HENDRICKS, Minn. — Jay Nelson steered his car past Lake Hendricks, past giant windmills and soybean fields, across the South Dakota border that adjoins his town, and onto a gravel lane.
Here stands the idyllic country church where Nelson was raised: Singsaas Church, founded in 1874 by America’s first Norwegian Lutheran pastor and now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The adjacent cemetery is the final resting place of 870 people, including a Civil War soldier. “I know them all,” Nelson joked.
The former deacon is no longer welcome here. As Nelson walked along the cemetery, the 51-year-old was filled not with nostalgia but sadness at having lost his church home, which is now non-denominational. He was also filled with fear.
In recent years, a conservative, fundamentalist pastor has taken over the church and divided this lakeside town of about 600 people. Some say Pastor Jason Hartung executed a ‘hostile takeover’ and ‘hijacked’ the historic congregation; Hartung called people like Nelson enemies of the church, and Nelson and four others were expelled from the congregation. Meanwhile, the church grew under Hartung; Former members say the church drew 40 to 60 people on Sundays; current attendees say they see more than 100. There are lawsuits and countersuits, hurt feelings and divided families, and a cemetery association whose finances — some $200,000 in a bank account — are in dispute. .
The country church controversy highlights a wider divide between Christians who don’t want to mix politics and religion, and fundamentalists who see politics and religion as inextricably linked.
It culminated this summer at the annual meeting of the association of cemeteries. Men with concealed weapons were posted at the entrance to the church as security while a vote took place; dissenters – the church’s old guard – were afraid to enter and instead held their own vote outside. The sheriff came after someone was seen carrying an AR-15 rifle inside.
“Have [the church] turning into something without any integrity – that’s the most terrible feeling of sadness anyone can have,” Nelson said. “The integrity of being born and raised here stays with the people. .. Now it is a place where the pastor encourages the carrying of firearms to fend off would-be enemies.”
The roots of the divide, some former congregants say, stem from the pastor’s strong advocacy of conservative political positions: against same-sex marriage, for the Second Amendment and against current leaders of the US government, whom he calls tyrants. He encourages parishioners to openly carry firearms in the church. He displayed a sign of straight pride during Gay Pride Month in June saying, “Identity is determined by God, marriage is defined by God.” Some who have left the church call it hateful rhetoric, but Hartung says pastors need to take equally strong stances — and that spreading “the truth” is not hate but the very definition of love.
Hartung declined interview requests, but his views were exposed during a recent worship service, where he adopted unapologetic nationalistic tones in a 40-minute, scripture-heavy sermon titled “Hell is hotter for some”. God’s strongest judgment is reserved for those who know God’s word but deny it, he said.
A parishioner recited part of the United States Constitution, a regular occurrence in the church. Hartung spoke of the responsibility of Americans to uphold the Judeo-Christian belief system that underpins the Constitution.
“People say I’m too political. No I’m not ! Hartung preached. “How about having a little chat with Jesus Christ?” … He created the government. He created the institution.
“We have a responsibility,” he continued, “to go out and do politically what we’re supposed to do: stand on the truth of God’s word.”
A few miles from where Hartung was preaching, banners on the main street of Hendricks display the Norwegian flag, reading “Velkommen”. The signs refer to the town’s founders, who emigrated from Singsås, a small village in Norway with a 750-year-old church similar to the one outside Hendricks. The town is a place where, when the owner of a beloved cafe was injured in a car accident, volunteer staff ran the restaurant until she returned.
The controversy over the church began in 2018, when a former pastor left. Hartung was part of a rotating cast of replacement pastors and eventually became Singsaas’ full-time pastor. In 2019, the Singsaas Congregation changed its constitution – although dissenters say the changes failed to meet the rules of the original constitution and are therefore void. Some stopped dating at that time.
Mark Wilmes, editor of three newspapers in the region, said: “The problem is a microcosm of the whole country right now. A distressing decline in civility in general and an inability to compromise. I don’t know how it will improve.”
The cemetery association is the source of the controversy. A few decades ago, members of the congregation formed the association – separate from the church – to ensure that control of the cemetery reverted to the descendants of those buried there. This means that people can be members of the cemetery association but not be active in the church. Another problem, according to Jerry Nolz, 81, who has attended the church for nearly 60 years, is this: There are 33 acres of adjacent farmland owned by the cemetery association, worth $200 $000 to $300,000 by some estimates.
“The cemetery owns the church, but the pastor wants the church to own the cemetery,” Nolz said. “That’s the bottom line.”
For the old guard of the church, there is a simple solution: Hartung and his followers should leave Singsaas alone, form their own church with their own funds and their own building, and the old guard of Singsaas could restart their congregation.
The dispute over the cemetery association has gone to court, with a hearing scheduled for next week in South Dakota Circuit Court.
Nolz is torn about Hartung. On the one hand, he said that Hartung, who asked Nolz to step down as church treasurer, “runs this church like a big business.”
On the other hand, “he can preach the word so well,” Nolz said. “Membership is growing. He’s a charismatic person. These new people, they’re just following Pastor Jason to the hilt. But my God, old members – the whole church foundation is really on edge. path.”
A woman who used to attend, Marlene Kjelden, now calls it a right-wing cult obsessed with culture war topics like homosexuality and COVID masks: “People in town call him Pinocchio the cult leader,” she said. “It’s like he’s erasing the history of Singsaas.”
Some people on both sides of this controversy declined to comment, citing strained emotions, hurt feelings or distrust of the media.
Dave Norgaard, Hartung’s father-in-law and a frequent Singsaas attendee, said the church was inundated with “hateful” comments calling them bigots and homophobes after the Right-Wing Pride Flag was posted online. He said Hartung has spoken with other pastors who have also had political struggles with parishioners who “no longer take the Bible at its word.”
“He’s got a lot of people in this church supporting him no matter what,” Norgaard said. “It’s just that he’s sincere. They find out something, the fact that he’s preaching from the Bible the way he preaches, that they’ve never heard before.”
“Stir the pot.”
“A church is not about what [it] was in the past – it’s about whether she is functioning in biblical obedience to the Word of God at this time!” Hartung wrote in a text message. “Singsaas Church is not a country church dead and iconic – she’s alive and on ‘fire for God’!”
For Nelson, the Singsaas controversy comes down to this: nobody wins; some lose less than others.
“We live in a politically divided world where there is a sense of moral superiority on both sides – on all sides,” he said.
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