At Oak Street Chapel, board members resign, embattled pastor remains
The after-effects of an anti-Islam speech late last month by Usama Dakdok ripped a Brainerd church apart.
Todd Wooden is still pastor of Oak Street Chapel, a nondenominational Christian church founded in 2000. The church board members who asked to him resign last week, however, have instead resigned themselves.
Wooden came on as pastor in 2013, two years after original pastor Julian "Chip" Avelsgaard was killed in a motorcycle crash. Avelsgaard's death prompted fears the group he founded out of his garage would disintegrate into nothing—though the church endured.
However, Dakdok's presentation sparked an internal conflict at Oak Street.
Former board of trustees president Dace Julifs said Wednesday he had resigned his post along with other five board members, four of whom had agreed that Julifs would ask Wooden to resign following Dakdok's presentation at the church Sept. 29. That left one remaining board member of the original seven people.
Julifs said the presentation didn't reflect the congregation's views and that Wooden had demeaned the church by letting it happen there.
Oak Street's website, which was taken down last month, was back up this week after an overhaul. The page that listed the board of trustees had been scrubbed, but Wooden was still described as pastor.
The church's' sign on Friday displayed the message "regardless of what you read, we love everyone!"
Attempts to contact other church members were unsuccessful.
Naming himself an authority on Islam, Dakdok travels the Midwest, giving lectures about the religion. Originally a Coptic Christian from Egypt, his presentation Sept. 29 focused on how Islam is spreading evil in America and how its practitioners are inherently violent. Americans as a whole are stupid for not recognizing the threat and doing more to stop it, he said.
Aside from the content of Dakdok's speech itself, Wooden simply placed his own agenda ahead of the congregation's needs, Julifs said—other than some of the congregation who felt Wooden did the right thing. The members of the Oak Street pastor search committee that ultimately picked Wooden years ago included Julifs. However, Julifs said that over Wooden's three-year tenure as pastor, things changed.
"He went went from starting out as this humble guy, wanting to preach the Word, to just more and more and more of a dictator, telling us what we're gonna hear, and if you don't like it, leave," he said.
Then ... they left.
The board members resigned rather than fire Wooden because they were tired of combating him and tired of the public spotlight on the congregation and themselves, Julif said.
"The way he responded in the paper with such arrogance, we didn't even want to fight that,"' Julifs said. "We're like 'Done.' He can have have the church, he can do, say whatever."
In previous interviews with the Dispatch connected to Dakdok's speech, Wooden said that Islam was not "of God" and that he didn't regret Dakdok coming to the church. Informed on Sept. 30 that the board planned to ask him to resign, he laughed and asked rhetorically why he would resign.
Asked whether Dakdok's presentation was Islamophobic, Wooden couldn't say.
Wooden was initially approached by Oak Street Chapel member Daryl Bahma, who is also part of the "Defenders of the Constitution," the local group that sponsored Dakdok's speech.
Contacted Wednesday by phone, Bahma declined to comment on the presentation and then hung up.
Based on video of the beginning of the speech recorded by the Dispatch, Julifs described Dakdok as an "agitator" as opposed to an "educator." Julifs did not attend the presentation itself.
"What does Dakdok care?" Julifs said of the church's subsequent problems. "He got his minute of fame. He's going to move on to the next town, and do the same thing to the next church."
"As far as I'm concerned, (Oak Street Chapel) now is a blight on the community, with this hate," Julifs said. "It's so sad, because this church used to be a shining example of what we're supposed to be as Christians: happy, fun, caring, giving."
Multiple phone messages left by the Dispatch to Wooden were not returned.
In a 2013 Dispatch story, Wooden recalled some advice he had gotten from Avelsgaard.
"He taught me it doesn't matter who someone is, they have good inside of them," Wooden said. "You have to reach for that."