis on service. Uta Halee’s mission has been to serve
260 OMAHA BLOSSOMS
emotionally and behaviorally disturbed girls, ages 12 to 18, and
It is now the only agency in Nebraska dedicated to full-range
services for girls and, with families included, touches the lives of
nearly 1,000 persons a year. The service is unique in providing
programs all the way from consultation to psychiatric residence care.
♦ The United Methodist Community Center was especially
effective in organizing programs for children and youth since it
had a long-standing base in the community. Staff members have
been the advisers and movers for Franklin Credit Union, the
Community Bank, the black radio station, a housing program, an
urban business center and the Community Equity Corporation.
♦ Project Embrace, an ambitious initiative by Lutherans and
Presbyterians, provides a caring and tutoring program for
children. Local churches operate in their neighborhoods, inviting
children they feel could benefit by closer contact with a
♦ “Thrift Shops” provide an indispensable service in recycling
clothing and household items, allowing persons who have good
items to share them in a dignified way with those who can use
them. Most thrift shops have a religious base.
♦ COUP asked the United Community Services [USC] in 1969 to
set aside innovative dollars in each budget for emerging needs
and met with a favorable response.
♦ Urban League built a beautiful family services center at 30th and
Lake in the 90s, transforming a most unattractive corner.
Services offered include career mentoring of high school
students by business volunteers, disability and refugee
employment counseling, welfare-to-work skills, support for
minority youth in advance education, and advocacy for persons
having difficulty accessing social systems.
♦ Refugee services have been offered to several nationalities by
congregations in this period. It is tough duty! Housing, clothing,
employment and personal support are provided, usually with the
added challenge of a language barrier. The religious network has
been well organized, but was challenged with the influx of
hundreds of Sudanese who are victims of persecution. The
Sudanese have a difficult language and an unusual culture.
PAYING ATTENTION 261
♦ Several major community service agencies were born. For
example, three congregations in north Omaha joined in a
community-service venture in 1979 that directed services to
persons and families in the areas of Miller Park and Sherman.
United Ministries of Northeast Omaha [UMNEO] sponsored the
outreach of VISTA workers [Volunteers In Service To America],
national mission teams, and local volunteers, usually basing the
activities out of the facilities of the three congregations: Pearl,
Trinity and Asbury United Methodist Churches.
Pearl and Trinity are in integrated neighborhoods, about equal in
black and white residents, so their programs aggressively sought to
bring children and families together and to provide activities typical
of several congregations in this type of setting. A gymnasium gave
opportunity for after-school active games and basketball teams for
older students. Support groups are a strong program, plus help for
single mothers, Al-Anon, Ala-Teen, and caregivers.
♦ New Hope Bakery was created by UMNEO to provide job
training for young adults who had three strikes against them ~
expelled from school, did not complete another job-training
course, and fired from employment. Their remarkable teacher,
Bob McLaurine, was a professional chef as well as a retired
military man. He would quietly say to his board, “I can chew on
them pretty good,” helping to change work attitudes. In a group
of those who had so often failed, 80 percent made it to a
McLaurine’s hope that this could be a new minority business did
not come to fruition. The classes catered a good number of events,
but management-type leadership did not emerge to take it over and
help it blossom. However, the students moved on to jobs.
Commitment of congregations in difficult situations deserves
special mention in our historical experiences. Two congregations
are described here, as outstanding examples of a dedicated core of
members who dared to be innovative in the face of totally new,
Pearl Church, on North 24th Street near Fort, always had a
distinctive flavor. The members built the gym before the sanctuary
262 OMAHA BLOSSOMS
because the neighborhood needed a gym. Numerous prominent city
leaders were members and the congregation grew until it had 1,500
members in 1957. It had 835 ten years later, 338 members twenty
years later and 261 thirty years later.
What happened is called “White Flight,” which had devastating
effects on the community. In the late fifties, African-American
families began to buy homes in the area of 24th and Fort Streets and
move in. This was bold for it was early action, but the Federal
Housing Act of 1968 allowed all races to live wherever they chose.
Even before this, [white] real estate agents began to escalate the
fears and prejudice of the neighbors. Families could receive several
calls a week, seeking to list their home and reminding them that the
value of the property will soon drop precipitously. They were told a
quick sale was advisable.
Pastors and leaders in the area pleaded with members to stay put
and adjust to their new neighbors. If no one sold, the value would be
maintained and, indeed, if everyone could be motivated to fix up
their homes the value could possibly increase.
Most church members were willing to accept new neighbors but
they were very fearful of losing the equity in their homes. For some,
their home represented their entire retirement savings. Enough
residents did go for a quick sale that land values began to plummet,
which brought more calls from real estate agents urging very quick
action before the bottom drops out. The disturbing tremors in a
community with “For Sale” signs popping out of half the yards
created a deep depression among old-time residents and a most
unwelcome feeling among the new residents. ‘Slum Lords’ gained.
In that setting, each congregation made its choices. Pearl, like
several other congregations, chose to stay and to create new
ministries appropriate to new residents. Its members chose to talk
with each other instead of run and to support old and new as never
before. They would never be the same and the cost was great. They
report they found many of the changes to be a great blessing to them.
The second congregation was caught in the crossfire of personal
emotions relating to race. Augustana Lutheran Church, at 38th and
Lafayette, was a large congregation with a tradition of sensitivity to
different kinds of persons.
PAYING ATTENTION 263
The proposal [in 1965] seemed simple enough. The pastor asked
the church board to approve a plan to ask willing couples in the
[white] congregation to invite black couples from neighboring
churches to their home for dinner. That was it. The denomination
wanted to document how a local church can deal with a controversial
issue and received permission to come in to film the discussion at the
The film, “A Time for Burning,” included interviews with black
leaders. Released nationally, the film immediately gained popularity
as a good discussion-starter in local churches and had wide use. But
a few of the thoughts and feelings were too heavy for some
audiences and certainly provided too much publicity for the local
church where it centered.
The pastor resigned, a new ‘reconciling’ pastor worked with the
complex feelings for ten years, and the next pastor, who had earlier
helped them rethink their mission, found a church less than half the
original size. After a lengthy process in which they carefully
reviewed their options, the congregation found their top priority was
to stay in that location and to develop new ministries for its inner-
city neighborhood and for the wider community.
Augustana was one of the first to take on Laotian families, even
serving as the center gathering point for that population. During the
study process Augustana initiated the Danner Memorial Children’s
Center, an integrated pre-school in the church building. They have
openly engaged controversial issues and continue to be one of the
leading congregations in Omaha in openly dealing with issues of
peace and justice.
♦ Two denominations have used lobbyists in the state legislature.
The Roman Catholic Church has a long-standing program, with a
focus on such issues as abortion, civil rights, and parochial
schools. Lutheran churches in Nebraska had a lobbyist for
several years, official positions on subjects like farm legislation
and prison reform.
264 OMAHA BLOSSOMS
♦ Omaha Food Pantries provide an astonishing amount of basic
food items for hundreds of local citizens every week. Typically,
a family is given a three-day supply of food, with a twice yearly
limit. This is emergency help, not ongoing aid. An efficient
computer communication network prevents abuse and detects
heavy loads in specific areas. The production of the pantries is
remarkable, with a single pantry serving as many as 10,000
persons in a year.
♦ The first pantry in Omaha was organized in 1969, offered by
Lutherans from the First Lutheran site. The following year the
Presbyterians began a pantry at First Presbyterian Church and the
Episcopal pantry took shape at Trinity Cathedral.
♦ United Methodists organized at Pearl Church in 1972 and the
Roman Catholic pantry began in 1974. Organized labor had
major drives to support the pantry system beginning in 1975, and
began its own pantry in 1982.
♦ The Omaha Food Bank was developed by several leaders of the
pantries, to make use of food items which would be thrown away
by manufacturers or distributors. United Way gave early
support. Connected to the “Second Harvest” nationally, the
organizing group went directly to businesses for food and to
congregations for volunteers and budget.
A modest and inconvenient facility at 50th and Hamilton served
at the start. Today, a large and efficient warehouse at 68th and “J” is
the setting for managing surplus food. Generous corporate giving
has let the congregations “spin off” a project that is now the major
supplier of pantry needs, providing an even greater quantity of food
for not-for-profit kitchens in a 15-county area.
♦ National spending priorities brought many responses, including
the Nuclear Freeze movement in 1980. The devoutly-religious
group had a very simple message: since we now have enough
atomic weapons to destroy the world twenty times over, we
should not make any more. Freeze production of nuclear
weapons and use the money for neglected areas, such as feeding
It was a classic “Guns or butter” challenge to rethink priorities.
The group was small but they drew strong reactions, including that
PAYING ATTENTION 265
they obviously were communists or communist dupes [a favorite
term by which to sling mud without having to prove a thing], or they
were anti-defense of the nation and therefore they were un-
Freeze activists of course felt they were helping to save ‘America’
from itself and to reprioritize a national budget which was going out
of control. They felt the unprecedented growth of deficits in the 80s
threatened human services..
There was quite a bit of humor in it all, though no one was
laughing. The Republican Party adopted the Nuclear Freeze plan in
toto in its platform for the 1988 elections. The nineties have
brought serious questions about how we can take these weapons
apart, and what should ‘America’ do when Russia started selling
these old weapons to pay off its debts?
♦ The ‘grandfather’ of housing innovation locally would have to be
Kellom Knolls, north of the Creighton campus. Created by
Omaha Economic Development Corporation ~ another spin-off
of Wesley House ~ the original plan had a genius provision: this
would be a natural community, with a variety of ages and a
forced variety of incomes. Low income workers and Creighton
professors lived next to each other and formed a community
council. One test of success of this 40 year old venture: police
calls are minimal. Another test: the development is growing,
replacing a seriously blighted area.
♦ Holy Name Catholic Church created a housing program that
became a model for others in the city and in the nation. The
church set up a separate corporation with the mission to
rehabilitate housing in the neighborhoods surrounding the
Holy Name Housing was innovative and business-smart. The
basic financial plan was not hard to sell. We have countless stories,
from them and from others who followed, of families who were
given a boost financially as they improved their housing.
For example, an elderly person living on Social Security income
was hard-pressed to pay $300 utility bills in cold months. But it was
266 OMAHA BLOSSOMS
either that or leave. The housing corporation asked the home owner
for permission to install a new furnace, insulation, caulking and
storm windows. Using volunteers when appropriate, the project
possibly could be completed for a total cost $10,000. The low
monthly payments on the agreement and the new utility bills
combine to be less than the utilities alone were.
Programs like Holy Name Housing concentrate on a
neighborhood, to make more of an effect on attitudes and to restore
property values. Vacant houses that were solid structures even
though ragged in appearance were given by the city. The church
housing group did a “re-hab” and sold the house to a family who
now would be paying taxes as well as possibly going to a church.
Neighbors begin to fix up. Everyone wins.
♦ HANDS ~ Housing and Neighborhood Developers ~ took the
lessons learned from Holy Name and went one step further.
Leaders hired northside professional persons to work with
unskilled residents to rehab housing on a major scale. The city
benefited from the careful management and so could direct larger
sums to speed the work. In four years HANDS re-invested over
$4 million in neighborhoods of north Omaha. Unfortunately, a
new director could not comprehend the financial complexities of
the plan and folded the operation.
♦ Omaha Habitat for Humanity has built or rehabilitated over 100
homes since its founding in 1984. Clearly faith-motivated, the
movement is simple enough to declare we can all get together
around a hammer and complex enough to seek out and receive
properties while managing several simultaneous construction
projects. New owners pay the bills on their home, without
interest but with 350 hours of their own sweat equity. No
government subsidy is involved.
Another Habitat rehab is a former fire station at 22nd and Ames,
which provides an attractive and spacious central operations site.
♦ Mercy Housing creates new neighborhoods with attractive,
modest homes, filling unused land and giving low income
families a place of pride. They provide a growing asset in our
PAYING ATTENTION 267
♦ The Grace Project of New Communities Development has
created a stunning change in the area near 20th and Grace Streets.
Spun off by Wesley House and with church connections all over
the place, New Development leadership has a long history of
experiences in trying to provide good housing for those who can
not get a loan to buy. Their study and occasional failure led
them to a carefully constructed model. Apartment dwellers are
screened, taught how to do home repair and maintenance,
brought into neighborhood organization for personal support and
are given a new look at life.
This allowed the city to proceed with a comprehensive approach
for the nearby Logan-Fontenelle projects area, where all buildings
were cleared and a new neighborhood of beauty and pride is being
An Ames and 32nd Street site shows off another example of this
work. New Community also provides intensive consultation to
persons trying to start new businesses.
♦ A Catholic plan  to move Dorothy Day House in order to
provide better shelter for the homeless was challenged and
supporters had to fight for acceptance. The discomfort of most
citizens with homeless people, the objection of businesses to a
downtown facility, and the clear hope that the homeless would
not be induced to gather in “my” neighborhood extended the
discussions for about three months before approval was given to
locate at 20th and Cuming.
268 OMAHA BLOSSOMS
Active business support, with Lutherans helping, renovated the
♦ The present St. Francis House at 17th and Nicholas, with
facilities to provide temporary housing for women and children
as well as hundreds of meals daily, was built with strong
business and community support.
♦ Congregations have been instrumental in creating additional
housing for the elderly. Kountze Memorial, a good example,
created a non-profit corporation to secure federal building funds
and to manage the high-rise facility for low-income seniors near
their church location.
♦ Twelve homes for the elderly, specifically religious in operation,
offer assisted living services. Three religious groups have adult
day care centers.
Racial solutions are hampered by the segregation of residential
areas in the two counties. The historical reasons for the current
situation have been well documented. They are not helpful in
current solutions, though they are probably part of the motivation of
recent leadership to seek action.
The Omaha World-Herald provided excellent current documen-
tation that Omaha is a more segregated city than most cities its size.
80/9-25-01 Seventy percent of the 680 population blocks are under
10% minority or over 30%. Several are over 90% one race.
Segregated living greatly limits natural contact between races,
which is one of the most effective ways to improve understanding of
Mayor Fahey has stated we must address racial issues but we have
little effect on persons’ choices of where they live. He indicates the
real issue which we can address is improving people’s economic lot
in life. Omaha has a major challenge in its segregation. 80/9-25-01
♦ Parochial schools provide extensive, impressive educational
opportunities for children and youth. That story would be its
PAYING ATTENTION 269
♦ The private colleges and universities of Omaha continuously
provide new programs, well researched and staffed. For
example, the College of St. Mary has aggressively pushed for
women’s development and trained students on the critical
importance of civil rights.
♦ Creighton, which was a pioneer in direct action on matters of
race relations in the late 1940s, continues to be bold and
innovative in relating to the needs of the community. This is
remarkable for a national-oriented university, centered on highly-
respected professional training. It is obvious the vision of
programs for the new century will set a new standard for service
♦ UNO had operated a Head Start program which they wanted
someone else to take in 1973. Church leaders joined the board of
a new Community Development Corporation which could
implement that decision.
♦ Grace College of the Bible, founded in 1943, generated new
programs for a racially diverse community in the latter part of the
century. Students work through the Salvation Army to provide
tutoring for youth who are being left behind.
♦ A Presbyterian Seminary was established following the 1890s,
when growing Omaha had 17 Presbyterian churches, the most of
any denomination. It soon changed to provide the base for
Omaha University [now UNO] and continues today as a platform
for continuing education for church leaders.
♦ Omaha Lutheran Bible School, a three-year course of study,
provides training for laity as well as church professionals.
♦ Tutoring is another area that has developed so fast one can not
list all who are doing it. It is a model for direct intervention in a
young person’s life, listening and caring as well as teaching.
Adults give witness about how such ‘intervention’ turned around
♦ New Covenant Center in the 60s and 70s responded quickly with
Catholic support for a wide range of human services and
advocacy. They now let other agencies carry that mission and
focus on non-violence education. Programs to help youth
unhook from violent responses and a very strong offering of
spirituality for adults are the methods.
270 OMAHA BLOSSOMS
♦ Visiting Nurses are an excellent symbolic place to start with the
wonderful stories of how caring persons have developed new
ways of health care in recent years. Many who are ill are
homebound or too disabled to get out for regular health or
therapy care. Starting with the outreach of a few small groups
and continuing with hospital involvement, visiting nurses make a
tremendous quiet impact within Omaha.
♦ When Immanuel Hospital left its location near Ames, Lutheran
Churches spearheaded a movement to create the Community
Plaza for Human Resources, using the abandoned facility. A
wide variety of services, including medical offerings for nearly a
decade, were provided in that way.
♦ The Indian-Chicano Health Clinic was established in 1970 in the
parsonage of Gethsemane Lutheran Church near 20th and
Martha. Later moving three blocks south, it was a model of
caring for low-income persons. Supported largely by Lutheran
and Catholic sources, a staff of fourteen volunteer health
personnel from St. Joseph Hospital and Creighton provided the
critical services. Today, service clubs and other churches have
joined the effort, to help a fast growing Hispanic population
receive basic human services.
♦ Charles Drew Health Center [North Omaha] struggled in very
modest effects in the 70s, wrestled with overwhelming need and
far too limited resources in the 80s, and became the powerful ally
of the health field in the 90s. Every kind of medical need is
evaluated, treated or referred, through several outpoints as well
as the main clinic on North 30th Street. A sliding fee means the
most vulnerable of persons can find care.
♦ Nurses training experienced major changes locally in order to
meet the needs of the community. Specialties were added.
Training for technicians was upgraded. Bachelor degrees in
nursing greatly enhanced the offerings. As an example, the
School of Nursing at Methodist Hospital went through major
PAYING ATTENTION 271
transformation and accreditation procedures to become
♦ Hospital-initiated services and clinics would be a long printout!
Though none of the hospitals are controlled by a denomination,
most were created by a Christian group and are intentionally
religious in purpose and program. Hospitals do everything from
cancer support groups to Medicare and Medicaid counseling, to
elderly nutrition, to home geriatric care, to physical therapy and
rehabilitation, to equipment support for the disabled.
♦ Abortion Rights debate involved both medical and religious
communities and became a passionate debate. Demonstrations
were organized on two sides of the issue, with pickets committed
to regular times at clinics where the abortion procedure was
known to be practiced and counter-pickets committed to regular
times to help women move through the emotional gauntlet to get
into a medical building. Politicians were targeted for their
stands. Even candidates running for totally unrelated positions,
as the board of a natural resources district, received calls from
angry people, demanding to know how they stood.
Both sides are clearly committed to reducing the number of
abortions, but have not cooperated with each other to effectively
reach this mutual goal. Until some break in communication comes it
is apparent there will be more heat than light, more talk than action.
The listing of agencies means little unless we pause to think of the
people involved. Mrs. Alfrieda “Freddie” Ware, the director of the
Indian-Chicano health clinic described above, was an amazing
example of personal commitment to the Omaha community and its
people. A full-blooded Native American, she was not always paid
and she had no personal reserves. She was at serious financial risk.
At one point Freddie took a truck-driving course, qualifying her to
handle the big rigs. She needed a backup job if funds finally ran out,
as her kind of service can get lost in a large community. Who is the
advocate for persons like her? She said that when she had no place
else to turn a local congregation would come in with a gift for which
they had been working and the clinic remained open.
272 OMAHA BLOSSOMS
♦ Omaha was without any health service similar to Hospice until
members of one congregation took as part of their mission to
start a Hospice in Omaha. Members of First United Methodist
Church, Omaha, had read about a new way of serving persons
who are terminally ill. Family members and friends, especially
from places like London, reported it was a blessing when health
care was tailored to the person who acknowledged that her or his
life is short and to the family members who will share whatever
life is left.
First Church set aside several thousand dollars in its budget each
year starting in 1976, to “sell” the idea to the medical community.
Physicians and nurses who supported the concept were the first to
say that medical staffs were very resistant to the idea. They had
been trained to get people well and some felt it was against their oath
to “give up” on recovery and prescribe drugs which would keep the
person comfortable but could become addictive.
Humorous stories were shared over coffee about patients near
death who urged their physicians not to give them morphine to ease
the pain “Because the last thing I want is to become hopelessly
addicted.” That brought smiles, but no change.
Each year, a different internationally-known medical expert was
flown into Omaha to address the medical societies on the subject of
Hospice. One operated a highly-acclaimed Hospice in Toronto,
another was a London consultant. Medical society members made
the arrangements and the church paid all the bills for a few years. As
the resistance in the medical staff decreased, their members’ funding
increased, until the only involvement of the church was to provide
for a temporary public “hotline” and a small office until Hospice
providers could be organized.
Thirty years later, Hospice is an integral part of the medical
offerings of Omaha. Its benefits have gone well beyond what those
first dreamers thought could happen.
♦ COUP members completed an extensive study of welfare in 1970
and presented their findings to the Douglas County Board. They
PAYING ATTENTION 273
interviewed directors of programs in other states as well as local
clients. Too often clients were tied up in the workings of
bureaucracy, both public and private. Many clients, they found,
were intimidated by remote offices, short hours and harsh
attitudes. Some were not intimidated and took advantage of the
system. The report was well-received.
♦ An Omaha Women’s Job Corps Center was funded for Omaha in
1969 and the providers located the program in two downtown
hotels. Church members groaned at the dignified but negative
response from the Chamber board: “The present location must
be considered a disruptive influence, hampering the continued
business development and orderly growth of the principal area of
♦ The Afro Academy formed in 1969 and was supported by Our
Saviour Lutheran Church. The congregation soon gave their
building to the Academy, which was an outlet for black actors
who felt they were not able to get into community theaters at that
♦ Our Saviour’s Urban Center sponsored a “Surviving the Future”
program in cooperation with Dana College. The credit course
was to acquaint students with the “real world” of inner city street
life. Near the end of the course each student was given $3 and
told to survive in the urban scene for 36 hours. Students
witnessed bizarre scenes of “hopeless” addicts and their
associates. In the evening, with no place for a bed, some sold
their blood for $5. They had fresh questions about the options
are for discouraged people.
274 OMAHA BLOSSOMS
♦ Our Lady of Guadalupe is the premier example of service to and
with Hispanic people. It is a complete, comprehensive program.
♦ La Casa del Pueblo ~ the house of the people ~ is just that.
Located on South 24th Street, organized and supported by the
United Methodist Church, it provides activities for children,
sewing classes for mothers, English and/or translators for those
who want it, and a connection to familiar culture.
♦ The Jewish Community Center offers one of the most
comprehensive programs of services to the community.
Churches and synagogues provide an extensive system of
religious-based counseling services.
♦ The Eastern Nebraska Human Services Agency [ENHSA] and
the Eastern Nebraska Office On Aging [ENOA] may seem out of
place here but they are life-giving extensions of the determined
efforts by congregations, beginning in the 1870s, to develop a
public policy that the crises of people deserve the attention of the
entire community. Both groups wrestle with human service
needs which have no easy answer and creatively use religious
and community volunteers to plan, evaluate and implement
ENOA, for example, has offices to develop strategies in five
counties: senior companions, foster grandparents, services to help
keep a person in their own home, handyman volunteers,
transportation for the elderly, library and entertainment for those
lacking mobility, assisting families caring for individuals with
dementia, case management for difficult situations, counsel on senior
care options, Meals on Wheels and nutrition services, employment
possibilities, respite care to relieve providers in the home, health
maintenance, and advocacy when programs do not meet the need.
Their comprehensive caring for the elderly is an amazing
contrast to life without community support in the 1870s!
PAYING ATTENTION 275
♦ The Omaha Housing Authority [OHA] high rise occupants, when
asked in 1970 what needs were not being met well, put worship
services high on the list.
After an initial debate about separation of church and state, OHA
offered the room and a coalition of Christian groups planned a
schedule and assignment providing a service in every home each
Sunday afternoon. The first participants were Lutheran, Baptist,
United Church of Christ, United Methodist, Roman Catholic and
♦ “Adjusting to Divorce” seminars began in 1973, sponsored by
United Methodist and Lutheran Metro Ministries and supported
by Family and Child Services of Omaha. Leaders were unable to
find one single congregation willing to provide space for this
controversial subject so the first sessions were held in Northern
Natural Gas facilities.
The six-session offering became so popular that five years later
congregations were asking to be co-sponsors in their own buildings.
The course was well-researched and became a national model.
♦ A spin-off was an “Adjusting to Widowhood” course, begun in
1974. “New Beginnings” is a Catholic-sponsored course which
began in that time and has been enthusiastically received in the
♦ New Creations is an ambitious, well-planned half-way house,
with a focus on addiction, operated by Mount Sinai Baptist
♦ The same group of sponsors cooperated with Joslyn Museum to
provide the “Omaha Flow System” in 1973. The basic premise
was that anyone [!] should have a chance to try out being an
♦ “You Are the Star” and “Shine Out” were the titles and the
message for arts opportunities for children in low-income
families. Trinity United Methodist became the site for an annual
offering of classes in music, art and drama, led by well-known
professional artists of the community.
276 OMAHA BLOSSOMS
♦ Social work was determined to be a major need in Omaha’s near
north side and Wesley Church was built at the same site as the
oldest social service group in the country, to emphasize the close
relation that exists between worship and service. The combined
agency played a major role in the work of the civil rights
movement described in a later chapter.
♦ The Evangelical Lutheran Church of America moved its
headquarters for Bethphage Mission to Omaha in 1992. A long
history in Nebraska as well as nationally gives Bethphage
Mission a special niche in records of services to persons with
developmental disabilities. Work is done in eleven states.
♦ Adoption services are provided by Child Saving Institute [CSI], a
creation of the Disciples Church, the Jewish Community Center
and Catholic Charities. CSI trains and counsels foster care
parents, an important component in serving children in disrupted
♦ Professional legal counseling is used by Hispanic residents to
help them relate to the Immigration Service. The strategy was
developed by United Methodist Ministries in 1999 and operates
with volunteers from several denominations.
♦ Shelter and counsel for women and children in abusive relations
is provided in a secure location by Catholic Charities.
♦ Organizations such as Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and Ala-Teen
simply would not have made it without congregational support.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving was not organized nationally as
a religious group, but it was formed in Omaha by active
members of Jewish and Christian congregations, to try to do
something about unnecessary death and injury on streets and
highways. Support for victims of this crime involves
congregations and pastors.
♦ Campus of Hope is a quiet spot on North 16th Street with a
dynamite punch. The very attractive campus has four connected
building pods surrounding a flowering courtyard. This creation
of Catholic Charities is our main local facility for the treatment
of drug addiction.
PAYING ATTENTION 277
Campus of Hope provides facilities and staff for 84
patients/clients, who range from the woman who wants to become
drug free to the man shaking with delirium tremens, brought in by
police to dry out. Every type of drug addiction is included in the
program. The author is in position to verify that this campus saves
taxpayers millions of dollars every year, in present and future costs.
Five major “Community Services” offices, established to be
specifically religious, were listed earlier as forming the catalyst for
church and synagogue initiatives in response to the trauma of the
1960s. Incredibly, all five continue strong programs and have active
plans for the new millennium. It is interesting that they remain the
five major cooperative religious groups for research and response to
The programs for the five agencies in 2001 are as follows.
♦ Catholic Charities provides Domestic Violence services, with a
shelter for abused families, Campus for Hope drug treatment,
counseling centers, intensive family therapy, food pantry, HOPE
for women to gain skills and escape poverty, adoption, low
income apartments, clothing and services for the poor, including
a volunteer program, immigration counseling, business and work
advice, and food and support services for Hispanic persons and
♦ Presbyterian Outreach is the new name for Presbyterian Metro
Ministries and provides volunteers and program for respite care,
a large inventory of medical equipment for loan to individuals
and families, scholarships to help inner-city youth [usually non-
church] to go to summer camp, School of the Arts, which
currently has 350 children in sessions that introduce them to the
arts and help them develop artist skills, and a prison ministry
which delivers gifts to Nebraska prisoners at Christmas and
provides an art course for youth offenders who are in corrections
♦ Lutheran Metro Ministries continues its key role in the pantry
program with three outlets, supports Project Embrace, the
comprehensive youth support program established in the 80s,
Dorothy Day House for daytime service for homeless persons
278 OMAHA BLOSSOMS
who do not usually use the night shelters, emergency assistance
for a wide variety of needs, and information referral information
for resources in housing, jobs and education.
♦ The Jewish Community Center is the only one of these located in
west Omaha. The Jewish Federation is an umbrella for the
community center, drama and arts, services to elderly who are
well, the Rose Blumkin home for residential care, family
services including counseling and adoption, a social center for
adults, physical exercise facilities, a center for child
development, teen social and educational offerings, a day school,
and a very ambitious program of education for adults, children
♦ United Methodist Ministries is the umbrella for La Casa del
Pueblo and the extensive Hispanic ministry in south Omaha and
at Grace Church, Wesley House which has a present focus on
education for youth who are in difficulty and also has a variety of
family services, the community center operated by Clair Church
on Ames Street, after-school programs at Trinity and Dietz, and
the new Justice for our Neighbors, which provides attorneys and
trained volunteers to help sort out the situation for hundreds of
persons, through the Immigration Legal Clinic.
A plug for volunteers is appropriate. If a reader would like to
help in any of the current programs in this chapter, be assured that
volunteers and funding are the two most difficult challenges in these
projects. Training for new skills is available.
Organizing for Study and Action
Religious groups take moral positions which are well thought out
and often are a product of centuries of private reflection and open
discussion. However, they are notorious for not trusting each other
for cooperative efforts. Ask any members if they are ecumenical in
thought and action and they will be quite positive in response, but
will be able to think of only a few specific examples.
They have sung together at a Thanksgiving Service and prayed
together for healing of illness or to counter violence. They have
PAYING ATTENTION 279
actually cooperated in only a few matters, even when as non-
controversial as supporting motherhood. Members tend to keep their
ecumenical initiatives [defined as among Christians] in their pastors’
names. Their inter-faith interests [defined as relating various faiths
such as Christian, Jew, Hindu and Moslem] are difficult to discover.
Only two community-wide interfaith worship services were held in
the last twenty years.
This lack of cooperative response has allowed evil to prosper on
too many occasions, as witnessed by religious leaders for centuries.
The social ills of the middle ages were the subject of continuous
prayers, but the praying congregations seldom organized to give
relief to the victims. From the beginning evidences of slavery in this
country, strong moral stands were expressed, but they organized too
late to save the nation from establishing an economic system which
depended on slavery. Religious people did organize to change state
laws, and New England churches cooperated to change the slave
vote in Kansas.
Pastors in Germany have said that if the Christians and Jews had
organized to resist the patently immoral goals of Hitler he would
have been stopped in the mid-thirties. Martin Niemoller, a national
leader of Christian Churches in Germany, made eloquent witness to
his belief that Christians could have stopped the Holocaust if
congregations had cooperated in major resistance. He said they
remained silent as each group was attacked. “By the time the Nazis
came for me, there was no one left to protest.”
Can anyone doubt that the congregations of Omaha could have
stopped Tom Dennison in his control of the city? By 1912, citizens
knew enough of what was happening to realize that criminal
elements were taking charge. The evidence was in print, in the daily
newspapers. Members of congregations were being shaken down.
Pastors pecked at little sins because that was what people could
A pastor who pounded on the pulpit against alcohol was declared
to be bold. Obviously, he could have been a complete coward.
Boldness would have been to move past what everyone agreed to
and speak to the greed which was driving the system.
280 OMAHA BLOSSOMS
Organizing in a time like that would have involved extensive
research by members, not just pastors, study of consequences by
members and disciplined dialog with members in every congregation
in town. It probably would not have come to a showdown. Tom
Dennison was smart and would not have confronted strong
organization. He moved into a vacuum.
♦ Several cooperative efforts have been organized in Omaha,
mostly among clergy. Omaha Metropolitan Association of
Churches was an honored long-time association of mainline
congregations following WW II. The Association initiated a
number of activities which cultivated ecumenical friendship,
with a special emphasis on clergy training. A central office, with
Dr. Ernest Smith as Executive Director, provided visibility in the
community. It was a movement ‘on the side’ and slowly faded
♦ The Greater Omaha Clergy Association [GOCA] is an extension
of the association of churches. Its main focus is to provide a
forum in which community leaders may address clergy. The
membership has always been very broad, and small in numbers.
Companions to GOCA are numerous regional ministerial
♦ The Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance of Metropolitan
Omaha [IMA] was created in 1976 by black pastors of north
Omaha, but it is open to all ministers of the city. Its mission is to
do together what a congregation can not do alone: plan
community celebrations of faith and speak plainly about
The united voice is of the pastors, not their congregations. Each
year, IMA sponsors a large community event and a worship service
to honor the memory and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The
proceeds are used to help families with emergency needs.
♦ ISAAC was born in the 80s. The Interfaith Social Action
Advocacy Council was Jewish, Catholic and Protestant, black
and white, east and west Omaha, university chaplains and
pastors. The group studied justice issues within the community
and involved as many as possible in seeking responses.
PAYING ATTENTION 281
Coach Tom Osborne was key note of a breakfast gathering that
focussed on inner city questions and the group also was invited to
come to rural communities to consider the challenges to agriculture.
These associations have had a positive effect and are appreciated
by many pastors. However, they have not been effective in dealing
with community problems and did not involve laity in those
For ten years, pastors of several denominations met regularly to
study and discuss how to represent religious values in a more
effective way in the community. They decided an organization
would have to be broadly based ~ including representation from
several faith-groups, at least three races, and all the areas of Omaha.
Such a group would have to be committed to listening to the grass
roots for ideas, to extensive dialog with members of other
congregations and to researching every selected subject so
thoroughly that the data could not be successfully challenged.
♦ The result of the extended study was the formation of Omaha
Together One Community [OTOC], an association of 43
churches and synagogues in metro Omaha. OTOC was created
in 1990 for the purpose of giving a stronger voice to citizens who
are left out in public policy, and for community improvement. It
sought and received professional leadership from the Industrial
Areas Foundation, a national corporation which specializes in
community improvement through congregations and is assisting
studies and activities in seventy cities in the United States.
OTOC was immediately challenged as a power group that was
“too radical,” had a “paid organizer” and was intent on “creating
trouble.” The press had complimented churches for speaking out, or
chided them for failing to speak out, on subjects such as Auschwitz,
racial practices, gambling, gun control, open housing, drunk driving,
pornography, soil and water conservation, women’s rights, and
refugee resettlement. Religious leaders were brought to fell that
doing more than talk appeared to be a threat to community leaders
who hopefully would be grateful for the help.
Leaders of the congregations were criticized when a few in civil
authority stated that speaking out on issues represented “power.”
282 OMAHA BLOSSOMS
OTOC members were told in the press that citizen power was
somehow not consistent with the power of prayer.
OTOC members spoke plainly but they were committed to doing
their homework. They did indeed pray, and the broad constituency
was regularly involved in study, prayer and discussions in the
homes. Major issues in the 90’s were library services, youth and
education, safe housing, job training, sewer separation, police-
community relations, the new OPS plan to replace the de-seg
program in 1999, and the convention center/arena proposal.
OTOC decided in 2001 to be advocates for better working
conditions for Mexican immigrants, who were afraid to speak for
themselves. Though many charges were filed against the employers
for grossly unfair practices on a vote to help resolve working
conditions, the intimidation worked and the legal process is slow.
The community at large did not seem to care about the abuses.
OTOC was criticized for being involved in an issue that is not
popular. The criticism is complex and, again, carries its own humor
and questions. The prophets in scriptures did not have popularity as
their first priority.
Success in some of these issues was obviously greatly helped by
having a city-wide constituency. However, of greater importance
within the movement is the excitement a large number of citizens
feel when they begin to study, discuss and speak to serious issues of
the community. The community has several voices which object to
citizens’ action, so the enterprise will never be non-controversial,
whatever the subject. Open discussion, with a some sense of humor,
may help the entire community to work together.
A Tornado Brings Omaha “Together”
The Tornado Task Force, created within three days after a May 6,
1975, tornado, “was the largest cooperative effort of religious groups
in over twenty years,” according to its chairman, Dr. Alva Clark. 80/
7-19-75. Less than 1% of the donations was spent on administration.
The congregations’ representatives and agencies cooperated fully
with each other, so that credit for programs is difficult to assign. In
general, the Red Cross took the load of the first emergencies and the
congregations accepted responsibility for long-term care.
PAYING ATTENTION 283
A partial list of the work of Christian and Jewish congregations:
offerings to provide extra support for food pantries, feeding stations
in churches, hot meals delivered, storage for belongings of victims,
child care, clothing, lost and found center, and mental health
counseling which continued for years. Door-to-door volunteers
looked for persons who were in too much shock to ask for help.
Hundreds of volunteers, from lawyers to carpenters, were recruited
and put to work.
Mennonites from several states came to lend their expertise in
home-building. They worked for two months, during which time
congregations provided their meals.
Probably the most surprising fact of this task force is that it is
stronger 25 years later! When the work was done and life could get
back to some kind of normalcy, the treasurer had a large sum of
money left over. Leaders of the congregations which funded it
reasoned that donations had been given for an emergency and
therefore the reserves should be used in a similar manner in order to
keep faith with those who donated.
♦ With this objective, they created Together, Inc., whose mission is
to respond to emergencies that the county, city, and
congregations are not meeting. Cooperating closely with the
pantries, for example, the new board found there were families
who had a crisis far beyond three days of food. Travelers
stranded in Omaha because of accident or theft, and new
residents for whom the expected job was delayed are two
examples of persons for whom Social Services can provide little
Together had several tough years, when congregations forgot
about emergencies of strangers in our midst. The county was most
grateful for a place where desperate people could turn, so provided
some funds, but they were never more than 10% of a very tight
budget. Together became expert in sorting out transient abusers who
are adept at hitting a busy pastor for $10 for gas. Wary pastors sent
Together a lump sum and began to refer the transients.
In the nineties the business community joined the congregations
in seeking an appropriate building and a stronger financial structure.
Together, Inc, continues to have one of the broadest community
284 OMAHA BLOSSOMS
bases for emergency reference in Omaha and operates out of an
excellent facility at 16th and Cass.
Omaha Public Schools faced a court-ordered desegregation plan
in 1976. The Chamber of Commerce was concerned about public
acceptance of the plan and took some bold steps toward that end.
♦ “Concerned Citizens of Omaha” was formed by religious leaders
to give support to the Chamber emphasis. They urged pastors to
encourage action within their membership and held events, such
as a rally in Elmwood Park, with a picnic and school jazz band
In June before the critical September of the new ‘de-seg’
program, church leaders stated in the Omaha World-Herald:
“The road [for our community] does lead somewhere. It
can lead to more distrust and fear and separation. Or, we
would like to think that in Omaha the road can lead to
cooperation, peace and an honest willingness on the part of
citizens to agree to implement integration peacefully and
Though gentle “encouragement” seemed to be the safer order of
the day, there were those who had clear focus and intent in helping
the de-seg program. Katherine Fletcher, the new [African-
American] principal at Laura Dodge School near 90th and Maple,
knew she and her school had one year to prepare for whatever busing
would bring. She was a bit apprehensive when the white pastor from
across the street came to see her.
The visit began a beautiful experience. The Rev. Tom Perkins
wanted to know what he and his congregation could do to help. She
and he devised an interesting plan. He invited all the pastors of the
area and she invited other principals to a joint strategy session.
“What challenges/opportunities will we be facing?”
Quietly and thoroughly they worked on the questions and
solutions. What if a large number of children from Lothrop, their
partner school, were stranded at Dodge because of a storm? What if
PAYING ATTENTION 285
a single child were stranded? What will happen when a child
becomes ill and soils her/his clothing ~ with home miles away?
Members of the churches joined with the teachers in answering
every question. They developed a list of volunteers who had access
to snowmobiles and could take an apprehensive child home after a
crippling snow. Homes were signed up as safe places. Clothing in
various sizes was brought to the school. Extra food was stocked by
At Lothrop, after exchange visits by teachers, students and
parents, similar plans were in place. There were problems in the first
year of busing, but at these two schools the principal remembers
with gratitude the problems were not racial.
The de-seg plan was continued for 23 years, when it was replaced
by a neighborhood attendance plan, removing forced busing. The
action is much too recent to evaluate. Criticism and praise abound,
but obviously the several-year plan is not yet fully implemented.
The significant factor for congregations is the high commitment
of school, community and religious leadership to work together to
improve the quality of education, especially in low-income
neighborhoods. That is the crux of the matter. Success will not be
possible without strong support from parents and community leaders.
We will close this section with one of the most fiery issues in the
seventies. OHA proposed “scattered-site housing” to help relocate
low income families. That meant the families could be settled
anywhere in the city. Angry and sometimes abusive letters and
phone calls kept the media bubbling.
♦ Religious leaders responded, urging more temperate
“For the past 12 years, we have worked in this community
and have been involved in .... the issues that had to be faced:
the riots in the late sixties, police-community relations, the
striving for quality education, open housing, a just distribution
of United Way funds, full employment, housing, adequate
health care for all, crime prevention, emergency food
286 OMAHA BLOSSOMS
services, and improved legislation for the poor, the divorced,
the imprisoned ....
“All of these issues have made some kind of impact ....
But in every instance there were confrontations.
Confrontations with fear and prejudice; confrontations with the
demand ‘to leave things as they are’ ....
“There, just under the surface, goading our anger and
often robbing us of reason, were the negative feelings of
class and race .... the suspicion of those different from me.”
[80 - Another Point of View, 6-13-78]
The article serves as an excellent summary of major issues which
confronted Omaha citizens and congregations from 1965 to 1980.
Omaha has been spared regular negative publicity created by hate
groups. Though statements have not been public, support for the
attitudes of such groups has been privately voiced in relation to three
classes of people: African-American, Jewish and gay persons.
When an anti-gay “Christian” group came to Omaha to call for
the destruction of gays, several congregations strenuously objected.
But many members have lamented that when a gay is cruelly killed
another member will say, “That is one less of them.” Similar, but
fewer, cruel comments are made about Black and Jewish persons.
The personal failure, according to several of these members, is
that he/she did not object to the statement. “I would rather keep the
peace than challenge someone.” National trackers of hate groups
have stated that the silence of good people has allowed the groups to
grow and survive. The sin of silence has allowed some abhorrent
attitudes to grow. Gratefully, Omaha has many positive witnesses.
Omaha has a Hate Crimes office as part of the city administration,
as one of five national pilot projects.
♦ A bold new project, giving an anti-dote to hate and prejudice by
lifting a person who proclaimed a positive dream and dared
society to take action, the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial is a
major redevelopment of 24th and Lake Streets.
PAYING ATTENTION 287
The project will feature quality displays and a state-of-the-art
classroom for use by schools and congregations. It is a cooperative
plan by Christians, Jews, businesses and the city of Omaha.
Native American Ministries
The status of Native Americans has been at the bottom of the
totem pole in the class structures of United States. That is definitely
the case in Omaha. Black and Hispanic movements have helped
those persons gain some access through the doors of systems, but the
status of native peoples has changed little.
Impatient for quick access to land, the federal government
foolishly promised to care for all the descendents of a few tribes “as
long as grass is green.” Worse, in demeaning paternalism, the
Bureau gave land to Indians, declared them unable to manage it, and
then pocketed the millions of dollars profit from the forced
agreement. One is hard put to find a treaty which was kept.
Since this book deals with religious connections and local Native
Americans specifically ask that they not be confused with the Native
American Church [Oregon], the term ‘Indian’ will be used for
Accounts from pioneer days told of many actions of religious
people in relation to the native peoples. Several Christian
denominations have maintained churches and agencies on Indian
reservations since that time. However, there was not a concerted
effort to plan a better way until the changed mode of planning of the
last forty years.
♦ In the seventies, Interchurch Ministries of Nebraska [IMN], the
only statewide organization open to all denominations, raised the
question of more effective Indian ministry. IMN does not
provide a program or even the question. It provides the umbrella
for discussion when a denomination wishes to ask others for help
and it can give guidance to developing a response if requested.
Each project has its own ecumenical coalition.
The openness ~ and the humor ~ of this process is well illustrated
in the proposal by one of the denominations to have conversation
with Indians. IMN officers met with Indian representatives and
shared their intentions: “How can we help? We are not here to
recruit new church members, but to assist if we can or get out of the
way if we can not.”
288 OMAHA BLOSSOMS
The immediate response was a request for help, but with the
additional request that every tribe and group should be at the table.
“We can not represent each other like you can.” [Like who can?]
The church representatives naturally agreed to expand the group.
How many places at the table will that take? After some
consultation, the Indians answered: “Twenty six.” Indians privately
enjoy their observation about Custer’s mistake: he thought he was
meeting with a committee. It was a group.
The total group ~ Indians, church leaders and Nebraska state
officials ~ met and developed a variety of plans into which went a
great amount of personal effort and church resources. Nebraska’s
Indian Commission was developed at this time. Extended help was
given to persons who really needed it, but the frustration and failures
were many and continuous. It was 26 interests, often not related.
♦ A recurring request was to establish Indian churches in Omaha
and Lincoln. Eight denominations joined in 1989 in one of the
most unusual negotiations in Nebraska Christian history. None
would have any chance to benefit from the venture. The
membership would be in the local Indian church and not in any
denomination. No participation in any denominational projects
was anticipated, nor did it happen. The eight: Episcopal,
Lutheran, United Methodist, United Church of Christ, American
Baptist, Church of the Brethren, Christian-Disciples of Christ,
A full-time ordained clergy, preferably Indian, would be
provided, to be shared by congregations in Omaha and Lincoln.
Native traditions and spirituality would be respected and
incorporated into the services. The denominations committed to
several years of financial support, to give the venture a chance, and
agreed to provide a consultation team for each congregation.
In Omaha, the Lutherans offered a fine building at a low cost.
The Disciples of Christ offered to pay for it, plus some renovation.
Work teams from Omaha congregations came to do the labor and to
enjoy the fry bread offered by excited members of the new
congregation. Two full-blooded Indians have been among the
Many excellent services have been provided by the Omaha Indian
Church to the Indian community. However, the large building
PAYING ATTENTION 289
proved to be too much to handle, so it was sold and the congregation
moved to share facilities with Castelar Presbyterian Church. The
Omaha pastoral duties have been split off from Lincoln and are
shared by Lutheran and Episcopal ministers. The congregation
depends on the support of Omaha congregations for its leadership
A major addition to the Omaha scene in the last part of the
twentieth century was the establishment of congregations which
were in addition to Christian and Jewish.
Hindu citizens organized in 1992 and were able to establish their
temple at 130th and Arbor Streets in 1994.
The Omaha World-Herald reported 700 names on the mailing list
of the Hindu temple. 10-17-98 Closest neighbor congregations
are in Kansas City, Minneapolis and Denver.
Most Omaha Hindus are Indian immigrants, so “the temple is a
social, cultural and educational center as well as a house of worship.
The major Hindu holiday of Diwali ~ “the Festival of Lights” ~ is in
the fall and “combines ... the puja [worship service], a business
meeting, folk dancing and food.”
A congregation leader said the temple provides children with a
sense of identity, that “Children need to have a base, and new people
gain a sense of belonging.”
Moslem Services recognize another interesting addition to our
community, from a different culture. The Islamic Center of Omaha
began on the UNL campus and now holds services on North 72 nd
Street and is planning ambitious expansion.
Baha’i claims to be interfaith on its own. Baha’i respects the
prophets and historic spiritual leaders of Jewish, Christian and
Moslem movements, as well as many others. Since all serve the
same God, Baha’i teaches that the groups are equal and can meet
together under the Bahai umbrella.
A Baha’i congregation has met in Bellevue and a new
congregation has formed on North 60th Street in Omaha.
290 OMAHA BLOSSOMS
We began this chapter by stating that in the last forty years of the
20th century, congregations in Douglas and Sarpy Counties
accomplished an amazing feat. They responded to racial and human
needs crises by creating dramatically more programs and agencies
than at any time in our history. Nothing compares with it.
The list of projects is not complete, for it does not include efforts
in smaller communities and the unpublicized actions of many of our
500 congregations. These actions also represent new ways of
response to people’s questions and needs.
We have described well over 100 initiatives and new
organizations, symbolic of sensitivity to human hurt and of the desire
to develop the promise of persons’ potential.
Whatever our shortfall in such a challenge, it is time to celebrate.
We have been paying attention to one another, have gained some
ground, and know how to keep going.