Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of stories on congregations committed to “Grow Christ’s Church Deep and Wide,” and emphasis of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) to grow the church in discipleship, evangelism, servanthood and diversity. ― Jerry L. Van Marter
“What’s so funny ‘bout peace, love and understanding?” Nothing, really, members of Wasatch Presbyterian Church here believe.
When Terry Jones, pastor of Dove World Outreach Center, a fundamentalist Christian church in Florida, burned a copy of the Qur’an, an action that led to the killing of 20 people, including several U.N. aid workers in Afghanistan, the elders and pastor of Wasatch Church determined that there would be greater understanding of Islam in their community.
The Rev. Scott Dalgarno, pastor of Wasatch Presbyterian Church since January, and the Session partnered with a local bookstore and bought 50 copies of the Qur’an, which they gave away free to the public. Each book contained a bookmark that said, “This book was gived by the leaders of Wasatch Presbyterian Church who are not afraid of truth wherever it can be found.”
“We didn’t vote (as a congregation),” says Dalgarno. “What we wanted to do was lead and so this was an action of the leadership of the church, not the church itself, though many, if not 99% of the congregation was entirely behind it.”
Dalgarno says the point they were trying to make was not about promoting Islam or the Qu’ran. It was a statement about burning books generally, particularly out of ignorance. Church leaders also saw it as the kind of Christian action that was appropriately Presbyterian.
“We believe as Presbyterians that conscience that’s not guided by reason and most especially education can easily go awry and in this case it led to the deaths of people in Afghanistan ― U.N. aid workers we thought were innocent, so that’s why we did what we did,” Dalgarno says. “Had Terry Jones or anyone else burned a copy of the Book of Mormon, then we would have done the same thing, we would have bought copies of the Book of Mormon and made those available.”
The gesture did not go unnoticed. On Good Friday an article was published in the Salt Lake City Tribune announcing the giveaway. Reuters also covered the story and in the age of Twitter, within a day it had made it all around the world. The gesture also did not go unremarked.
“I got some pretty strong reactions right away. The first phone call I got after the appearance of the article in the newspaper announcing the books would be given away the next week was from a Mormon lady who said that I’m a Mormon lady but I think this is great, this is just what we need to do,” Dalgarno says.
The reaction from the local Mormon community in Salt Lake and throughout Utah has been positive. Evangelical Christians on the other hand have been responsible for the majority of negative responses.
Dalgarno says they saw the action as a promotion of Islam and have been writing letters and e-mails critical of him and the church, with one calling him a “surrender monkey preacher.” The day after the Tribune article appeared, someone hacked into the church computer system. The FBI investigated it as a hate crime. Fortunately damage to the computer system was minimal.
“That’s kind of disheartening to begin with, although they were very strong in their stand that they wanted to send that message of compassion and I think highlight the truth that as Christians we don’t have anything to fear when the scriptures from another faith tradition are being read in our community,” says the Rev. Larua Stellmon, Executive Presbyter for the Presbytery of Utah. “That in and of itself is not a reason to generate fear.”
Most of the response has been positive, Dalgarno says. And some of it came directly from the area where the leaders of Wasatch Church had the most concern to start with. Within 24 hours Dalgarno got an e-mail from an American aid worker in Afghanistan saying this is just what they need to hear.
“Really, we’re concerned that we wanted to communicate that Christians do not all think like Terry Jones and I didn’t realized how important that was until I got the initial response from the aid worker in Afghanistan whose concern was for the safety of himself, others doing what he is doing, and also the troops,” Dalgarno says.
Stellmon says she has also received letters and e-mails in response to the Qur’an giveaway by the Wasatch Church.
“Every response that I got was very appreciative and expressed gratitude for a peaceful approach, a generous and kind and loving response to show the world that certainly there are lots of Christians out there who don’t think it’s appropriate to be burning the Qu’ran,” she says.
On Easter morning, Dalgarno says two military families visited the church for worship. Both had came because they supported the initiative of the church and thought it was the most important kind of action that could happen following the burning of the Qur’an to protect their family members serving in the Arab world.
Dalgarno says the response of the Muslim community all over America has also been very positive and he’s still getting letters and e-mails from people two months later. One local group of Muslim women called the church a few days after the initial article appeared in the paper and asked if they could bring lunch to the Presbyterian Women organization at the church as a thank you.
“Within a couple of weeks they had come and provided this amazing Mediterranean luncheon and invited women to do a little dancing which was really quite wonderful,” he says.
“I think the audience they were trying to reach with this action was to let people of the Muslim faith tradition here in the U.S. or worldwide know that many of us Christians believe a kind and loving response to our neighbors is appropriate as opposed to burning someone else’s scripture,” says Stellmon.
And what if those who picked up the free copies of the Qur’an read the book and decide they still don’t like the message of Islam? Dalgarno says that’s fine. They merely want people to make an informed decision for themselves what to think.
“We were instead saying you can find wisdom in a lot of the books of the world and we wanted people to be able to make up their own minds about what’s true and what’s not,” he says. “Education is critical to taking any effective moral stand.”
Toni Montgomery is an Associated Church Press award-winning free-lance writer in Statesville, N.C., where she also serves as church secretary for First Presbyterian Church of Statesville.