Murdock to decide whether whites-only group can use former church


Officials in the west-central Minnesota town of Murdock are expected to vote Wednesday on whether to allow a controversial religious group that worships ancient Norse gods to use a former church as a regional gathering place.

The Asatru Folk Assembly (AFA) bought an abandoned Lutheran church in the Swift County town about 110 miles northwest of Minneapolis. The Murdock City Council is debating whether to grant a conditional use permit that would allow the AFA to use the church building as a place of worship.

Some local residents have voiced opposition due to the AFA’s pro-white beliefs. Opponents who call themselves Murdock Area Alliance Against Hate plan to rally along Highway 12 before Wednesday’s 5:30 p.m. virtual City Council meeting.

The Asatru Folk Assembly is part of a revived ethnic faith movement, sometimes called neo-paganism or neo-Volkisch, that is based on old beliefs. Asatru is an old Norse word that means faith or loyalty to the gods — in this case, the gods of pre-Christian Europe, such as Thor and Odin.

“Asatru is an ethnic faith of European peoples, believing that our gods are our most ancient ancestors, and basically worshipping them and building our community,” Matt Flavel, AFA’s current Alesherjargothi or high priest, told MPR in late October.

While the AFA claims to celebrate European heritage, some of its beliefs also promote white purity. The Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled the AFA as a neo-Volkish hate group.

On its website, the AFA’s statement of ethics includes: “We in Asatru support strong, healthy white family relationships. We want our children to grow up to be mothers and fathers to white children of their own.”

The Asatru religious movement is relatively young but growing, with the modern revival starting in Iceland in the 1970s. Not all Asatru groups share the same beliefs. 

In the U.S., Stephen McNallen founded the Asatru Free Assembly, which was disbanded in 1986, then resurrected by McNallen in 1994 as the Asatru Folk Assembly.

At an Oct. 14 public hearing before the Murdock City Council, some city residents spoke against granting a permit to the AFA, voicing fears that the group would tarnish the reputation of their town of about 275 people. Some said they are concerned that the AFA harbors members who have extreme views or violent tendencies.

“There are young children of color across the street from the church,” Victoria Guillemard, a Murdock resident and law student, told MPR News in October. “So to have that hateful ideology, especially in a community that might not immediately view this group as extremely dangerous, move into a town … I knew that our local government would not necessarily step up and speak out against it.”

Flavel said the AFA’s beliefs have been misinterpreted. He said the group is peaceful and does not condone violence or hold white supremacist views. Anyone who espouses violent views is asked to leave, Flavel said.

“Unfortunately, we live in a time where there's a lot of name calling,” he said. “When you say certain things, they scare people. And that's really unfortunate.”

Flavel did acknowledge that the AFA is a group for people of European heritage, and would not allow someone to join who was another nationality or race.

Asatru Folk Assembly hopes to make the Murdock church its third “hof” — essentially a church used for meeting and worship. It already has hofs in California and North Carolina. 

Flavel said they chose Murdock in part because of its location, in a region where there are members who live within a few hours.

“We happened to find this property for a very good price, and it looks like it would meet our needs really well,” he said.

AFA plans to use the hof for meetings and worship two or three times a month, Flavel said. He said he expects 20 to 30 people to attend, but hopes that number will grow.

“We have every intention of being good members of the community, of trying to do charitable outreach,” Flavel said.

But at the October public hearing, some residents said they worry AFA would bring negative publicity to their town.

“We don’t want to be known as the hate capital of Minnesota,” said resident Pete Kennedy.

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