MURDOCK, Minn. — Citing concerns for safety and voicing their rejection of a faith group's practice to exclude those not of northern European descent, residents of Murdock, Minn., pleaded with City Council members to deny a conditional use permit to the Asatru Folk Assembly, the new owners of a former Lutheran church building in the community.
“We don’t want to be known as the hate capital of Minnesota,” resident Pete Kennedy told council members at a public hearing Wednesday evening, Oct. 14, on the permit request.
An estimated 50 people, including regional and Twin Cities media members, attended the hearing in the Swift County town. A majority of those who spoke voiced objections to a permit.
The Asatru Folk Assembly needs the conditional use permit because the church building had been converted for residential use after its closure as a church.
Murdock City Attorney Don Wilcox said city ordinance allows for places of worship to be located in residential areas. A conditional use permit is required because the use had been changed for this building.
“This is certainly not the kind of attention we want and not the kind of attention you want,” Allen Turnage, a member of the board of governors for the Asatru Folk Assembly, told council members at the hearing’s start. “We assure you we are good neighbors,” the Tallahassee, Fla., resident said as the AFA representative. “We are a traditional, family-oriented faith and we believe in being good neighbors.”
The former church building in Murdock will serve as the third “hof,” or place of worship, for the AFA, which practices a pre-Christian faith.
Turnage described Asatru Folk Assembly as an “ethnic religion,” which he said is in contrast to universal religions such as Christianity. He said the group only accepts persons of Northern European descent from the "Germanic tribal period."
Turnage denied that it is a white supremacist organization, but defended its exclusion of people based on ethnicity.
"Because 100,000 years from now I will want there to be blond hair and blue eyes,” he said in response to questions from meeting participants. “I don’t have to be a German Shepherd supremacist to want there to be German Shepherds or poodles or Chi-Poos or any other breed,” he said.
Residents cited concerns raised by organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has termed the Asatru Folk Assembly a hate organization.
Murdock resident Victoria Guillemard organized the Murdock Area Alliance Against Hate in response to the arrival of the AFA to the community of 275 people earlier this year.
She told council members that the FBI has identified several members of the national Asatru Folk Assembly as active in the Ku Klux Klan and Nazi hate groups. Some people have been prosecuted in the name of the religion for attempting to bomb a black church and a synagogue, she said.
Guillemard said the AFA does not have the means to police its members. The evidence showing violent activities by some of its members puts residents in the small town at risk, she said. “How are we going to protect our citizens,” she asked.
Laura Thomas, of Benson, Minn., urged council members to consider the “long-term trajectory” of allowing the group to establish a hof in the community. She said it will put Murdock on the map for hate groups, and attract more.
She warned that this is only a “honeymoon period,” with people focusing on the group’s activities to clean up the church property and donate its Christian crosses to local churches.
“It’s important to think about the safety of the community going forward,” she said.
Thomas said many workers at the local Riverview dairies, many of whom are from Mexico and Central American countries, are terrified of what the AFA’s arrival will mean for their personal safety and livelihood. She expressed concerns that they may choose to find employment elsewhere, and harm the economy dependent on their labor.
Christian Duruji is a Black man who lives just west of Murdock with his wife, a Murdock native, and their daughter. Pointing to the AFA’s avowed practice of not accepting people of color, he told council members that they have the obligation to say “no” to a permit on the basis of protecting the welfare and safety of citizens.
“I fail to see how a group that will disqualify me on sight as well as view my daughter as somewhat of an aberration or something that is not to be celebrated, I fail to see how that would promote the general public safety,” he said.
Turnage called accusations against the AFA “lies,” and said it is not fair to paint it with a broad brush based on the activities of some who may have turned to violence. He said the group has removed some who have condoned violence.
He said the national AFA consists of about 500 members, and emphasized that the local hof would hardly prove disruptive. It has only about 20 members, he said, most of them coming from areas of eastern South Dakota and North Dakota, north of the Twin Cities metropolitan area, and western Wisconsin.
The members gather about once a month to worship. The Murdock location was chosen because there was a church they could afford, and its location placed it roughly in the middle for the members, he said.
One meeting participant said she wanted to thank Asatru for having cleaned up an “eyesore” after purchasing the vacant church building.
But other residents at the meeting took turns expressing their dislike for AFA’s exclusion of people of color, and said the community is a welcoming one.
Pam Skoglund said her mother-in-law moved to Murdock more than 70 years ago as its only Native American resident, and never had a door closed to her.
“I don’t think any of us want Murdock to get a reputation as a town that is not welcoming to all people,” said Skoglund.
The City Council will act on the conditional use permit at a meeting scheduled Nov. 4.