Alachua interfaith coalition responds to past hatred




When former evangelical Pastor Terry Jones began burning the Quran in 2010 and spewing radical, xenophobic pronouncements about Muslims, people of all faiths in Gainesville started to listen—not because they agreed with him, but because they were so aghast at his hateful message.

Alachua Habitat for Humanity in Gainesville recently hosted its sixth interfaith build. Local churches and area organizations have joined together, many in response to hateful messages made by former evangelical Pastor Terry Jones in 2010.

That message of hate and intolerance swirled not only in Gainesville’s Trinity United Methodist Church but also in the Muslim Hoda Center, in the Catholic Gators club at the University of Florida, in Westminster Presbyterian Church and throughout Temple Shir Shalom.

Since then, these groups have come together with Habitat for Humanity for an Interfaith Build Day—a day to learn about their differences in faith, but also to learn how alike they are as caring human beings. As they work together to help build a house for someone in need, their differences fade into the background.

The group built its sixth house in February.

“I think we are probably the most broadminded of all the (Christian) sects, and when we had that happen in Gainesville—the burning of the Quran—our minister, Dan Johnson, decided interfaith is something we wanted to pursue, that we needed to go farther,” said Trinity volunteer Jan LeDuc. “This build brought together all the denominations, which is what we were striving for. We have really good communication with people of every faith.

“We’ve even worked on a Sunday to accommodate the Jewish faith,” she said. “I thought that was fantastic. Not only did their congregation come, but our team from Trinity came. This is what we want for the world. We are making one small little dent.”

The interfaith builders spend their time working with each other in harmony, enjoying good company, and really, barely noticing each other’s differences, said volunteer Elizabeth Hartsell, a graduate student at the University of Florida and a member of Trinity UMC. “We’re just all there to do the job.”

“The coalition not only does fundraising for the financial needs of building the house, but more importantly, brings out the volunteers to pray together at the beginning of the day and work together to get to know each other and break down barriers,” said Scott Winzeler, executive director of Alachua Habitat for Humanity in Gainesville.

Each Interfaith Build Day begins with a short interfaith devotional service with select Muslim, Christian and Jewish prayers representing each of the three Abrahamic faiths. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints provides lunch for the volunteers.

After the Quran burning started, various religious groups began talking to each other, said Saeed Khan, of the Hoda Center. “That is the time we decided we wanted to do something solid, so we could say this is what we did. You need to do something that shows, so we built our first interfaith house at that time.”

The group has expanded the effort, meeting eight or 10 times a year to learn something about each other’s faith, Khan said. “We tell the story about Hoda Center, what is Islam.” Most Christians have no idea that Muslims consider Jesus one of the greatest profits, Khan said. “Most Christians don’t have any idea what we think of Jesus. We also believe in the concept that Jesus was born to a virgin.” The Virgin Mary is prominently mentioned in the Quran, he said.

Mark Werner of Temple Shir Shalom gets ready to play guitar as accompaniment for a Hebrew prayer that was read during the Interfaith Build Day in Alachua County in February.

“From my point of view, when we went to Trinity, people had a better idea of what Islam is,” he said. “People, when they don’t know something, they are afraid of it. We all now go out and answer questions.”

People from various faiths discuss their concept of God.

“We did the same thing at the synagogue, learning ‘what are the basic tenets of Judaism.’ We are building something together where Muslims, Jews, Christians and others are showing faith in action.”

The interfaith build is an outgrowth of long-term relationships that are continuing to grow between the various faith ministries in Gainesville, said Rev. Steve Price, who co-pastors at Trinity with his wife, Rev. Catherine Fluck Price. “When we first got here a year and a half ago, I asked people, ‘what are some of the most impactful things that have happened?’

“What came up time and again was the interfaith gathering Trinity hosted shortly after the Quran burning. That really set in motion a lot of things to promote building these relationships.” In addition to the Habitat gatherings, Price said, there is also a group of interfaith clergies that meet monthly to take action and build relationships.

And the interfaith build is a great way to bring the various faiths together in a relaxed atmosphere, Hartsell said. “It was really the only time we talked about being different faiths…when we did the prayers. Once we started working, it was just, ‘we are all here to do the same job,’” and it didn’t matter which faith volunteers represented.

“It is easier to connect on the easy things than the hard things, like faith,” Hartsell said. “If you know someone who likes the same TV show or is struggling to figure out how to paint the house, you get to know someone on a personal level, and it’s much harder to have that hate.”

Yvette C. Hammett is a freelance writer based in Valrico.
 


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