Florida pastor courts controversy
GAINESVILLE, Fla., Feb. 22 (UPI) -- When Faith Sapp, 12, wore a shirt to school that read “Islam is of the devil,” no one bothered to ask her why she wore it, she said. The principal, however, made her take it off.
But that didn’t stop Sapp from preaching what she believes is true. With other members of Warriors of Christ, a Gainesville, Fla., church that is a branch of the Dove World Outreach Center, she protested in front of a clinic that offers abortion referrals.
Sapp’s church drew international condemnation after Terry Jones, the head pastor, led the charge to burn a Koran on the ninth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Jones backed down during that event but served as “judge” at a mock trial in March 2011, at the end of which he found the book guilty of many crimes and said it should be punished by burning.
Sapp said some of people who were close friends became enemies after they discovered that her family is involved with the church. One friend physically assaulted her, said Wayne Sapp, Faith’s father.
People don’t know how to react when they learn of her beliefs, Faith Sapp said.
“They think ‘If I ask her, I’m going to seem weird, so I’m just going to curse her out,’” she said.
Faith Sapp’s father is one of Jones’ close allies. It was Wayne Sapp who set fire to the Koran after Jones sentenced it to death by burning.
“Dr. Jones, with the mustache, definitely gets the attention,” Wayne Sapp said. “Occasionally the jealousy bug will jump up and get you but you also realize that this is part of the team that God has put you with.”
Wayne Sapp has been at Jones’ side through weighty international condemnation and an arrest in Dearborn, Mich.
The church has been involved in several incidents that required a police presence, said Angelina Valuri, spokeswoman for the Gainesville Police Department. The city did not respond to requests for more details.
“No one likes being constantly attacked,” Jones said when he appeared on a Florida radio show in 2010.
When Jones made that comment, he didn’t have as high a profile as he does now. But even then, he was known for his church’s public disapproval of Gainesville’s homosexual mayor, as well as for sending children, including Faith Sapp, to school with shirts declaring Islam to be of the devil.
Jones said he found faith in God in his living room, when he was a hotel manager living in Nashville. He married young, which was the cause of problems between him and his wife, he said. When his wife became a Christian, Jones said, he watched her change for the better. She went to church, prayed and had faith in the existence of God and the wisdom of the Bible, Jones said.
Jones said he played a cassette tape with a talk about how to get baptized by the Holy Spirit. He knelt in his living room, he said, repented of his sins, asked God to forgive him and stood a changed man. From there, he founded a church in Germany, said Luke Jones, Terry Jones’ son. It’s not clear why Jones left Germany. News reports suggested that the elder Jones had been implicated in fraud and that his congregation found him too extreme.
By the mid-1980s, Luke Jones said, his father co-founded Dove World Outreach Center in Gainesville. As his beliefs became more widely known, he ran into trouble. Terry Jones was invited to Britain to participate in an anti-Islam demonstration but received a letter from the British Embassy stating that he was barred from visiting, Luke Jones said. Wayne Sapp and Luke Jones later received similar letters, Luke Jones said.
“For us, it’s shocking,” Luke Jones said. “We’re not going to change our opinion just because a country doesn’t believe in freedom of speech.”
Terry Jones heads the political group “Stand Up America,” which is largely staffed by members of the church. While he is not included in major polls, he is running a campaign for president of the United States.
Luke Jones serves as pastor of the church while his father is on the road. His congregation goes by the name “Warriors of Christ.” Luke Jones is one of his father’s most ardent supporters: He sports an American flag tattoo on one forearm and an abstract rendering of his father on the other.
It was Luke Jones who led a protest at a Republican Party presidential debate in Tampa, Fla., in January. His group held signs urging lawmakers to ban Shariah law, explore hemp as an alternative fuel source, withdraw U.S. troops from all other countries, cut military spending and strengthen the enforcement of immigration laws.
The group was accosted, Luke Jones said, by members of Occupy Tampa.
People say the church is obsessed with hate, Luke Jones and others said. But church members say they don’t hate. In fact, their actions reflect their concern for those who they believe will wind up in hell.
“If I hated them,” Wayne Sapp said, “I’d just keep my mouth shut.”