GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Long before the Rev. Terry Jones threatened to burn a Koran, former parishioners say he presided over a church that he treated as a personal fiefdom, imposing a strict orthodoxy that tore apart one Gainesville family after another.
Congregants at the Dove World Outreach Center, who have dwindled to 30 or so in number, are required to vow allegiance to Jones — a pledge that places restrictions on their diets, their ability to hold jobs outside the church and their personal relationships.
For Chris Nassoiy, 25, and for most members, the last restriction is by far the most painful. He has seen his parents only once since they left the church in 2009, when he gathered his belongings from his childhood home.
“I had to tell them that we won’t be able to communicate until they apologize, until they accept the Gospel,” he said, his voice cracking. “It was a little bit wrenching.”
For his mother, Sally Nassoiy, what started as heartbreak has evolved into anger at Jones and other church officials.
“They take young people willing to devote themselves to God’s word, and they exploit them,” she said. “It’s a cult. That’s the only word I can think of to describe it.”
Jones, 59, denies that the church is a cult or that he abuses his authority in his role as Dove’s leader.
“I’m the central figure,” he said. “That’s certainly true. But I do think the church will exist after me,” adding that he he hopes his 29-year-old son, Luke, will take over one day.
Jones said he doesn’t mandate that parishioners sever ties with their families, though it can be hard to maintain connections with those who aren’t giving their lives to the church.
Those who leave Dove do so, he said, because “their faith just wasn’t strong enough.”
Jones knows personally how his strict edicts and unconventional leadership can divide families. Two of his daughters have left the church in disgust.
“I don’t support him, and I don’t want to have anything to do with him,” Emma Jones said via Facebook.
Her father said her decision to walk away from the church “was the biggest betrayal.”
For most of the young congregants, membership requires participation in Jones’s three-year “academy,” which preaches discipline and adherence to the Bible. It also requires hours of work, much of it unpaid, in the Dove World Outreach Center’s used-furniture business, which is run out of the same building as the church.
Jones defended that arrangement, saying that members of the academy are provided with food and housing to compensate them for their work.
The young congregants live in church-owned housing in one of Gainesville’s roughest neighborhoods.
Willie Irving, who lives in the neighborhood, used to attend services at the center. He stopped going in 2009, he said, when he realized the church was “trying to make a living on people’s faith.”
But some of those who have extricated themselves from the church describe just how difficult the process can be in this tight-knit community, where roots run deep.
“My grandparents were founding members of Dove. They sold their wedding rings to buy the property,” said Shane Butcher, 28.
After Jones took over the church in 2001, things started to change. Butcher recalls spending 60 hours a week scouring thrift stores for furniture to resell on eBay. His parents became so embittered by what Jones was doing to the church that they left in 2005.
“It was full of the Holy Spirit,” said his mother, Patty Butcher, “and it became a laughingstock.”
But even after his parents left, Shane Butcher remained at the church, severing ties with his family. “I felt like that’s where God wanted me to be,” he said.
His family wondered whether they had lost him forever. “It was painful to see my son under someone’s control like that,” said his mother, a former church secretary.
It took Shane two years to work up the strength to confront Jones’s wife, Sylvia. “All we do is make you money,” he told her before walking out of the church.
Within days, his friends and housemates did to Butcher what he had done to his parents: They cut him off.
The insular world that Jones has created for his followers in Gainesville is reminiscent of his previous enterprise, the Christian Community of Cologne in Germany.
During three decades as a missionary there, he recruited nearly 1,000 churchgoers, according to Pro, a Christian magazine in Germany that interviewed several former members for an article published in September. In Cologne, the article said, Jones was no longer spreading the Gospel so much as “creating his own empire.”
Many Gainesville congregants began leaving Dove after Jones launched his much-publicized crusade against Islam. He held a mock trial of the Koran on March 20 for “crimes against humanity.” Video footage of the holy book being soaked in kerosene and set ablaze in a portable fire pit has sparked three days of protests in Afghanistan, leaving at least 20 dead and dozens injured.
Church services Sunday — the first since the Afghan protests — drew only 14 people.
Some churchgoers wore a Dove academy uniform embroidered with the church’s name. They belted lyrics, alternating between the biblical and the patriotic, with preteen boys on drums and guitar. Outside, one member was on security detail.
When he took the pulpit, Jones likened himself to Martin Luther King Jr. and then to Joshua leading his followers across the Jordan River.
Burning the Koran was necessary, he said, even if it led to a dozen deaths, because it was a part of defending the Gospel. It wasn’t easy, and it’s something the church should be proud of, he said.
“When they were crossing the Jordan, they put their lives on the line,” he said.
“There’s only one way to stop me,” Jones told his followers, “and that’s to kill me.”
Staff writers Annie Gowen and Michelle Boorstein and research editor Alice Crites contributed to this report.