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MURDOCK, MINN. – A Nordic heritage group that religious scholars have identified as a white supremacist organization is sinking permanent roots into this Swift County town.

For $45,000, the Asatru Folk Assembly (AFA) bought an abandoned Lutheran church and is creating its third “Hof,” or gathering hall, joining others the group operates in California and North Carolina. Organizers said the hall is intended to serve believers throughout the Midwest.

The move has come as a surprise to many in this town of 275 residents 115 miles northwest of the Twin Cities. Word of the deal spread in the past week after the political blog Bluestem Prairie reported it. There’s been a lot of chatter about the sale on social media, said Brianna Watkins, who lives 4 miles outside town.

“People don’t like what they’re hearing,” she said. “They’re calling them white supremacists.”

Mayor Craig Kavanagh said he first heard about the church at a City Council meeting last week and is trying to learn more about the group.

“I know I’ve got a bunch of people in town worked up about it,” he said. “People don’t know what to think. Obviously, some are expecting the worst.”

Murdock residents have nothing to worry about, said Allen Turnage, a Florida lawyer who bought the church on behalf of the group and serves on the AFA’s national board of directors.

The organization exists to celebrate the ancient, pre-Christian heritage of Nordic worship, he said, likening it to groups that celebrate Native American or African ancestral cultures.

“We worship our god, we love our history,” Turnage said. “A lot of people seem to make an avocation of not letting us practice our faith in our own way.

“You can call us what you want, but that doesn’t make us that.”

“Asatru” is an old Norse word roughly meaning “belief in the gods.” It’s used by a number of groups, primarily in North America and Europe, that practice a Nordic version of heathenism, or pagan religion.

The Asatru movement is young, starting in Iceland about 50 years ago, and has tens of thousands of followers worldwide.

Not all Asatru groups follow the same creed. The beliefs of the Asatru Folk Assembly, as laid out on the group’s website, are explicitly pro-white.

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

“We believe that those activities and behaviors supportive of the white family should be encouraged while those activities and behaviors destructive of the white family are to be discouraged.”

A Black man who sought to join the group wouldn’t be mistreated, Turnage said, but would be encouraged to look elsewhere for his beliefs.

“We would certainly talk to him and try to suggest to him that his own ancestors would probably be the place to be,” Turnage said, noting that he and others had received a similar response in the past from Native Americans when they expressed interest in learning more about Native religious practices.

But the AFA seeks to keep extreme views out of its organization, he added.

“We don’t let everybody in,” Turnage said. “There are people we have excluded from membership because they have that rabid look in their eyes and they want to cause trouble for others. Those people are not our people.”

Religious scholars who study pagan and heathen religions have identified the AFA as a racist fringe group, said Holli Emore, executive director of Cherry Hill Seminary in South Carolina, a seminary for pagan and Earth-based spiritualities.

“They hold white supremacist beliefs,” Emore said. “It is widely accepted.”

Jennifer Snook, a senior sociology lecturer at Grinnell College in Iowa who studies heathenism, said the group has learned to “sanitize” itself with positive, noncontroversial social media posts.

“They show photos of gatherings, charitable food drives and motivational stuff,” she said.

Recent posts on the AFA’s Facebook page have shown members fixing up the Murdock church, which needs a lot of work, said Brad Wood, who lives nearby and used to attend the Lutheran church before it disbanded.

“The basement would get flooded and there are bats in it,” he said.

The prospect of a white supremacist group moving into Swift County is particularly disturbing, said Murdock resident Peter Kennedy, because the area’s growing population of immigrants and people of color has been well accepted.

Many Hispanic and Somali people have moved to the region in recent years to work for dairy farms and meatpacking plants, he noted.

“We just don’t need this crap out here,” Kennedy said. “What other religion in the world makes a big deal out of the color of your skin?

“Maybe the real face of racism is coming to meet us face to face in Murdock.”

Correction: Previous versions of this article mischaracterized Cherry Hill Seminary.