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Jim Wallis on the story behind Pastor Terry Jones's change of heart

By Jim Wallis
Sunday, September 19, 2010; B04

It is easy to believe that hostility toward Muslims is on the rise in America. Media coverage of the battle over the proposed Islamic community center in New York, together with the hateful rants of Florida pastor Terry Jones, who threatened to burn Korans on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, paints a picture of tension between faiths.

But this narrative of constant conflict doesn't tell the whole story. In my work with religious communities across the country, I have seen interfaith relationships strengthened in recent years, not in spite of 9/11 but because of it. And these connections helped avert a tragic conclusion to the Jones saga last weekend.

Although the media focused on the role that political and military officials, including President Obama and Gen. David Petraeus, played in getting Jones to back down from his plan for a Koran bonfire, the faith community also had a key part. Religious leaders from many traditions condemned Jones's threats, while behind the scenes, a number of us reached out to stop Jones and support Feisal Abdul Rauf, the imam behind the proposed Islamic community center in New York.

Even before Jones's threats, I had been in close dialogue for several weeks with the imam and his wife, Daisy Khan. I have been friends with Rauf since a few months after the 2001 attacks, when we participated in a forum on religious fundamentalism at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in New York. From his words that day, I trusted him and knew that we would be able to work together as peacemakers between faiths.

The storm around the imam, his wife and their proposed community center was already bad enough when, on Thursday, Sept. 9, it threatened to get a lot worse. That afternoon, Jones announced that he would be heading up to the Big Apple to talk with the imam on the 9/11 anniversary. He seemed to think that he could leverage his Koran-burning threat to pressure Rauf to move his center -- in the process getting even more attention. The idea was offensive: It suggested a moral equivalence between burning the holy book of a billion people and building an interfaith center, and it presumed that one of the world's most important and courageous moderate Muslim leaders should bargain with the irresponsible, incoherent pastor of a tiny church.

How, I wondered the next morning, could evangelicals -- members of the faith tradition that Jones and I both claim -- run interference? I felt strongly that we were the ones who should deal with Jones, rather than a respected imam whose faith he had demonized.

At that moment, I got a call from another dear friend, Geoff Tunnicliffe, international director of the World Evangelical Alliance. He was in New York and wanted to know what he could do to help Rauf. He explained that he had Jones's cellphone number and had spoken to him earlier in the week. In an effort to talk Jones out of his original plan, he had asked him: "Will you be willing to be with me when I have to talk to the widow of an evangelical pastor in the Middle East who is killed because of what you are about to do, or to a congregation whose church is burned to the ground as a result of your Koran burning? Will you help me explain to them why you had to do this?"

Tunnicliffe seemed like the right person in the right place at the right time. We strategized how we could stop Jones from confronting the imam. I called Khan and asked her and the imam to trust Tunnicliffe; meanwhile, he pulled together many of New York's best young evangelical leaders to meet with Jones.

That afternoon, Jones got to town and checked into a hotel in Queens. He was immediately surrounded by police officers, who, he later told Tunnicliffe, warned him that his life was in danger and advised him not to go out. With a terrified Jones now reluctant to leave his hotel, a conference call replaced the face-to-face meeting that Tunnicliffe had planned. Without going into the details of a private dialogue -- one Tunnicliffe hopes will continue -- he later told me that the pastor seemed "lost." Others described the exchange as "powerful," "productive" and "reflective." During the conversation, Jones vowed never to burn a Koran and even asked what an apology might look like.

He did not seek out a confrontation with Rauf the next day. Instead, he went home. (Unfortunately, he seems to be missing the spotlight now that he is back in Florida, and he has returned to his old anti-Muslim rhetoric.)

I saw similarly powerful, productive and reflective exchanges in churches all over the country after 9/11, when hundreds of people routinely turned out to hear a visiting Muslim scholar or imam speak to their congregation. I have seen them in the work of the Interfaith Youth Core, started eight years ago by Eboo Patel, a young Muslim leader committed to helping people from all religious backgrounds find common ground.

I saw them last weekend in Jones's hometown of Gainesville, where Trinity United Methodist Church, next door to Jones's little congregation, brought together an estimated 2,000 people for a "Gathering for Peace, Understanding and Hope" on the night of Sept. 10 -- but failed to spark a media sensation.

And I see them today at Heartsong Church in Cordova, Tenn., which -- in a rare departure from the cable networks' steady drumbeat of conflict -- was featured on CNN last weekend. A year and a half ago, Heartsong's pastor, Steve Stone, learned that the Memphis Islamic Center had bought land adjacent to his church. Did he protest the plans for an Islamic center next door? No. He put up a large red sign that said: "Heartsong Church Welcomes Memphis Islamic Center to the Neighborhood."

The Muslim leaders were floored. They had dared to hope only that their arrival would be ignored. It had not occurred to them that they might be welcomed.

The Islamic Center's new building is still under construction, so its members used Heartsong Church for Ramadan prayer services this year. Heartsong's community barbecues now serve halal meat. And when I talked to Stone last week, he said the two congregations are planning joint efforts to feed the homeless and tutor local children.

A few days ago, Stone told me, he got a call from a group of Muslims in a small town in Kashmir, Pakistan. They said they had been watching CNN when the segment on Heartsong Church aired. Afterward, one of the community's leaders said to those who were gathered: "God just spoke to us through this man." Another said: "How can we kill these people?" A third man went straight to the local Christian church and proceeded to clean it, inside and out.

Lately, we have heard much about hostility toward Muslims in America. We have heard an awful lot about Jones's threats and about arson at the site of another Tennessee mosque project, in Murfreesboro. But we have heard little about people like Tunnicliffe and Stone and Stone's admirers in Pakistan.

And that is everyone's loss. Stone says he is just trying to love his neighbors, as he says Jesus instructs him to do. For their part, the residents of that small town in Kashmir told him: "We are now trying to be good neighbors, too. Tell your congregation we do not hate them, we love them, and for the rest of our lives we are going to take care of that little church."

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners, a Christian social jusice network, and the author of "Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street and Your Street."

For previous Outlook coverage of the controversies surrounding the Islamic center in Manhattan and Florida Pastor Terry Jones, see Tariq Ramadan's "Even now, Muslims must have faith in America," Karen Hughes's "Move the New York City mosque, as a sign of unity" and and Edward E. Curtis's "Five myths about mosques in America."

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