WILLMAR, Minn. — Usama Dakdok’s first visit to Willmar was a quiet and private affair last month, but his second visit was anything but.
Two very different crowds gathered Thursday evening, Nov. 7, at the Kennedy Elementary School, where the Egyptian-born pastor of the Straight Way of Grace Ministry came to deliver his message that Islam is dangerous. It’s a message he’s been delivering to communities in Minnesota and other states for more than a decade.
Outside the school, well over 200 people joined under the message “we are better together” to celebrate Willmar for its cultural diversity. The diverse crowd, including many from Willmar’s Somali community, came in opposition to Dakdok, but focused on their message: Willmar is an inclusive and welcoming community.
The Rev. Dane Skilbred, Vinje Lutheran Church of Willmar, and Aden Hassan, imam for the Islamic Society of Willmar, joined in celebrating the city’s “welcoming resolution” in a formal address to the crowd. An interfaith group including leaders from ISAIAH, a coalition of faith communities, and the Islamic Society of Willmar helped organize the gathering as a prayer vigil.
Some who joined the event felt moved to grab the megaphone and offer their own words to celebrate the community.
“We are here for the right reason,” said Bonnie Hauser, semi-retired after serving as an elementary instructor in the Willmar Schools. Hauser told the audience that she was proud to be a Willmar teacher, where children of different ethnic and faith backgrounds learn together.
“This is what I know my community could be,” said Jessica Rohloff, a lifelong Willmar resident and a community organizer.
Najib Aqib, a member of Willmar’s Somali community, didn’t grab the megaphone, but he was among those who joined to support the prayer vigil. He said he moved to Willmar in 2005 and has found it to be a very welcoming community, and that is why he came to the event.
“This is the best place to live,” he said.
The words and large crowd outside of Kennedy Elementary were much more than Jonathan Marchand had ever expected to hear or see. Marchand had a big role in bringing the crowd together when just over a week ago he learned that Dakdok was coming to speak in Willmar.
Marchand started a Facebook group, “Keep Hate Out of Kennedy Elementary,” that counted just shy of 500 members as of Thursday night.
He said he had previously heard of Dakdok’s message against Islam, and “just kind of had it.” Marchand said his father had been a teacher who spent more than 40 years educating children about the major religions of the world without deriding any one of them.
Marchand said he does not appreciate the anti-Islam message, and he doesn’t want the world to believe the community of Willmar feels that way.
“It’s time to show up and say this is not what we’re about,” he said as the crowd gathered.
Dakdok spoke to a private gathering in Willmar last month at the invitation of Thee Book Club, according to Heidi Jo Ahmann, one of the organizers of the book club. Just a year in existence, Thee Book Club considers itself a small group of Christian patriots who believe Americans are facing threats to their freedom of faith and threats to the U.S. Constitution.
Ahmann said Dakdok did not have enough time last month to deliver his full message, and the audience wanted him back. The group decided to make his second visit a public event.
“We believe this message needs to get out and be heard,” she said. “We stand on truth. We prayed about it and decided we’d make this one public knowing we’d get backlash.”
More than 100 people filled seats in the elementary school auditorium for Dakdok’s presentation, which he said would take about one and a half hours to complete. A musician, Gary Froiland, performed patriotic and religious music prior to the presentation.
Dakdok told the audience that the Council on American-Islamic Relations accuses him of Islamophobia and being a hatemonger.
“How do you tell me you love the Muslims if you don’t share the truth of Jesus Christ with them?” he said.
He defended his claims that Islam and the Quran espouse violence. He told the audience that more than 600,000 people have been killed in Iraq and Syria in the past five years as a result.
He also told the audience that “liberal, democrat Christians” have nothing to do with being Christian, and took aim at the liberal media as well.
Dakdok said he was not surprised by the crowd that had gathered outside the school in opposition to his presence. He has been met by similar and larger crowds at other presentations, he said.
Dakdok charged that the crowds who gather in opposition are repeating what he called “lies” made on the CAIR website. “They themselves have no idea what I am saying,” he said.