How a pastor gave calming leadership to an inflammatory situation

By Ronald E. Keener

A church just a half mile from Dove World Outreach Center, that threatened to burn the Koran, reaches out in love.

Teaching biblical truth from the pulpit, when many in the congregation may have differing views on the subject, can be a weekly challenge for most pastors. The comments that come to the pastor on a Monday from disapproving parishioners can often be disheartening and discouraging.

But when the subject at hand is one of local and national debate, with international overtones, a pastor who voices a controversial stand for himself and for his congregation, is truly taking a leadership position and putting himself and his family at risk.

Even more so when the issue is with a church that is just a half mile down the road from his own congregation.

That is where Dan Johnson, senior pastor of Trinity United Methodist Church in Gainesville, FL, found himself one day this Spring when he first heard about signs reading “Islam is of the Devil” in front of Dove World Outreach Center in his town.

This is the small, nondenominational church, where Terry Jones is pastor and was fast receiving global attention, for threatening to burn a Koran. Most Christian groups condemned Jones’ well-publicized intentions, which he then cancelled. But he went ahead with the burning anyway this past March 20.

Saying nothing
Johnson last fall at first said, “I decided not to say anything about it, not wanting to give this terrible slogan more inadvertent attention.

“But when several of their members sent their children to school on the first day wearing ‘Islam is of the Devil’ on the front of their T-shirts, I decided I needed to speak to this matter. While it is an isolated matter of hatred, it does open up the larger matter of the relationship of Christianity to other world religions.”

Johnson notes for much of our lives “we could talk about other religions in the abstract, a phenomenon ‘over there’ on the other side of the world. But that’s not so any more.

“Now our neighbors, classmates, co-workers, and close friends are Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Shinto, Taoists and Jews. We celebrate birthday parties together and Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. Our lives are intertwined and enriched,” he says.

He preached on the matter and told his congregation that he knew he needed to share a press statement the next night at the church’s regular monthly council meeting, and where he was going to invite the church governing body to join him in making the statement. “If they would choose not to do so, that would be fine, but that this is something that I felt led to do as a minister of the Christian Gospel,” he relates. “Fortunately, the council was in full support. This became a marvelous example of clergy and lay leadership working for a common cause hand-in-hand, arm-in-arm.”

Example to the young
“I also knew that so many people, especially young people, had such a negative view of the Christian church, and the actions of the Dove center were certainly contributing toward that negative view. So, in addition to the matter of justice and love for neighbor, I felt compelled to present a far different image of the church,” Johnson says.

The leadership that Johnson gave to the issue, a stance he would have taken with or without the support of his council and the congregation, was not unusual for him, says the vice chair of his council. It was only the culmination of his style and strength that he provided the congregation on a daily basis.

Janise McNair, vice chair, and who teaches electrical engineering at the University of Florida, says Johnson has always had an open, transparent communication style and has shared “an open, globally-informed, godly vision for our church.”

In prior years, she says, the church has faced a few “trial runs” — “beginning with funeral protests by Westboro Baptist Church, joined by Dove church, and followed by several publicized hostile protests by one or both groups at the entrance of our parking lot on Sunday mornings. Each of these events had the potential to be upsetting and disturbing. Who knows what kinds of confrontations would occur?”

McNair credits Johnson with preparing the church in advance and avoiding violence, instead facing “each of these events with grace, courage and conviction.” He even attempted to explain what the motivations of the groups
might have been.

“Then, given the context, Dan explained both his personal feelings as well as the leadership decision regarding our corporate response,” McNair says. “In so doing, as a leader, Dan allowed for a diversity of feelings to exist and be freely expressed within the congregation, but he was careful to provide clear expectations regarding our unified response.”

A community response
Dr. Bernie Machen, president of the University of Florida in Gainesville, who has worshipped at Trinity several times, was present for some of the meetings, and says of Gainesville, “Ours is an open, inclusive community with good values, diversity and openness. This was not how we were being displayed in the world-wide media during the run-up to a possible burning of the Koran. We were frustrated and the potential for violence was escalating daily.

“It was Dan Johnson and United Methodist Church that brought out our community in an amazing show of togetherness and mutual respect. It united us and eased the tensions. Dan was – and is – a true leader.  His church showed the world how this college town really is and we are forever grateful for his leadership,” says Dr. Machen.

Johnson, looking back on the past few months, says that the T-shirts and signs of the Dove center were “offensive to Christianity because they convey a caricature of Christianity that is far removed from the Jesus that I know, a Jesus who connected in loving ways with persons of different faiths. I don’t want persons who are of another faith or who are of no faith to associate Christianity with the falsehood represented by the Dove church.”

Normally, Johnson says, when a very small fringe group acts or plans to act in disturbing or hateful ways, he’s inclined to “ignore it and it will go away,” and wish that the news media would do the same.

“That was my thought when the Westboro Baptist group, that gained infamy by picketing military funerals and picketed our church, along with St. Augustine Catholic Church and the Hillel synagogue downtown a few months ago, for no apparent reason. At that time they were joined by the Dove World Outreach Center.

“Again, we adhered to the wisdom that it was a time to be silent and not add fuel to their fire. This was our position when the Dove World Outreach Center announced plans that they would host an International Day of Burning the Qur’an [Koran] last September 11.

“But, because this sinister action has been picked up by the international news media, the time for silence had passed, and the time for Christians to speak had come,” he says. “There should be no doubt around the globe that the Christian church does not condone or support such an action. To have remained silent would mean complicity to a terrible wrong.”

Interfaith presence
Out of these events Trinity Methodist and other churches came together to create the Gainesville Interfaith Forum, which is made up of persons from the Hindu, Muslim, Jewish and Christian faiths. Johnson says the goal is to foster understanding, mutual respect and peace, while recognizing and appreciating their own particular faith understandings. “In times like we find ourselves now, we see how tremendously important such an Interfaith Forum is,” he says.

Trinity Church, along with the support of the Gainesville Interfaith Forum, invited the community to a Gathering for Peace, Understanding and Hope, opening Trinity’s entire worship center and campus for a time to embrace their unity as members of the human family. We had activities for children of our different faiths, arts and educational crafts, cultural displays, foods from various regions of the world, and a time of prayer for peace, understanding and hope.

“We also honored the memory of those who perished on September 11, 2001, and lit candles and prayed for all those who have been placed in harm’s way since that day.

“We dared to believe that this disturbing action by the Dove center by a very small and misguided group might become the catalyst for one community, Gainesville, to model a way of living in harmony, mutual respect and peace,” Johnson says.

He says that the media who were in town to cover the Dove story had a lot of down time, and “were conflicted internally by the very idea of covering such a story and giving airtime to a sad, confused and misguided man (Jones).” Many of the news media came to Trinity to learn of its far different approach. Al Jazeera sent images of the Gathering for Peace, Understanding and Hope across the Arab world.

“Since the event, I have gone to visit Terry Jones, in an effort to follow Jesus and ‘love my neighbor,’ and also help him feel that he wasn’t so isolated. He does carry a gun or two. I visited him shortly before he actually did burn the Koran in late March. I feel some regret in not being able to dissuade him, though I didn’t think he would actually go through with it,” says Johnson.

It’s not an easy path to walk: Relating to his friends who are Muslim, Hindu or any other religion, in sharing religious beliefs, while holding firm to his own Christian beliefs and values. But it is what is often required of a pastor in a leadership role, and Dan Johnson exemplifies that.  www.Trinitygnv.org

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