Photos by the author
Pastor Terry Jones—the evangelical Christian famous for burning Qur'ans, hanging effigies of Barack Obama, inciting riots in the Middle East, and denouncing radical Islam at every turn—now works with his two brothers at Fry Guys Gourmet Fries in the food court of a mall in Bradenton, Florida.
The pastor of Dove World Outreach Center, formerly located in Gainesville, Jones made international headlines in 2010 when he announced plans to burn a Qur'an on the ninth anniversary of 9/11 and was condemned by US officials, including President Obama. He went on to hold several more Qur'an burnings (he was arrested before he could set fire to a stack of 2,998 of the holy texts in 2013), has received countless death threats, and a $2.2 million bounty was placed on his head by al Qaeda affiliated groups in 2011.
He's not making as many headlines these days. The shopping center is a relatively quiet mall, with both a $1 Plus store and a $5 or Less store. There's a dollar movie theater, a JC Penny, and a Hot Topic. The floors are tile and some of the ceilings glass, with pop music playing through the loudspeakers.
Jones's french fry stand is right on the corner of the small food court. It was jarring to see him standing there, in a casual blue shirt and jeans, working the fryer and taking orders—I've only ever seen him in a suit. He had the same handlebar mustache as always, but looked skinnier, and seemed relaxed.
I ordered fries and Jones joined me at the table. Colbie Caillat played on the speakers overhead.
He moved to Bradenton, Jones told me, because Gainesville is a "terrible place" and too liberal. He said his church is nearby, that he has two residences and a barn.
"It's in my nature to start something," he said of his French fry business, which he stared with his two brothers. "It's not in my nature to work for someone."
He's hoping to make it a franchise, and isn't worried about whether his fame will affect business. Jones just hopes this will help show that he won't stop living his life just because he's a wanted man.
"I hope that it's somewhat of an asset," he said, "for people that are tired of what is going on and want to speak out, and want to believe that someone will stand up, and take a chance, and speak out. People can support us by coming out to eat."
Does he worry al Qaeda could come and attack him at the mall?
"I think it's a possibility, sure. I think they could come to my house. You saw what they did there in Paris," he said. "They just went about shooting innocent people in the street, and then of course when they went into that office. So of course, they can be expected to do everything."
He's aware that he's a target just like the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists were. The Paris attack, Jones said, simply reinforces his views on Islam (he once wrote a book called Islam Is of the Devil). As a pastor, he wishes that all Muslims would convert to Christianity. But if you ask him that question as a citizen, the answer is a little different.
"If you're asking me as an American, then I have no problem with Islam—they are protected under the First Amendment," Jones told me. "I have no problem with them being in the country, building mosques, or evangelizing. I wish they would allow the same thing in Islamic dominated countries. They do not. I've always said of the Muslim community is that if they're in America, they must honor and obey the Constitution, and not try to institute sharia law, which they often try to do."
According to the Bradenton Herald, the Manatee County Sheriff's Office recently indicated they were unaware of any active threats against Jones. But he remains vigilant.
"I wouldn't say we are scared, but we definitely are very cautious," he told me. "I am always armed—always. And I'm very careful when I travel, when I go to the parking lot at night, and when I go home at night. I think al Qaeda and ISIS, well, it's a proven fact that they mean business. And it looks as though they are after those people on the hit list."
He said opening the fry stand is a way to express patriotism, a way to show that he's not going to back down, and that he's not going to go into hiding.
"People know how to get a hold of us," he said. "They know where we're at."
The fry stand stayed fairly busy while I was there (the people who ordered in front of me got chicken wings). I asked an older couple eating fries if they knew who was making their food.
Bob Koons and his wife, Jenny, from Bradenton, said that yes, they absolutely knew who Jones was, and supported him "150 percent."
"I have a gun," Koons said. "I think it's about time Americans stood up for something."
Were they worried about the possibility of a terrorist attack in the mall? No, Jenny Koons said. You have to live your life.
"An attack is always possible," she told me. "You can't dwell on that type of stuff. What am I going to do? Hide in my house?"
Jon Silman is a freelance journalist and fiction writer based in Florida. He has previously worked at the Miami Herald, Valley News, Gainesville Sun and Tampa Bay Times. Follow him on Twitter.