The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A small-town congregation sold its church. A whites-only group moved in.

The former Methodist church in Linden, N.C., is now the worship and meeting home for a controversial whites-only group, the Asatru Folk Assembly. (Eamon Queeney for The Washington Post)
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LINDEN, N.C. — Parkers Grove United Methodist Church has stood for a century along the road into tiny Linden, yet recent decades have not been kind. The church's wood exterior is cracked, its steeple weathered, its sign broken. Its congregation, which had struggled to fill the 18 pews, held the final service several years ago.

Parkers Grove was sold in early 2020, and its demise in this community would be little different than the foundering of other mainline churches across the rural South except for one detail: The buyer was the Asatru Folk Assembly, an obscure white supremacist group.

“It’s appalling,” Bishop Hope Morgan Ward, who leads the United Methodist Church in North Carolina, said recently. “But we have no control over it. It’s a reminder that hate groups are closer at hand than we think.”

Until last year, not many in the state had heard of the Assembly, which the Southern Poverty Law Center describes as the largest group on the “neo-Völkisch hate scene” in this country. With about 670 members nationwide, according to the group, it expanded last spring from its base in Brownsville, Calif., to Linden, population 130, as well as to a farming town in western Minnesota.

County land records show Parkers Grove was purchased by a Virginia man named Svan Herul. Herul — listed on the Assembly’s website as a “witan,” akin to a high-ranking adviser — gave it to the group two months later.

Asatru spirituality rests on Nordic legends and gods that adherents say are indigenous to European people. But there’s a darker core that’s upsetting residents in Linden, roughly a quarter of whom are Black. Among its core tenets is preserving “ethnic European folk,” and leader Matthew Flavel acknowledged that Black people are not allowed in.

Black people should worship their own indigenous gods, Flavel explained in an interview. “We are an ethnic faith,” he said. “It’s unique to our people and to our culture.”

Jimmy Buxton Jr. is a longtime civil rights activist in eastern North Carolina and president of the local NAACP. For him, the Assembly’s arrival in Linden recalls memories of a time when racism strolled in broad daylight and the Ku Klux Klan convened regular rallies and cross burnings with its thousands of members statewide. They and other white supremacists in the South often used passages from the Bible to justify their beliefs.

“Racism has reared its ugly head in this country in the last four years more than ever, maybe even since the late 1950s when I was a little boy,” said Buxton, who connects dots between the Assembly’s expansion, a surge of nationalist groups in the United States and the mostly White rioters who stormed the Capitol in Washington on Jan. 6. “I don’t understand it. I don’t want to understand it.”

Flavel said the Assembly chose its Minnesota and North Carolina meeting places, or “hofs,” because each is within driving distance for many members. And each offered a former church on the market for a good price. In rural Murdock, Minn., which has a population just south of 300, the group purchased an abandoned Lutheran church that Flavel told local media would be used for meetings and worship monthly.

But both communities are in parts of the country shaken by economic anxiety over outsourcing of manufacturing jobs. The role of faith-based institutions has also been undermined. Disagreement over same-sex marriage has divided the United Methodist Church, particularly in the South, though even before that the Protestant denomination was struggling to maintain a presence in small towns.

Unlike in Murdock, where elected officials explicitly said they did not support the Assembly’s arrival and an online petition garnered 50,000 signatures of people similarly opposed, Linden’s leadership has been mostly silent. Members of the town’s Board of Commissioners did not respond to repeated calls and emails requesting comment during the past two weeks.

Yet some Black and White residents remain unsettled, despite the sparse activity on the Parkers Grove property since the Assembly’s arrival.

“What is coming next?” asked Genevieve Winderweedle, who is Jewish and married into one of Linden’s oldest families. “Once you cross a line in society, you don’t get to go back over that line. Once you open a door, you can’t always close the door.”

The Rev. Matt Bowman, who leads Sardis Presbyterian Church a half-mile to the west, knows locals were disturbed by the group’s white supremacist beliefs. “But at the same time, it’s safe to say they may be either as concerned or possibly more concerned about the group’s pagan beliefs,” he said.

Last Saturday morning, a silver pickup truck was the only vehicle in the church parking lot. The young man in it wouldn’t identify himself and said he didn’t know anything about the Assembly. An hour or so later, he was escorting several other young people around the grounds.

The hof in Linden will serve the Assembly’s 20 North Carolina members, Flavel said, as well as members from neighboring states who come for the once-a-month Saturday evening worship. He is bullish on further growth in the coming years: “Hopefully, we’re always in an expansion period.”

Flavel, who lives in Nevada, said members don’t hate other races or ethnicities and called the Southern Poverty Law Center’s assessment a “colossal injustice.”

“We believe in ennobling our people,” he said. “It means helping our people to make the very most out of themselves, to be the very best they can be, to accomplish more and to have healthy, active lifestyles.”

Linden proper is little more than a dozen or so streets — there’s a railroad crossing but no stoplight in town — several other churches and a post office. The imposing Linden School, a two-story brick building with a grand, four-columned entrance, was shuttered years ago and is badly deteriorated.

Across the street from Parkers Grove is a modest cemetery. Soldiers like John H. Hubbard, born Christmas Day in 1834, are buried within it. Someone has decorated Hubbard’s plot with a plastic Confederate flag. History doesn’t feel dead and gone here. It just feels overgrown.

Just outside the town limits is the 3D, a popular convenience store, gas station, carwash, trading post and restaurant. On weekends, it bustles with customers.

Several young Black men were vacuuming their car there last Saturday. Tupac Shakur’s “Changes,” a posthumous 1998 hit about racial injustice, police violence and the anxieties of being a young Black man, played loudly from the vehicle’s speakers: “I see no changes, all I see is racist faces.”

A man who called himself Soulje Slim said he hopes Assembly members keep to themselves. “It’s crazy to me,” he said. “But I try not to bother somebody who doesn’t want to be bothered.”

Larry Smith, who grew up down the street from the church, feels much the same. He doesn’t associate with people who aren’t Christian, he said, and suggested those coming to the Assembly “stay in their lane and they’ll do good.”

“Ain’t nobody going to bother them,” he said. “Why am I going to fight you because you don’t want me to come into your church?”

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