By Neva Rae Fox
A long-established relationship continues to thrive between a Lincoln, Nebraska, Episcopal parish and a non-Christian minority community that has faced worldwide discrimination and genocide.
The Yazidis are an ancient community originally from the Middle Eastern area of Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. The Yazidis are Kurdish, not Muslim, which has been a source of confusion and derision for centuries. In August 2014, the Yazidi faced genocide by ISIS, with a reported 7,000-plus men, women, and children killed. As a result of this terror, thousands fled the Middle East to start their lives in exile, including to the United States.
At 97 square miles, Lincoln is a sprawling state capital boasting a university, museums, and a well-known children’s zoo. With a population of about 284,000 people, Lincoln has become home to the largest Yazidi community in North America, which, at 3,000, is still growing.
The Living Church has reported on the relationship between St. Matthew’s and the Yazidi, most recently in a 2017 article.
St. Matthew’s ministry and relationship with the Yazidi community began in 2015 when parishioners were challenged to help their new neighbors.
“We started with a meal,” parishioner Linda Rabbe said. That first simple connection grew to meetings, educational opportunities (such as English as a Second Language), and community events.
“We had the space,” parishioner Dick Quinn said. “We had classrooms for individual groups. It became better than education — it became social and fun.”
An important program evolved, named the Grandma Program. “The Grandma Program drew Yazidi women together to learn the language, reading and literacy, and especially learning to drive,” said the Rev. Amanda Gott, rector. “The other curriculum that couldn’t be written down is the building of community: eat together, be together, get out of the apartment, laugh together.”
Quinn said Lincoln’s sprawling geography kept Yazidi women from seeing each other regularly. “They didn’t live in the same part of the city, so what they had in common was St. Matthew’s.”
St. Matthew’s recently continued its longstanding support of Yazidi with a $2,300 donation devoted to improvements to their cemetery.
“When the Grandma Project started, St. Matthew’s received a generous grant from Diocese of Nebraska,” Gott said. “When the pandemic came and the Grandma Project came to a crashing halt, we had some funds. We wanted to honor the intent of the gifts to support and love the Yazidi community.”
Establishing a cemetery was not easy, Gott said. “The cemetery is outside Lincoln city limits. It is a rural area and a conservative area. There was resistance.”
“It’s a really big deal that there is a Yazidi cemetery in Lincoln,” she said. “Lincoln has the largest Yazidi community in North America. It is meant to be a Yazidi cemetery for all Yazidi folks in this country and Canada. Having a cemetery means that you can bury your family with your own prayers, your own traditions, customs, and rites.”
The funds enhanced the cemetery with trees and flowering bushes.
“We are thankful to be a part of it,” Quinn said.
Despite the close connections the two communities share, Rabbe and Gott stressed that proselytizing was never part of St. Matthew’s efforts.
“We were very clear that we were not there to convent them,” Gott said. “The Yazidi tradition predates Jesus Christ. It is beautiful, ancient, noble, rich, and meaningful. It is not our place to convert them. That would be a breach of trust.”
Rabbe said, “We didn’t want them to make feel that they had to join the Christian community.”
COVID-19 has prevented the Grandma Project and other ministries from gathering, but that has not diminished the relationship.
“There has been a pandemic, and nobody knows what is going to happen,” Gott said. “We want to do what is good for our Yazidi friends, and not just what makes us feel good.”
In the meantime, the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska’s Annual Council provided more support on October 21. “Bishop J. Scott Barker decided and announced that the offertory from the Festive Eucharist would be donated to the nonprofit organization in Lincoln that stewards the Yazidi cemetery, for continuing improvements and maintenance of the cemetery property,” Gott reported. “People at council were extremely generous — the offering was over $1,800, and a check has been sent for the Yazidi cemetery.”