MURDOCK, Minn. — The two sides were crystal clear Wednesday night as a packed town hall in this western Minnesota town debated the arrival of a controversial Nordic heritage church that scholars have identified as a white supremacist group.

On the one hand, residents who have mobilized against the Asatru Folk Assembly (AFA), which bought an abandoned Lutheran church here earlier this year and hopes to turn it into a Midwest regional gathering hall. "We don't want to be known as the hate capital of Minnesota," said Murdock resident Pete Kennedy.

And on the other, a representative of the church, who defended his beliefs under a spirited grilling from community members.

"A hundred thousand years from now, I want there to be blond hair and blue eyes," said Allen Turnage, a member of the AFA's board. "I don't have to be a German shepherd supremacist to want there to be German shepherds."

Nearly 50 people in the Swift County town of 275 residents filled the hall for a special City Council meeting, wearing masks and sitting in chairs placed 6 feet apart. Most clearly were there to oppose the church's application for a permit that would allow it to hold gatherings in the old church building, vacant for years and purchased by the AFA for $45,000.

The AFA is among a growing number of groups that seek to practice a pre-Christian, European spirituality. The AFA is unabashedly pro-white, according to statements on its website.

"We in Asatru support strong, healthy white family relationships," according to the group'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."

Turnage did nothing to deny those views, drawing a distinction between what he called "universal faiths" and "ethnic faiths."

"We happen to believe that Asatru is specifically a northern European religion, and that's it," he said in answer to a question about the group's views. "We think our faith is worthy of honor and respect like anyone else's."

Turnage said the AFA would not admit a Black person "because they're not of northern European descent."

That brought a response from Christian Duruji, a Black resident married to a white woman.

"I fail to see how a group that would reject me on sight and view my daughter as an aberration not to be celebrated" could contribute to the well-being of Murdock, he said.

"These groups are growing," said Tammy Porwoll, who has family ties to the area and now lives in Alexandria. "What they're promoting is ringing hollow to me."

There can be a danger in such groups, said Lisa Waldner, a sociology professor at the University of St. Thomas who has studied white supremacy for decades.

"I don't think there's anything wrong with having an interest in one's ancestry or participating in ethnic celebrations," she added in an interview, citing the Sons of Norway as an example. "It can be a healthy form of self-identity."

The problem, she said, comes when groups become exclusionary and believe that their identity is superior to others.

"It sounds a lot less offensive to say, 'I don't hate minorities. I love my race! What's wrong with that?' " Waldner said. "Well, it's about thinking minorities are inferior, and to create separate social spaces where minorities are not welcome."

Turnage said his group has been lied about and asked residents to consider its record in California, where it's maintained a "hof," or gathering hall, for five years.

"We are good neighbors," he said. "We are a traditional, family-oriented faith. We have not had a single complaint" from residents living near the AFA's California base. If approved, Murdock would become the AFA's third hall, joining another recently opened in North Carolina.

Turnage said the AFA has only about 500 members nationwide, and only 20 or so in and around Minnesota.

"This will actually be less intrusive than a traditional church," he said. "We have fewer members," he said, adding that services would be held only about once a month.

But residents said allowing the AFA to sink roots in their town would only help the group grow, and raised questions about how the town would handle an influx of visitors. Several residents noted that many out-of-state vehicles have been seen at the church as members have been performing repair work in recent months.

City Council members spoke little at the meeting, saying they were there to listen. The council plans to take a vote on the church's permit request at a meeting scheduled for Nov. 4.

John Reinan • 612-673-7402