By Sam Hodges / United Methodist News Service
The Rev. Omar Rikabi likes to write. A few weeks ago, he composed an essay, giving it the slyly provocative title “My Muslim Problem.”
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.”
Sam Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas.