Gainesville turned upside down by Koran-burning threat, even after cancellation

By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 12, 2010; 9:40 PM

GAINESVILLE, FLA. - On Saturday evening neither the pastor nor his bonfire appeared. But the rest of Gainesville's Sept. 11 spectacle carried on without him.

Terry Jones, the leader of the tiny Dove World Outreach Center in this Florida college town, had seized national attention by promising to burn Korans--and then by promising not to. By Saturday, he wasn't even in town: he'd gone to New York, appearing on NBC's Today Show that morning.

So, on that evening, what was left was a darkened and apparently empty church, with a parking lot filled with dozens of police officers and numerous members of the media.

Across the street, behind a barricade, were about 200 people who had come to protest Jones' fiery demonstration--and now had the media spotlight to themselves. They carried signs urging religious tolerance: "Injustice to one is injustice to all," "Burn fat, not Korans."

"Not our city! Not our state!" the group chanted. The demonstation was organized by a group at the nearby University of Florida, Students for a Democratic Society. "No burning! No hate!"

Saturday was a confusing day in Gainsville, as residents sorted out what the brouhaha meant to them and their city.

Some worried that the city's children might not forget the experience of rumored local bomb threats and violence. Some, particularly in the neighborhood around the church, wondered whether it could impact property values or Gainesville's reputation - or self-image as one of the region's most diverse communities.

Others said that although they were disgusted by Jones's Koran-burning idea, there was something disturbing in seeing the event called off amid hysteria, as if the canceling chipped away a tiny bit at the country's tolerance and freedom. And if so, did Jones have a point - made via the hysteria - about Islam influencing American culture, including in this sunny, progressive college town?

"I go back and forth," said Chris Leggett, 25, a hair stylist who grew up in Gainesville and was between customers at Hair Hunters, a mini-mall salon about a mile from the Dove church.

Although he said he thinks Jones is "an idiot" for the Koran-burning plan, Leggett found himself in recent days wondering what the big deal was about an isolated incident that the whole community had rejected? A girl he knew burned the U.S. flag right after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and it was a big controversy in Gainesville for a couple days, but it blew over.

"What's the big deal? He might have a point," Leggett said. "We allow people to do whatever they want, why can't he? People do whatever they want to us, burn flags, why can't [Jones] strike back? Why can't we just let him do his thing in the corner?"

Another stylist, 59-year-old Mike Bennett, said he was disturbed that Dove was being presented as a face of Gainesville Christianity. Both men were annoyed to hear chat on talk radio that "makes Gainesville look like a bunch of rednecks," Bennett said.

Many were angry that the provocative threat from a tiny church had attracted the world's attention to an otherwise sleepy college city.

Others noted that Dove's public rants against Islam had prompted positive changes, including the creation of the city's first interfaith group and a gathering of more than a thousand people Friday night. Some looked at how often the church's pastor, Terry Jones, has changed his mind in recent days and wondered whether he - and his Koran-burning plans - could resurface, whether he still had the city's peace in his grasp.

"This is like Medusa's head; I mean he isn't going anywhere," Vasuda Narayanan, head of the religion department at the University of Florida, said Friday night as hundreds of people milled around the "Gathering for Peace, Understanding & Hope" at Trinity United Methodist Church, which is separated from the Dove property by only a thin strand of trees. "And even if it's over here, what about copycats somewhere else? People could be posturing. There could be copycats."

More than a thousand people milled about in a large banquet hall at Trinity, lighting symbolic unity candles, making beaded necklaces with peace signs and listening as every 30 minutes someone from a different faith community got up to preach, pray or sing.

"We get in our little pockets, and sometimes it takes a crisis to change things," Dan Johnson, Trinity's pastor, said of why faith leaders had just created the Interfaith Forum last year, when Dove first put up anti-Islam signs on its lawn. "The bad thing is, it's bad. The good thing is," he said, gesturing to the huge crowd, "it brings energy."

Although the university brings some diversity to Gainesville, faith leaders said the city is religiously quite homogenous. There haven't been any notable faith-related conflicts in recent memory.

Rubab Islam and Amelia McInnes-Dean, both 15-year-old 10th-graders, paused when asked how they deal with interfaith tensions beyond something as stark - and widely condemned - as the Koran-burning.

"I try not to think of those issues. I think we all have the same common core. I like to accept people," said McInnes-Dean, whose parents are both United Church of Christ ministers.

Both said there were no faith-related tensions at their school - not even thinking worth mention a recent controversy involving members of the Dove church who wore "Islam is of the devil" T-shirts to school.

"That was upsetting, but it was more like a publicity stunt," Islam said with a smile and a shrug.

Although Jones appeared on television Saturday morning from New York City saying his plan to burn the Koran was off permanently, he gave a long pause before the announcement. And in Gainesville, confusion was evident Friday at Dove.

Evangelical minister K.A. Paul, who leads the Global Peace Initiative in Texas, and Jones's son, Luke, both stood before a frustrated press corps as they gave vague answers to what was going on. Luke Jones said there were "negotiations" going on between the church and New York Imam Abdul Rauf about a possible meeting between Jones and Rauf, but it was unclear whether that might really happen and what it meant for Dove and its future plans for anti-Islam activism.

Islam became a focus of church leadership about a year ago, not in response to any particular news or local event, Luke Jones said, but "because Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world, and we felt we need to demonstrate. Christians need to be heard outside the church. So many don't speak outside the church, only inside, about things like abortion, other religions, homosexuality."

Dove congregants have protested at a local abortion clinic, a local store that sells pornography, and last year at a festival supporting gays and lesbians.

Last year after the church puts three signs on their lawn at Sept. 11, "we started getting attention" first from local media and then from media overseas. Then this year they were brainstorming about something to do. "We always have Islam in mind," he said. Why? There are more than a billion Muslims. "Why deal with the small issues?" he said with a chuckle.

He said the first thing they did was create a Facebook page for international burn the Koran day and then the media started contacting them about two months ago.

As happens this time of year, both the Dove controversy and the Sept. 11 anniversary were subsumed to some extent into the equally profound spiritual issue of the day: football. With the population (125,000) doubling for the game, the southeastern part of Gainesville was jammed with people in orange and blue shirts coming in and out of the stadium, and the Koran issue was just fodder for debate on a blazing hot day.

A group of students from the Catholic student ministry sat under an informational tent on University Avenue, and said the Koran-burning had been a constant topic in classes this past week. Debate narrowed onto a few points: Whether the media had overblown and even caused the situation, and whether it was unequivocably a good thing that the burning had apparently been cancelled.

"One opinion is - it's just a book. There are other Korans out there," said Thomas Myers, a 21-year-old political science student from Tampa Bay.

"It's wrong!" said Jeanette Leal, 20, from Miami, also studying political science. "Jones is saying that these people [Muslims] are wrong. People should have the freedom of religion. I don't know how to say it."

Then they found a point they could agree on. Myers said the scripture burning was "acceptable legally but not morally," prompting Leal to nod. "I just hope life goes on," he said with a chuckle.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company