Widow of Dove World founder says it's 'turned into a cult'

The Gainesville Sun/April 5, 2011

When Don Northrup founded Dove World Outreach Center in 1985, his widow says he never envisioned it becoming what it is today.

Then, it was a growing evangelical church with a congregation of almost 200 members.

Now, a handful of people attend services in which ministers carry handguns and rail against Islam.

"It certainly didn't start out with this in mind," Northrup's widow, Dolores Northrup, said in an interview this week with The Sun. "I don't feel it's really a church anymore. I feel it's turned into a cult."

Dolores Northrup said she stopped attending services two years ago because the direction had changed under the leadership of Terry Jones, who took over as senior pastor soon after Don Northrup died in 1996.

She said she was uncomfortable with the for-profit business Jones was running from the property.

"A church is for the purpose of worshiping God," she said, "and a church is for getting souls into the kingdom of God."

Dolores Northrup said that over the weekend, she learned from a fellow resident at her retirement community and her daughter that her former church was back in the news after rioters in Afghanistan - angry that Jones had presided over a Quran burning - stormed a United Nations compound, killing 12 people.

In all, at least 24 people were killed in response to something that happened where Northrup and her husband used to minister.

"I don't know what they're trying to do," she said.

Effects on city's image

Gainesville city officials share Northrup's concern - and are hearing from others suggesting that they do more to rein in Dove World.

Carol Chesney, of Fort Collins, Colo., had planned an April getaway to Gainesville and Cedar Key. But she said that once she learned about Dove World burning the Quran and the deadly response in Afghanistan, she canceled the trip.

"I am gladly taking the airfare penalty in cancellation in order not to support a city that condones this behavior," Chesney wrote Saturday in an email to Gainesville Mayor Craig Lowe and Commissioner Thomas Hawkins. "I hope you realize that, to the rest of the country, your area now looks like a breeding ground for inbred (bigots)."

When told of some of the measures the city had taken last year to counter Dove World's plans - which eventually were canceled - to burn a number of Qurans, Chesney said the national media had not reported on them.

And still, she insisted, there had to be more someone could do.

"I know there are things that can be done to make life incredibly uncomfortable for this guy," she said in an interview. "My advice would be: If it's being done, get the word out. If it's not being done, talk to the district attorney. Something."

City says hands tied

Despite a number of similar pleas, local officials said there isn't a whole lot they can do legally about the 30-member church, which first made headlines in 2009 after posting signs reading "Islam is of the devil."

The Quran burning is protected under the First Amendment, lawmakers say.

The Alachua County Sheriff's Office sent the church a $65,540 bill for increased patrols surrounding Jones' planned burning of the Quran in September, which he eventually canceled. The city has said it plans to send him a similar invoice but that there is likely no legal way to compel him to pay. The church had not paid the county bill as of late Thursday.

"As far as the city of Gainesville, I think so far we've done all we can," Lowe said this week. "We'll always be open to new options and evaluating new ideas."

Bill Bunten, the mayor of Topeka, Kan., can appreciate Lowe's position.

Westboro Baptist Church has been operating out of Topeka for decades, with its members picketing at military funerals across the country carrying signs stating God is punishing the country and its soldiers for being tolerant of homosexuality.

Bunten said he has known the church's preacher, Fred Phelps, for roughly half a century and said the church is treated "like a fly on the wall" in his city.

He said that a few years ago, Topeka sued the church to stop the picketing but lost.

He said he has made a case for applying bullying laws but so far has not been able to convince the city attorney.

"The bottom line is you can't handle them," Bunten said. "You can hate the message but can't do anything about the messenger."

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