Preacher Terry Jones’ hub of hate sits on vast green grounds in the northwest fringe of this otherwise progressive college town.
His so-called “church” — the bizarre compound from where he spews anti-Muslim messages that fuel hatred for America around the world and has cost lives — is a stone’s throw from the Devil’s Millhopper, a geological state park built from the steep slope of a limestone sinkhole lush with vegetation and flowing creeks.
Named after the legend of a beautiful Indian princess kidnapped by the devil, the park is the kind of place where entrance fees are still collected by the honor system in a drop box, a haven of peace and quiet much like the neighborhood that has risen around it.
Rolling hills, tidy brick accents and tranquil residential streets lined with trees dripping ghostly Spanish moss — the most unlikely place on earth for hate speech to flourish.
And it doesn’t.
Jones is only a well-publicized discordant note.
“We just wish he’d go away,” a neighbor walking his beagle tells me before he hurries home to escape the trickle of media brought here by four days of anti-American protests in much of the Middle East and the attack on the American embassy in Libya on Tuesday — the 9/11 anniversary — that killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens.
From his shadowy Dove World Outreach Center (which now also goes by the name Warriors of Christ) — an organization minuscule in number and dwindling to no more than 15, mostly family members — Jones’ loud rhetoric against Muslims, the effigy in Islamic clothing hanging outside the church, and his hate-espousing banners have been captured on video and broadcast in the Middle East the past two years.
Jones first gained notoriety when he staged a press conference to say he planned to burn the Quran, the sacred book of Islam, on Sept. 11, 2010. He didn’t then, after U.S. authorities talked him out of it, but his words and threats were broadcast all over the Muslim world.
Then, on March of 2011, he made good on the threat and publicly burned a copy of the holy book.
Again, of course, he was filmed and the broadcasts and Internet postings triggered protests across Afghanistan. In the most violent incident, hundreds stormed a United Nations compound, killing seven people.
This week, Jones again sought the media’s attention by vowing to show a video on the 9/11 anniversary mocking the Prophet Mohammed, but he told reporters his computer had been hacked and he couldn’t do it. Yet as word of the video and a trailer on the Internet spread, anti-American protests raged from Egypt to Lebanon.
Media descended on Gainesville from as far as Denmark — and Jones staged a freak show that included recklessly pointing his gun at reporters.
“You have someone who sees gasoline, and most people would not try to throw a match on gasoline, but he does,” says Gainesville Mayor Craig Lowe. “He is quite aware of what the result of his actions might be, but he proceeds to undertake his actions anyway…. It’s really deplorable.”
Lowe knows Jones’ hatred first hand.
When he was running for office, Jones displayed a banner attacking Lowe’s sexuality. “No homo mayor,” it said.
But despite his notoriety, Jones is in no way reflective of sentiments in this city of 125,000, often ranked among the top cities to live in the United States.
“In Gainesville we have a wide representation of religions — Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist — and we value that diversity, see it as a great strength of the community,” Lowe says.
Everyone I talked to had a disparaging epithet for Jones.
“He’s an idiot, an embarrassment for Americans,” says Denise Gridley of nearby Alachua, who is staging a one-woman protest against Jones across the street from the church. “This man is not a Christian. He is only trying to get attention for himself.”
Does Jones feel any sense of responsibility for the harm his hateful speech and delusions cause America?
“No, not at all,” says Danish television reporter Erkan Ozden, after doing a live television report from Jones’ compound.
I try to ask Jones myself.
The church doors are locked and a black film covers the glass so that no one can peek inside.
I knock and ring a bell repeatedly, and after a while, a spokesman comes out and tells me Jones is busy giving phone interviews to media from across the country and the world.
He’ll get back to me if he has time, he says.
He never returns, Jones never shows up, and I leave, grateful to be spared the rants of a man surely inspired by that devil who is said to once have roamed these lands.