GAINESVILLE — Long before his church's planned Koran burning drew fire from national leaders, the Rev. Terry Jones was known locally as an intolerant radical and fringe leader at odds with this college town's progressive reputation.
Jones, senior pastor of the Dove World Outreach Center in northwest Gainesville, has led the 50-member congregation since 2001. But much of the infamy surrounding Jones' Islamophobic message seems to have ignited within the last year, when members planted a wooden sign stenciled with red paint on church grounds that read, "Islam is of the devil."
Though protesters picketed, spray-painted and destroyed the sign, the message became Jones' controversial calling card. The slogan adorned Jones' $12.99 book and the church's $15.99 T-shirts and $14.99 coffee mugs. "Have some truth with your coffee," a church advertisement read.
The message earned even more headlines when church members sent their children to public schools wearing the shirts, the Gainesville Sun reported. School officials asked the children to change their shirts or leave.
In March, the church posted another sign that read, "No homo mayor," aimed at openly gay mayoral candidate Craig Lowe. The attack earned sharp rebukes from civil rights' organizations and led to a government investigation into the tax-exempt church's political slant. Lowe, who was elected, later issued a statement calling the church an "embarrassment to our community."
Born in Missouri, Jones, 58, reportedly was employed in the hospitality industry before turning to missionary work about 30 years ago. In 1981, the founder of the Dove World Outreach Center sent Jones and his wife, Sylvia, to set up a church in Cologne, Germany. Jones was expelled by members angered at his "climate of fear and control," according to European media reports.
Critics of Jones, including his adult daughter, Emma Jones, told the Sun that Jones enticed former German parishioners and their children to move overseas to the Gainesville church, then forced them to work long hours for no pay for his family's used furniture business.
The business, listed on eBay as "TS and Co.," operated on church property, took money from tithes and used the church's tax exemption to skimp on the corporate tax bill, the Sun reported. Alachua County officials determined last month that the exemptions did not extend to the business and said the church would be billed $3,200 in corporate taxes.
The center, which sits on 20 acres five miles north of the University of Florida campus, includes two buildings, a baptismal area, six private offices and 1,500 square feet of "luxury quarters," according to a realty listing. It is listed for sale for $2.9 million.