Omar Alrikabi is one of my students who has had a difficult journey living in the U.S. and has experienced a good deal of racism within and outside the Church since he is of Iraqii Shiite descent and is also a born again Christian, and Asbury seminary student in training for ministry. Here is a thumbnail sketch of his story, in his own words.
Jesus resumed talking to the people, but now tenderly. “The Father has given me all these things to do and say. This is a unique Father-Son operation, coming out of Father and Son inimacies and knowledge. No one knows the Son the way the Father does, nor the Father the way the Son does. But I’m not keeping it to myself; I’m ready to go over it line by line with anyone willing to listen.”
Matthew 11(The Message)
My entire life has been a quest for identity. A journey for an intimate father/son relationship.
Growing up I never really liked my name very much. Omar. For a little kid in Texas, a foreign sounding, deeply ethnic name was a nuisance. It stood out too much. It made a scene. In classrooms full of Mikes and Peters and Amys and Stephanies… Omar felt like the person who wore jeans to a wedding while everyone else was in suits. Very out of place. I always wanted to be a David.
But my name is Omar. Omar Hamid Al-Rikabi. Literally translated it means “First Born Son of Hamid of the Rikab Tribe.” My father is from Iraq. Once the customs officer in Cairo would not accept my declaration that I was an American citizen.
“Where is your father from?”
Then I was stamped into the country. Not much has changed since the days of Abraham. It does not matter what you declare, or even where you were born. You are whatever your father is. So I am considered an Iraqi. I’m even eligible to vote in Iraqi elections.
But I grew up in Texas, where my mom is from. And yes, she is a Christian. And yes, my father is a Muslim. I have been raised by Shiites and Southern Methodists. Over the years, as different Middle Eastern despots and terrorist groups made headlines, my name was the butt of many jokes, stupid questions and varied translations. Then of course there were the nicknames that went along with such an Arab background: Dune-coon. Camel jockey. Sand nigger.
Of course, I always played along. After all, it was my friends who called me these names. It wasn’t like they were burning crosses in my front yard. I figured if I played along and poked fun at myself, it would show that I was just like them, and that would give me identity.
My parents had an agreement. My dad could name us if my mom could raise us in the church. But my mom quit going after a while. She got tired of all the anti-Arab, end-times Sunday school lessons. You see, there has always been a low-grade racism towards Arabs and Muslims in the church, at least in the Bible Belt.
After September 11th, things really picked up. I never really noticed it until that following Sunday when I heard it in the hallway at church: “Well, what would you expect from the descendants of Ishmael.”
What was I to expect when Texas and Iraq literally collided on the world stage right as I entered seminary. How do I reckon with cousins in the Republican Guard and close friends in the Army Rangers? Who is the real enemy?
I got emails from church members, wanting to know why I didn’t support the war because, as a Christian, I should be supporting Israel and that is God’s side, and that is the winning side. On more than one occasion friends I had made at Asbury would later tell me they hated Arabs until the got to know me better.
I met my wife here. Her last name is Horowitz. Imagine the long pause on the other end of the phone when I told my father that one (and by the way, he loves her). But I had to endure her father telling me he was a Jew by birth, but was now a Christian… but that he wanted to make sure that since I was an Arab I would not take his daughter away from him to Iraq and abuse her.
So what does all of this have to do with my spiritual formation? Everything. Just as many Christians in America believe wrongly about Arabs, I have lived most of my life believing lies about myself: I am just Omar. Nothing special. Loved but not liked. Wasted potential. Worst of sinners.
But my name and my background have helped me to see something. Omar. First born son. That means a lot in the Bible. The first-born son is the heir to all the father has. And I am joined with Christ. I am an heir with Christ in all that the Father has. My name is a living, literal gospel reality. I am not just Omar. I am not an ass. I am an heir.
Once at the Abbey of Gethsemani the Lord spoke to me in the most intimate way I have ever known, and said, “You are important to me.” It was like the words of the Father over the Son at His baptism, and in baptism is where we all must find our identity as sons and daughters of God.
If we believe what we say we do about curses being generational, then imagine an entire race of people who’s patriarch was the first born son, loved by his father, but then one day with no explanation he is sent into the desert to die.
On the cross we are reconciled to the Father. If our identity is found in baptism, then our vocation is found the Eucharist: “This is my body, broken for you.” I have come to believe that bad theology, unchecked patriotism, and the idol of national security has led many in the church to abdicate the cruciform calling of Christ to guns and politicians.
For it is not the descendants of Ishmael who are the problem, it is the descendants of Adam and Eve. Remember, the word ADAM in the creation story is translated “humanity” and that it is the work of the Cross-to redeem all of humanity.
If indeed these three major religions are the sons of Abraham, then I think God is looking at us the way my parents did when I fought with my brother, saying, “Yeah, but you should know better.”
My father gave me a name. Whatever struggles I wrestle with in who I am through birth, I must always return to who I am through Baptism. Jesus set for me an example, and whenever I fret over the evils men do, I must return to my vocation in the Eucharist.
So you see, COEXIST is not a pluralistic idea for me, it is a way of life… it weaves through the entire fabric of my family. It is the calling of Christ for me. And in truth, it is a calling for all of us, for in the end God’s people are not called to wave flags as a sign of victory, but to bear the Cross as a sign of reconciliation.