Pastor’s ‘My Muslim Problem’ post draws many readers

By Sam Hodges
Jan. 29, 2016 | HEATH, Texas (UMNS)

The Rev. Omar Rikabi likes to write. A few weeks ago, he composed an essay, giving it the slyly provocative title “My Muslim Problem.”

The Rev. Omar Rikabi, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Heath, Texas. UMNS photo by Sam Hodges.

The Rev. Omar Rikabi, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Heath, Texas. UMNS photo by Sam Hodges.

Gentle in tone, the piece draws on his unusual family background in making a Wesleyan Christian case for seeing the humanity of all persons.

But Rikabi hesitated about posting it to his blog.

After the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino,California, so much rhetoric about Muslims was flying around social media already. Rikabi, a United Methodist pastor whose family tree includes Muslims and Christians, questioned whether he really wanted to weigh in.

He and his wife had a pre-bedtime discussion on Dec. 12.

“Jennifer was like, `You wrote it. Just post it,’” Rikabi said. “So I posted it, brushed my teeth and went to bed.”

Come morning, he checked his computer and found the post already had a few hundred Facebook shares. That’s several times more than his posts usually get.

“Whoa,” he remembers saying.

Since then, the piece has had some 120,000 Facebook shares and drawn more than 350 comments on the blog.

Rikabi, pastor of First United Methodist Church in Heath, Texas, is still coming to terms with having written something that went viral. But he’s glad he listened to his wife.

“I’m not a scholar,” he said. “I’m not a pundit. I’m not an expert. But I do have a story.”

Early days and end times

Rikabi, 42, was born in Houston and grew up in Carrollton, Texas, one of two sons of an Iraqi-born Muslim father and American Christian mother.

“My parents had an agreement,” Rikabi said. “My father could name us, and my mom could raise us in the church.”

His upbringing was typically Texan in most ways, but he had close relationships with the Muslim members of his family.

Though he’s fair-skinned, like his mother, his name marked him for teasing and worse in school, especially during the Gulf War and other flash points.

Rikabi went eagerly to church, getting deeply involved in the youth group. But in Sunday school he sometimes felt an outsider, especially when he encountered end-times theology.

“All of that goes right through the heart of the Middle East and deals with this perceived conflict between the descendants of Ishmael (Muslims) and the descendants of Isaac,” he said.

Rikabi would have a meandering road to ministry, including majoring in English at Texas A&M University and getting a master of divinity degree at Asbury Theological Seminary, where he met his wife. He was a campus minister at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville for seven years, and then in 2014 was appointed to the church in Heath, a middle-class, mostly white community southeast of Dallas.

Jenny Timberlake Bellamy recalls when she first heard her church’s new pastor was named “Omar Rikabi.”

“I do remember thinking, `Boy, this is going to send some eyebrows up,’” she said.

But Timberlake Bellamy herself welcomed the diversity Rikabi represents and said the church has embraced him, his wife and their three young daughters.

“Omar is very disarming,” she said. “You kind of fall in love with him and his family immediately. His little girls are balls of light and joy, and Jen is amazing.”

Getting beyond `the other’

Rikabi has not made Middle East tensions or interfaith work a ministry focus.

“I don’t see myself as an activist,” he said. “My job is to both herald and exemplify the gospel.”

But when Franklin Graham called last summer for the U.S. to halt Muslim immigration, Rikabi wrote a short piece in response for the Seedbed website.

The heightened tensions following the Paris and San Bernardino attacks led him to preach about the situation at his church, and also prompted to write the longer, more personal blog post.

In it, Rikabi doesn’t try to justify or minimize the triggering events, including the rise of ISIS.

“I get the fear of terrorism,” he writes in the blog post. “Part of my family’s story includes those living as refugees in foreign countries, mourning the memory of a loved one shot to death because of religious and ethnic extremism.”

But he also notes that Muslims don’t have a corner on violence, and he points to one wing of his family to help readers past the idea of the Muslim as “other.”

“They are Muslims who are falling in love and having a first kiss; trying to get an education and looking for jobs; wanting to have families and buying homes; celebrating the birth of a child and suffering the loss of a loved one; playing video games and going on vacations … In other words: common human stories.”

Rikabi goes on to argue that under Wesleyan idea of prevenient grace — that God is actively seeking all people — Christians have an obligation to overcome fear and work to understand Muslims (or any “other”) with “holy love.”

Rikabi’s essay connected with members of his own congregation, including Hiram Lucius, who grew up in the segregated South.

“I know where he’s coming from,” Lucius said. “We can’t stereotype other people.”

The Rev. Steve Martinez was so moved by Rikabi’s post that he shared it on the Facebook page of the church leads, First United Methodist in Bells, Texas, and taught it in a Sunday school class.

“As Christians, especially as Methodists, we need a different viewpoint — not one based on fear but on our understanding of Christ and our ministry in the world,” Martinez said.

Rikabi is unaware of any United Methodist pastor with an interfaith background quite like his. Given that he has, as he puts it, “a foot in both camps,” he plans to write more on Muslim-Christian relations.

But he writes on lots of subjects, including his love of Middle Eastern culture. He’s even posted his original hummus recipe.

“There’s a lot of (Internet) shares on it,” he said proudly. “My 5-year-old eats it at breakfast, so that kind of speaks for itself.”

Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org

Comments

  1. Those who wish to stretch their minds should read two fabulous books. The first one is written in 1998 by retired Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong, entitled “Why Christianity Must Change of Die.” The other book is by Irshad Manji, a Muslim woman who now teaches at NYU, whose many talks can be accessed on line, as can Bishop Spong. Dr. Manji’s book is entitled, “The Trouble with Islam Today,’ and was written in 2005.
    Both of these books beg people to ask questions, to not take either the Bible of the Quran/Koran literally. Dr. Manji reminds both Muslims and other religions that Muhammad was illiterate and his wife was an educated business woman, whom he greatly respected and he looked to her for guidance. She and Dr Spong say that young people are questioning religious dogma, as they should.
    Both Christ and Muhammad wanted people to be all that they could be and to encourage other to be all that they could be.
    The time for disenfranchising our LBGTQ sisters and brothers has passed, just as the UMC no longer disenfranchises our African American sisters and brothers..Even though some cling to the idea that being LBGTQ is not an inborn trait, as it has been proved to be. Young people will not be drawn to a church where some of their friends and relatives who may be LBGTQ are not given all the rights and privileges that they, as heterosexuals enjoy.
    Young Muslims too, are doing some critical thinking, and wonder why the original words and thoughts of Muhammad have been ignored and the fundamentalist dogma has become more important.
    So, too, it is with Christianity, Jesus accepted those who were not Jewish, he wanted his followers to look outside their tribes, or “areas of comfort.” Remember, Jesus was a Jew. He spoke of love, not hate or disenfranchisement. Jesus says nothing about abortion. He said nothing about two people in a committed,loving relationship having an intimate relationship. He said nothing about homosexuality. These rules are made by overreaching church leaders, many of whom are men, these are not what Christ would want. He us to love and accept one another as long as we love God, and are compassionate to our neighbors.

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