This article appears in July/August 2015 Omaha Magazine.
Eric Elnes once aspired to a career in science, specifically solar research. He ended up in an arena centered around the pursuit of knowledge, just at the other end of the spectrum. He became the Rev. Dr. Eric Elnes, head pastor at Countryside Community Church.
Science is still of great interest to him. “We brought in an astronomer from Adler Planetarium (Chicago),” Elnes says. His progressive views also dwell in the terrestrial.
“Evolution,” he says, “is love trying to work its way out into the universe.”
This sense of cosmic cohesiveness is at the core of Elnes’ preaching and personality. Punctuating this philosophy is a bookshelf housing, among other things, a statue of the Hindu god Shiva, a menorah, and a Middle-Eastern incense burner acquired during his travels.
He knew God wanted him to become a member of the clergy even as he earned a degree in economics (another detour, but a long story) from Whitman College.
“I had a profoundly mystical experience,” Elnes remarks. “It was…myself and one other person were having a conversation. She’d had a trauma. I heard someone saying ‘tell her it’s OK.’ I repeated those words to her, and as soon as I did, it was like there was an immediate sense of presence. God’s love. A huge awareness of God.”
He graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary with a Master of Divinity in 1991 and a Ph.D. in 1997. While working on his Ph.D. and preaching in Arizona, Elnes co-authored The Phoenix Affirmations, 12 statements of faith broadly describing a Christian love of God, neighbor, and self.
“I wanted to offer a religious voice for equality,” says Elnes, who helped lead a 2,500-mile walk from Phoenix to Washington, D.C., in 2006 to promote awareness of progressive/emerging Christian faith. The walk combined his love of Christianity with his love of nature. Elnes’ hobbies include kayaking, and he rides his bike to the church as often as possible.
He came to Omaha in 2008 with his wife, Melanie, and their daughters Maren, now 21, and Arianna Bristol, 23. Maren is a word meaning “of the sea” (think “mariner”); Arianna’s middle name is in honor of Bristol Bay, Alaska, where Elnes spent many years.
He often preaches about the need for inclusivity. That’s a big reason the Tri-Faith Initiative, the innovative effort to colocate a mosque, synagogue, and Christian church in west Omaha, asked Countryside to become part of their organization.
“I have been greatly impressed with his open and generous approach to thoughts, ideas, and beliefs which may be different from his own,” says Dr. Syed M. Mohiuddin, president of the American Institute of Islamic Studies and Culture, and a key member of the Tri-Faith Initiative board. “I will never forget the moment when, at the end of Sunday services a day before Dr. King’s birthday celebrations, Dr. Elnes took the podium to recite the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, from memory, with such love and passion that it moved the audience to tears.”
The exuberant minister plans to continue spreading his messages of love and understanding to new, even more diverse communities on the Tri-Faith campus.
“I think it’s the greatest job in the world,” Elnes proclaims.