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 Qurans 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.
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.”
The demonstration was organized by a group at the nearby University of Florida, Students for a Democratic Society.
Saturday was a confusing day in Gainesville, as residents sorted out what the brouhaha meant to them and their city.
Some worried that the 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 as one of the region’s most diverse communities.
Others said that although they were disgusted by Jones’ Quran-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 Quran-burning plan, Leggett found himself wondering what the big deal was about an isolated incident that the whole community had rejected.
“He might have a point,” Leggett said. “We allow people to do whatever they want, why can’t he?”
Many were angry that the provocative threat from a tiny church had attracted the world’s attention to the sleepy college town.
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 Jones has changed his mind in recent days and wondered whether he – and his Quran-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?”
Although Jones appeared on television Saturday morning from New York City saying his plan to burn the Quran 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’ son, Luke, both stood before a frustrated press corps as they gave vague answers.
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.”
Both the Dove controversy and the Sept. 11 anniversary were subsumed to some extent into the equally profound issue of the day: football. With the population of 125,000 doubling for game day, the southeastern part of Gainesville was jammed with people in orange and blue shirts.