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Omega Center forum offers mix of secular, religious ideas

ASHLAND — As mainstream church funding for Omega Center declines, the teaching center on the edge of the Southern Oregon University campus is enlarging its mission of providing a healthy mix of religious and secular support for students and the community.

One of its major efforts this fall is a weekly Common Life Community, a gathering that isn't therapy, but rather a place where people can get together, make friends and be heard about "stuff that matters."

The free, participative Saturday forum is for "sharing and nurturing the joys and concerns of your life," says leader Rich Lang, executive director of Omega. "You might share a poem, song or piece of art that moves you — and leads you to talk about the backstory of your life."

The new forum joins an unusual lineup of gatherings that have been going on for years, including "The Great Conversation," an intellectual discussion of age-old human ideas, "Soul Cafe" and "Evenings of Enchantment," about music, a quarterly "Community Salon," about work and culture, "Dream Group," about analyzing dreams — and others dealing with meditation, books and the nature of the cosmos.

"Why come? You'll come from a desire for deeper human connection with kindred souls, because you want the sharing of heart you don't get at a BS session with buddies at breakfast," Lang says.

Omega started in 1967 as an ecumenical campus Christian ministry, supported by Methodist and Presbyterian churches. But as mainstream church attendance declined, its mission shifted to "cross-cultural, multi-disciplinary, inter-faith" learning that appealed to lifelong learners and students, says Lang, who has directed the venture for 11 years.

Omega uses no government or university funding — it's on private land — and, when church funding runs out in January 2012, it hopes to sustain itself with personal, corporate and nonprofit grant funding, Lang says.

"It's the only realistic path because the money's running out," says Lang. "We're going to be working very hard to develop a new funding base and moving beyond (just campus and church orientation). We hope there are angels standing in the wings with deep pockets."

Lang, who came of age in Los Angeles during the counter-culture years of the 1960s, says the Common Life Community, like other salons before it, will echo the mid-20th century phenomenon of a beatnik coffeehouse, with its openness to sharing the plurality of religious, cultural and ethnic identity, as expressed in music, art, literature and personal experience.

"People will share their gifts and creativity, maybe in a poem or song," says Lang. "Maybe you want to share a trip you took to the woods and you want to show your pictures or maybe a clip from Garrison Keillor that moved you. It's personal sharing, not cerebral. It's about what's going on in your life and what nourishes you."

The Common Life Community meets 4 to 5:30 p.m. starting Sept. 11 at Omega Center, 371 N. Mountain Ave., Ashland, just above Siskiyou Boulevard. A schedule of gatherings is available online at the-omega-center.org.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.