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A White Supremacist Church and a Small Town

The quiet Wyoming town of Riverton -- population 10,000 -- got a shock recently: their town was about to become the headquarters of the World Church of the Creator, a group associated with white supremacy and racial violence.

There was swift condemnation of the Church and its beliefs. But as NPR's Howard Berkes reports, the citizens of Riverton continue to struggle over the best way to respond. City boosters point with pride to the area's rich Native American heritiage. But Thomas Kroenke, the so-called "hastus primus" or spearhead of the World Church of the Creator, has a different vision of Riverton.

"Well, you wouldn’t have anything, any races, except white races here," he tells Berkes. "That’d be the only real difference -- It would just be an all-white community."

Kroenke moved to Riverton two years ago, and worked as a case worker at the nearby state prison farm. But he lost his job when he was named hastus primus. Kroenke downplays his church's move, saying it involves little more than establishing an address for mail and keeping up correspondence with church members.

"So the mission in Riverton seems benign, as Kroenke describes it," says Berkes. "He seems benign as well -- a 56-year-old average Joe, with a slight paunch, a wife of 35 years, and a son and two grandkids. But there's nothing average about his thinking."

Kroenke describes himself as a racist. "And what I mean by that is, I felt an affinity for my own race, and a disaffinity... for all the other races. We are for the survival, preservation and expansion of the white race."

Church leader Matt Hale wrote to his followers to pursue legal, non-violent means to reach church goals -- and stay out of jail. But now Hale is behind bars himself, accused of conspiring to kill a federal judge.

Berkes, in informal chats with Riverton residents, found many people have mixed feelings about Kroenke and the church. They support the church's First Amendment rights to exist and for church members to hold any opinions they choose -- but a history of violent acts by some church members gives them pause.

"We do not have a right to go and lynch them -- we just don't," says Fred Baehr, a painting contractor from the nearby town of Lander. "But we do have a right to perhaps make them a little less comfortable. And frankly, when it comes to Nazis, I’m a little less concerned with their rights than I am with the rights of, shall I just say, decent people."

The Riverton Daily Ranger, the region's local newspaper, has published numerous articles detailing the history of the Church of the Creator, and has come out against the church in its editorial pages. The paper also published a tolerance pledge signed by 300 citizens. The local Chamber of Commerce also took up the cause, sponsoring workshops on diversity.

Tim Thorson of the Chamber of Commerce says the city has to confront its own legacy of intolerance. "There was a time when businesses had signs in their stores saying 'no Indians.' That happened here... Our focus is on trying to let the people that live here know that this is a safe place to be. And give them good reason to feel safe."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Howard Berkes is a correspondent for the NPR Investigations Unit.