One afternoon last November, as I walked across the campus of the University of Florida, I noticed two women who looked quite out-of-place. One was pushing an infant in a stroller, and they both appeared to be stopping passing students to hand out literature of some sort. That in and of itself is not unusual. Like any college town full of young people experiencing their first taste of freedom, Gainesville sees its fair share of sinning. And, like any college campus, UF sees its fair share of fiery preachers urging repentance, temperance, and chastity. What was so striking about these women was their clothing. They each wore a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “Islam is of the Devil”. As I approached them, hoping not to draw their attention as I passed, I heard one call out to me in a German accent, “Do you know Islam is of the devil?” I said, “I don’t want to hear it”, and walked briskly on.
Those women, who must have harassed dozens of students that day, were members of Dove World Outreach, the ironically-named church in Gainesville whose congregation numbers no more than fifty, and whose pastor, Terry Jones, plans to burn hundreds of copies of the Qur’an this Saturday – the ninth anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks.
The attention that those two women drew on a small scale last year has now transformed into something nearly every resident of this fair city finds unwelcome. The notion that “any press is good press” certainly rings false in Gainesville. A series of grisly murders twenty years ago cast a dark shadow that had not long been lifted when, in 2007, a highly publicized police incident made “don’t tase me, bro” a national mantra. Today, reporters from newspapers and television networks around the world are descending on this city to witness a spectacle of ignorance and hate, and many readers and viewers may be left with the impression that Gainesville is a city of hicks and rednecks. That would be a shame.
Quite to the contrary, Gainesville is a wonderfully open and progressive community: we have a female sheriff; our mayor is openly gay (and our previous mayor was a woman); the city hosts a popular Pride festival; the University draws students of every race, religion, and ethnicity from all over the world. The idea that a few “Christian” fundamentalists who have completely misinterpreted the teachings of Jesus Christ and desecrate the holy book of one of the world’s great faiths has everyone I know in a state of shock and dismay. The entire town is talking about it and wants nothing more than to see the hate stop.
UPDATE: It is being reported this evening that the Qur’an burning has been called off. Praise Jesus!
UPDATE: The New York Times has a wonderful article explaining how “aghast” Gainesville is. The best part:
Mr. Jones has become a reviled figure around the world. But the people of this youthful city in central Florida are taking his actions personally, with anger and heartbreak, as one of their neighbors drags their hometown into nearly nonstop news coverage and infamy.
UPDATE: Time also describes how Gainesville “rejects Koran-burning Pastor”.