Gainesville, Fla., interfaith community coalesces around threat to burn Muslim scriptures on 9/11 anniversary.
When the Rev. Terry Jones, pastor of the 50-member Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville, Fla., started to receive worldwide publicity for designating September 11 as “International Burn a Qur’an Day,” the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Gainesville knew that it had to respond. The 300-member fellowship rallied, working with the Muslim community and other interfaith partners, to create a message that would counter Jones’s. The result was a series of programs in Gainesville that included worship services, Qur’an readings, a protest march, and an interfaith gathering promoting peace, hope, and understanding.
Although Jones called off the Qur’an burning on September 9, the Gainesville interfaith community went on with its programming. Congregation president Judith Kendall wrote, “Even though the Qur’an burning had been ‘suspended,’ Gainesville UUs felt it was important to continue the work toward unity with other faith traditions that has begun.”
The first event was an interfaith worship service held on Wednesday, September 8, at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church. Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and Greek Orthodox clergy led more than 300 participants in prayers and hymns calling for peace. Readings came from the Qur’an, the Bible, and the Torah. Gainesville Mayor Craig Lowe spoke, urging tolerance and solidarity across religious lines.
On Friday, September 10, Trinity United Methodist Church hosted a “Gathering for Peace, Understanding, and Hope,” offering participants a menu of activities derived from a wide range of religious traditions, including a space for meditation, votive candles for prayer, an outdoor labyrinth, a bread table as a widely shared religious symbol, and children’s arts and crafts activities.
On Saturday, September 11, the Muslim community held a “Day of Peace and Unity” in which they served the community in various ways by helping to feed the homeless and sponsoring a book drive, a blood donation drive, and a canned food collection. At the same time, around 200 people gathered in a park for a short rally before starting a peaceful march to the Dove World Outreach Center.
The Rev. Dr. Meredith Garmon, the UU congregation’s senior minister, was one of the speakers at the rally. “I reminded the people gathered that compassion and love must extend to all people. We can’t exclude Muslims or GLBT [gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender] people. And we also can’t exclude the Rev. Terry Jones and Dove World Outreach. We must show them the very compassion that we wish they would show.”
Religious leaders from the interfaith community had all pledged to include readings from the Qur’an during their respective services over the weekend. The UU congregation had also prepared an Iraqi peace song that was performed in Arabic. Garmon said that several congregants had invited members of the Muslim community to come to the Sunday service, and he was pleased when several did attend.
Unitarian Universalists in other parts of the country also spoke out in defense of Muslim Americans and religious pluralism. In August, the ministers of the UU congregations in New York City, along with Unitarian Universalist Association President Peter Morales and UU Service Committee President William F. Schulz, sent a letter (PDF) to Mayor Michael Bloomberg defending the controversial Cordoba Center project, a proposed Islamic community center two blocks from the World Trade Center site that opponents have dubbed the “Ground Zero Mosque.” Other UU congregations joined the Gainesville fellowship in featuring readings from the Qur’an in their worship services on September 12.
The Gainesville interfaith community was familiar with Jones’s anti-Muslim rants. It started first, Garmon said, with a sign saying “Islam is of the Devil” that Dove erected in front of its building in July 2009. Garmon and several members of his congregation, along with congregants from other religious groups, held a demonstration in front of the church protesting the sign. About a week later, Garmon had an opportunity to meet with leaders from the Muslim community. “They had decided that the best strategy to take was one of ignoring them. By being out there and demonstrating against them, we were giving them more publicity.”
Dove next sent some of its children to school in T-shirts that bore the same slogan. The school sent the children home.
In July 2010, Jones declared September 11 “International Burn a Qur’an Day.” As the ninth anniversary of 9/11 approached, world leaders including President Barack Obama, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel all condemned the action. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said that burning Qur’ans could put the lives of American troops in danger. The Rev. Franklin Graham, the son of the Rev. Billy Graham, urged Jones to call off the action, writing, “It’s never right to deface or destroy sacred texts or writings of other religions even if you don’t agree with them.”
Doing nothing, Garmon said, was no longer an option. “In mid-August, it felt like the publicity had ratcheted up to a certain point [that] our response wasn’t going to increase their publicity because they’re already getting so much. Instead, our lack of response was going to become the story.” So Garmon began to work with interfaith partners on developing a response.
The hard work paid off in unexpected ways. “I heard one speaker say, ‘What Rev. Jones accomplished in the last month in bringing the interfaith community together is what we’ve been trying to do for years,’” Garmon said.
Debra Neill-Mareci, a church leader and longtime member of the UU congregation, agreed. “What I found most inspiring about the whole thing was finding common ground amongst so many different faiths. . . . I’m grateful to Terry Jones for pulling that out and making people stop and think about how they feel about this.”
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Jane Greer is a former senior editor of UU World magazine.