BROOKINGS COUNTY, S.D. (KELO) — For Norwegian settlers along the South Dakota/Minnesota border, it was the center of society. But now, a little country church has become the center of controversy.
Nearly 150 years ago the first Norwegian pastor in the U.S. formed the Singsaas church, named after the settlers’ village in Norway.
It’s a peaceful-looking oasis in the middle of the prairie. But over the past couple of years, a war has been waging here, cumulating into a show of weapons at a Sunday meeting.
“When I arrived in the parking lot there were probably 35 to 40 people outside of the church, Brookings County Sheriff Marty Stanwick said.
Kennecke: Have you ever seen anything like this at a country church before?
Standwick: No, that’s why I was surprised when I first got the call.
“One of the gentlemen had seen someone we didn’t know, completely unaware who this person was, with what was described as an AR-15 rifle. And they took it out of their vehicle and walked into the church building. At that point, with the amount of back story and personal safety concerns, we were very hesitant to go in the building,” Jay Nelson said.
We’ll get to that back story in just a moment.
“I apologize for law enforcement and everything showing up,” Attorney Dennis Evenson said during the meeting.
KELOLAND Investigates obtained a video from June 12th. An annual meeting was underway for the Singsass cemetery association. The people outside, mostly descendants of those buried on the grounds, wanted a say in what was happening. But they found the armed men at the door intimidating.
“I did talk to some of the congregation that said the reason for the security was that they had a previous meeting and it got out of hand and they felt there were threats made and they needed some type of security,” Sheriff Stanwick said.
“Never, ever could I have imagined it could have escalated to the point where you have an AR-15 in a church building and men with revolvers sitting outside,” Jay Nelson said.
Life-long member Jay Nelson says it all started after Jason Hartung took over as pastor in 2020.
“The church was already in the process of becoming non-Lutheran, but becoming non-denominational” Singsass Pastor Jason Hartung said.
You need to know that Hartung’s congregation does not own the church building, the cemetery or the surrounding land. There is a separate fund for donors to the cemetery association, many of whom are buried at Singsass, to maintain the cemetery and grounds, a fund that has more than $200,000 in it.
“So this is my mom and dad. And there’s my grandma and grandpa,” McHugh said.
Nadine McHugh’s maiden name is Knutson and you can find that name all over this cemetery.
“We’d ring the bell an hour before church started. And before us, my grandparents also were the caretakers here. It’s just in the Knutsons that we’ve been taking care of this church,” McHugh said.
Despite her history with this place, McHugh stopped attending services here when Hartung took over.
“There are things that are going on that perhaps we don’t really understand and perhaps scripturally it doesn’t really sit well with us. And so we haven’t been going here now since 2020,” McHugh said.
Jay Nelson says he didn’t leave the church voluntarily.
Nelson: There was a congregational meeting held at which me and four other people–none of us were told about the meeting; none of us were told about what was going to happen at the meeting–it turns out in that meeting they voted all five of us out as members.
Kennecke: You got kicked out of your own church?
Nelson: We got kicked out of our own church.
Hartung: We pleaded with them to reconcile with the church. They knew that I was following and church leadership was following the doctrine of the word of God according to Matthew 18.
Kennecke: Did they know they were going to be voted out?
Hartung: Did they? Yes, they did. They knew they were going toward that direction.
It was the direction that the church was going that led to the fallout in the first place. Nelson and two others have filed a petition with the court over the church’s constitution being thrown out.
“We want to make sure there is integrity in the process of changing the church constitution so that everyone is on board and everyone is represented,” Nelson said.
“There is no such thing as having a church constitution that is unchangeable in any way shape or form,” Hartung said.
Meanwhile, the Singsaas Lutheran Church Cemetery filed a suit against Nelson and two other men, demanding they turn over any cemetery records they may possess.
It’s a battle that has divided this community.
“It’s pitting lifelong friends against lifelong friends; people I’ve been friends with my entire life that won’t make eye contact with me,” Nelson said.
KELOLAND Investigates obtained a letter from Hartung where he asks his flock to pray for God to deal properly with the enemies of Signsaas.
Kennecke: Are you an enemy of the church?
Nelson: I do not consider myself an enemy of the church at all. But we’ve been made aware that the pastor is communicating within his congregation, citing enemies of the church, which we would take to mean ourselves.
Kennecke: So who are the enemies of the church?
Kennecke: Not the people that…
Hartung: The people may allow the enemy, be used by the enemy to go against a church that preaches and teaches the word of God. I love these people and I’ve given my life for them.
Kennecke: Have you divided this community.
Hartung: It has revealed this community.
Kennecke: Tell me what you mean?
Hartung: It has revealed where people stand on the word of God.
Remember that Sunday meeting where all the guns and “security” showed up at church?
I asked Hartung about it.
Kennecke: Was it an appropriate response, do you think?
Hartung: Is it an inappropriate response? Not according to the Constitution of the United States, the Second Amendment.
Kennecke: You’re allowed to have guns.
Kennecke: You didn’t break the law.
Kennecke: But was it appropriate?
Kennecke: The sheriff said there was a rifle in the church. Was it an AR-15?
Hartung: Absolutely not.
But that’s not what a Brooking’s County Sherriff’s Deputy saw. According to his report, there was an AR-15 rifle with an inserted magazine leaning in an AV closet to the rear of the church’s sanctuary, and it was in a secure location. The owner of the rifle told the deputy he brought it to church at the request of the pastor to be armed security for the vote.
“It’s not against the law to carry. It’s not against the law to carry into a church. No reason to secure any guns or anything. It’s just something you don’t come across, especially in this part of South Dakota,” Sheriff Stanwick said.
At the end of the meeting that day the congregation’s attorney, Dennis Evenson acknowledged there wasn’t any real threat posed by the crowd of mostly older people who had gathered.
“Just let them clear out first. We can sit here all day. They’re good people, they’re good people. It’s not a problem there,” Evanson said in the video of the meeting in the church.
Hartung: There was a desire for order and management of the crowds, the potential crowds and there was a request by Dennis Evenson for security due to previous threats.
Kennecke: Have you been threatened personally?
Hartung: Yes I have.
Kennecke: What kind of threats?
Hartung: Death threats.
Kennecke: Have you reported those to police?
Hartung: I have talked to the sheriff’s department yes.
However, the Brookings County Sheriff tells KELOLAND investigates his office has not received any reports of death threats against Hartung. Nelson says there is an easy solution to end the conflict.
Nelson: If they wanted to go off and start their own non-denominational congregation with their own constitution, they were always free to do so. They could leave.
Kennecke: Wouldn’t it just be easier, with this controversy you’re dealing with, to pick up your congregation and move them to a different building, a different site?
Hartung: That’s what some of the controversy; that’s what they want us to do, but the point is why?
Kennecke: And why not?
Hartung: I ask them why? What do they want the building for?
“We’re all a big family here and we’ve never had any issues with this until just the last few years. I just don’t want anything to hurt the cause of Christ in this situation. It’s a church and we’re here to worship God almighty. It’s just really a sad day for there to be so much confusion,” former Singaas caretake Nadine Knutson McHugh said.
Kennecke: What is it going to take to resolve all this?
Hartung: The truth.
Kennecke: And the truth is what?
Hartung: The truth is that, instead of having control, manipulation, and lies, we need to go, first of all, How do we honor God in this.
A lot of people on both sides of this issue have mentioned to me that none of it seems very Christian-like.
I spoke to pastors at a couple of previous churches where Hartung served in South Dakota. Both told me he brought more division than unity to their churches. In fact, one church ousted its long-time pastor shortly after he arrived. Hartung told me that had nothing to do with him.