Giving thanks at the Fort Worth Stock Show and Rodeo has become more diverse this year as officials have cast a wider net to include more faith-based groups that offer prayers before the bareback bronc riding begins.
For some faithful rodeo fans, though, the inclusion of a Muslim Imam in the mix has become a burr under the traditional saddle.
The Stock Show’s Facebook page lit up this week after Moujahed Bakhach of the Islamic Association of Tarrant County offered the public prayer at Sunday night’s rodeo performance.
While many of the comments on the Stock Show’s Facebook page were supportive of the more inclusive prayer policy, most were not. Opposition did not seem personally directed at Bakhach or his words, but expressed outrage at the inclusion of a member of the Islamic clergy during a time of violence and extremism involving radical Muslim terrorists.
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A sampling of the sentiments expressed:
“I just will choose NOT to go somewhere that embraces a religion that wants me, my family and my people DEAD.”
“Muslim/Islam has no place in this country let alone fwssr. Not one Muslim has come out against the radical actions that is the Muslim belief. PERIOD. COWBOYS DON’T WANT IT.”
“This really disappoints me in the FWSSR! Sad to see such a Texas & American institution fall in the gutter of political correctness.”
“The ignorance here. You all should be ashamed of yourselves. Cheers to FWSSR! Yet another reason why I am proud to call Fort Worth my home.”
“Kudos to FWSSR for leading the way and understanding that America is a country of immigrants. Thanks for showing love and not hatred by showing tolerance for all religions; as Freedom of Religion applies to every American, even if they don't look like you or believe what you believe.”
“Islam is against all other religions and I for one won’t attend an event that allows a darkness to be spoke over me!”
The Fort Worth Stock Show has long featured a Christian flavor, from evangelical-like comments of longtime rodeo announcer Bob Tallman to the growing popularity of Cowboy Church, which is held Sunday mornings at the Will Rogers Auditorium.
Tallman said Bakhach “did a wonderful job” when giving Sunday’s prayer.
Bakhach, who speaks regularly at a variety of events across Tarrant County, said there was “a beautiful spirit” in Will Rogers Coliseum Sunday night, and said the blessing went on without a hitch.
“I didn’t hear any negative reaction to what I said. I sat down to watch the show,” Bakhach said.
But later, his friend, who had been seated in the crowd while Bakhach spoke, said someone behind him exclaimed, ‘Oh my God’ when Bakhach’s name and affiliation were announced.
Brad Barnes, president and general manager of the Stock Show, who is at each performance of the rodeo, said he saw no indication of anger in the crowd on Sunday, and he characterized Bakhach’s blessing as “spot-on” and “very appropriate.”
Still, as the social media storm began to boil, Bakhach — who was scheduled to pray again on Monday — said he talked with Barnes about the negative feedback.
“I felt he was in a spot, so I canceled for Feb. 2,” Bakhach said. “I love Fort Worth. It really hurt me to see this reaction.”
Bob Roberts, senior pastor of NorthWood Church in Keller, has long been passionate in his support of Muslims and other faiths and about the importance of welcoming them as neighbors. Roberts said that sadly, Christians promote intolerance and fear of Muslims more than any group in the United States.
“It’s easy to sit in a movie and watch Selma, The Butler or The Help and lament ‘how could people be so blind and mean,’” Roberts said. “It's a lot harder to do life and practice Selma with people of different colors and religions and acknowledge your own bigotry.”
A variety of prayers
Prayers have always opened the rodeo performances and this year, a new community committee has taken over the duties of choosing who offers the moment of thanks.
“Creating the faith-based advisory council is something we’ve been considering for a number of years to honor the diverse community in which we live and is not specific to any single event,” Barnes said.
The Faith-Based Advisory Committee includes representatives from the Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities.
Committee members are responsible for providing a brief prayer of about one minute for each of the performances. They offer prayer themselves, and invite others they know to participate. The prayers include suggested nondenominational themes such as praying for the safety of rodeo contestants, visitors and livestock; protection of U.S. Armed Forces; and preservation of peace and harmony.
On Tuesday night, the rodeo prayer was offered by Jonas Bohlin, a Cowboy Church pastor representing the Fort Worth Clergy and Police Alliance program.
Bohlin invoked the names of God and Jesus, and offered thanks for “a nation where we can thank you for our day” and “a city that welcomes your oversight.”
There were no comments on the Stock Show’s Facebook page about Bohlin’s prayer, but the anit-Muslim posts were still going strong.
On Wednesday, the Stock Show posted: “We would like to take this opportunity to separate fact from fiction: There was never a Muslim prayer — or a prayer of any specific religion at the Stock Show this year.”
Barnes said, as of Tuesday, that he’d received four phone calls and two emails objecting to Bakhach’s prayer.
“I’ve talked to every one of them, and they were all very polite. We discussed the show and what it’s about,” Barnes said.
Barnes said he also got a call criticizing the recently offered prayer of a Brite Divinity School student.
“I don’t really consider it a complaint,” said Barnes. “It’s just people voicing their opinion, and that’s what makes America great.”
Finding a positive
Bakhach said he was happy to be among the first to get to offer interfaith prayers at the rodeo.
“We appreciated that and we liked it very much,” he said. “I consider it a great honor to participate in such a big event in the culture of Texas.”
And Bakhach said he doesn’t blame anyone for the backlash.
“I’ll take it in a positive way to direct my community to keep working and keep doing, and expose yourself to your neighbors and friends,” said Bakhach, who came to the United States from Lebenon in 1982. “Interact with people. Invite them to your home. That’s the bridge we should have to others. Ignorance is really enemy No. 1.”
Roberts agreed, saying the only way to ease tensions between Muslims and Christians is to develop friendships.
“You can't hate somebody that you know as a person, that your family hangs out with,” Roberts said. “The majority of Muslims are as peaceful as are the majority of Christians. ... No real Christians would say that the KKK or White Supremacists represent Christianity, but most of those in those organizations would claim to be conservative Christians. It's the same in Islam. But in a culture of hate people of faith have a responsibility to look beyond what the headlines grabber is doing and see people as a whole.”
Rodeo announcer Tallman said it’s important to respect other faiths.
“We live in a big world and a very changing world,” Tallman said. “... Some people don’t deal well with change. I’ve learned how to live with and be fine with it.”
Shirley Jinkins, 817-390-7657
The Faith-Based Advisory Committee includes Stephen Jasso of All Saints Catholic Church, Newell Williams, president of TCU Brite Divinity School; Doug Cecil, Christ Chapel Bible Church; Andrew Bloom, rabbi, and Michael Linn, both of Congregation Ahavah Shalom; Moujahed Bakhach, imam, the Islamic Association of Tarrant County; and Lance McCune, The Fort Worth Clergy and Police Alliance program (CAPA).