Irvine Church Hits a Theological Trifecta

Times Staff Writer

There’s an Irvine house of worship that changes religions at least once a week.

Irvine United Congregational Church sports golden crosses for Sunday morning services. Jewish High Holidays see it transformed into a sanctuary for Congregation Kol HaNeshamah, filled with Torahs, ram’s horns and yarmulkes. And Friday afternoons, worshipers carefully unroll prayer rugs onto the floor of what becomes the United Mosques of Irvine.

“Our theology is inclusive,” says the Rev. Steven Swope, acting minister of the Christian congregation that owns the church. He believes it is one of the few of its kind in the nation with a tripartite arrangement.

“Jesus is our way,” he said, “but other people have other ways. This is our way of living that out.”


Although there are increasing examples of Christian and Jewish congregations using the same worship space, experts say it is far less common to see either group sharing with Muslims.

Benjamin Hubbard, a professor of comparative religion at Cal State Fullerton, said the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians had made Jews and Muslims more wary of each other. And for many conservative Christians, he said, theological and cultural differences make closeness to Muslims rare.

“My hunch is that examples [of cooperation] are few and far between,” Hubbard said. Irvine United Congregational Church, he added, “is kind of a harbinger -- I believe there will be more.”

There are, of course, less idealistic reasons for space sharing.

“I think it has as much to do with cost factors and land restrictions” as with faith, said Joseph DiMento, a professor of law and planning at UC Irvine. “Religion is thriving in Southern California ... but, as you know, land costs in this area are very, very high.”

That certainly was a factor in Irvine United Congregational’s plunge into diversity 15 years ago. It began when the church opened its facility to University Synagogue, a nearby Jewish congregation that was meeting at UC Irvine’s Interfaith Center but needed more room.

Almost immediately, the two congregations developed a relationship much closer than landlord and tenant. To make the Jews feel welcome, church members removed an image of the Madonna and Child from the sanctuary wall and replaced it with a depiction of the Garden of Eden hung by both congregations. Then, in a gesture that melted Jewish hearts, the Christians invited the newcomers to observe the ancient Jewish custom of posting a mezuza -- a miniature ark containing Hebrew prayers -- on the doorpost of the church.

University Synagogue, which held weekly services at the church, was joined for Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur by Kol HaNeshamah (Voice of the Soul), another congregation.

“It’s brotherhood and sisterhood, the unity rather than the differences,” said Howard Goldman, co-president of Congregation Kol HaNeshamah. “You have to feel the bond. God is located in the relationship between people.”

In 2000, the Christians and the Jews opened the doors of the church to the United Mosques of Irvine.

“We all have one God,” said Mir-Javid Jalali, 64, a retired physicist and entrepreneur who came from Iran 36 years ago and is referred to affectionately by his congregants as “Dr. J.” Although he does not call himself an imam, Jalali leads the small congregation of about 20 in prayer, delivers the Friday sermons and oversees the mosque’s operation inside the church. “Being in the same mosque with different religions allows us to narrow the gap.”

Last year, University Synagogue realized its longtime dream of moving into its own building. Church members who maintain close ties with the nearby synagogue say they hope to find another congregation that could use the facility for regular services.

For the Muslims, the relationship hasn’t always been so smooth.

When members of mosque began meeting at the church five years ago, Jalali said, other Muslims picketed and passed out leaflets condemning what they described as a false “unification” of religions.

“While Islam tolerates and respects other religions,” the leaflet said, “one of the fundamentals of Faith in Islam is that there is no true religion on the earth except Islam” and “any Jew or Christian who does not embrace Islam should be considered ... an unbeliever ... as well as an enemy of Allah.”

Jalali said the Muslim members quickly dwindled from more than 200 to about a tenth of that size.

Then came the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and an unexpected change, Jalali said. Muslims who had criticized his openness softened their stance, in some cases even embracing it as a model of the interfaith dialogue they now viewed as necessary. By contrast, he said, some of the Jews and Christians with whom he shared space became increasingly standoffish.

“We don’t feel the same love and affection that we felt in the beginning,” Jalali said. “We have a very polite relationship. They accept us because they think it was a good idea, but we are no longer close.”

Many non-Muslims associated with the church say they are unaware of any frostiness among the groups. They also say, however, that they have little contact with the Muslims.

Though the church still holds annual Thanksgiving services and several adult education classes with University Synagogue, there are no regularly scheduled activities with the Muslims.

“Their small size makes it harder to interact,” said Keith Boyum, 60, an eight-year member of the church. “They’re not as visible around here as was the synagogue.”

Rev. Swope said that the closeness between the Christians and Jews might simply be because the rabbi and former minister were good friends.

Yet the idea of diversity does hold some sway.

“We wanted to be at a church dealing with issues that had a world impact,” said Renee Chomiak, a Cerritos resident who joined Irvine United Congregational Church shortly after 9/11, drawn by its relationship with the two other faiths. “We wanted to be at a place where a dialogue could take place.”

Her husband, Gary, agrees. “If we are going to live in this world,” he said, “we need to be proactive in understanding what other people believe.”

During a recent Sunday service at the church that serves as a temple that serves as a mosque, the theme of inclusiveness took a front pew.

“We are called upon to engage others with compassionate hospitality,” Swope told his flock. “To dissolve the barriers between us and them, making us all one.”

Robinmarie McClement, the church’s director of Christian education, reiterated that message to the children in the congregation.

“The beauty in the rainbow,” she said, “is very much like the beauty of our church.”